Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

What Peasants and Laborers Wore in the Middle Ages

Outer Garments


For men who worked outdoors, an additional protective garment would usually be worn in cold or rainy weather. This could be a simple sleeveless cape or a coat with sleeves. In the earlier Middle Ages, men wore fur capes and cloaks, but there was a general view among medieval people that fur was worn only by savages, and its use went out of vogue for all but garment linings for quite some time.

Though they lacked today's plastic, rubber and Scotch-Guard, medieval folk could still manufacture fabric that resisted water, at least to a degree. This could be done by fulling wool during the manufacturing process, or by waxing the garment once it was complete. Waxing was known to be done in England, but seldom elsewhere due to the scarcity and expense of wax. If wool was made without the stringent cleansing of professional manufacturing, it would retain some of the sheep's lanolin and would therefore be naturally somewhat water-resistant.

Most women worked indoors and didn't often have need of a protective outer garment. When they went out in cold weather, they might wear a simple shawl, cape, or pelisse. This last was a fur-lined coat or jacket; the modest means of peasants and poor laborers limited the fur to cheaper varieties, such as goat or cat.

The Laborer's Apron


Many jobs required protective gear to keep the laborer's everyday wear clean enough to wear every day. The most common protective garment was the apron.

Men would wear an apron whenever they performed a task that could cause a mess: filling barrels, butchering animals, mixing paint. Usually, the apron was a simple square or rectangular piece of cloth, often linen and sometimes hemp, which the wearer would tie around his waist by its corners. Men usually didn't wear their aprons until it was necessary, and removed them when their messy tasks were done.

Most chores that occupied the peasant housewife's time were potentially messy; cooking, cleaning, gardening, drawing water from the well, changing diapers. Thus, women typically wore aprons throughout the day. A woman's apron often fell to her feet and sometimes covered her torso as well as her skirt. So common was the apron that it eventually became a standard part of the peasant woman's costume.

Through much of the Middle Ages, aprons were undyed hemp or linen, but in the later medieval period they began to be dyed a variety of colors.

Girdles


Belts, also known as girdles, were common accoutrements for men and women. They might be made from rope, fabric cords, or leather. Occasionally belts might have buckles, but it was more common for poorer folk to tie them instead. Laborers and peasants not only tucked up their clothing with their girdles, they attached tools, purses, and utility pouches to them.

Gloves


Gloves and mittens were also fairly common and were used to protect the hands from injury as well as for warmth in cold weather. Workers such as masons, blacksmiths, and even peasants cutting wood and making hay were known to use gloves. Gloves and mittens could be of virtually any material, depending on their specific purpose. One type of worker's glove was made from sheepskin, with the wool on the inside, and had a thumb and two fingers to offer a little more manual dexterity than a mitten.

Nightwear


The idea that "all" medieval people slept naked is unlikely; in fact, some period artwork shows folk in bed wearing a simple shirt or gown. But due to the expense of clothing and the limited wardrobe of the working class, it is quite possible that many laborers and peasants slept naked, at least during warmer weather. On cooler nights, they could wear shifts to bed -- possibly even the same ones they'd worn that day under their clothes.

Making and Buying Clothes


All clothing was hand-sewn, of course, and was time-consuming to make compared to modern machine methods. Working class folk couldn't afford to have a tailor make their clothes, but they could trade with or purchase from a neighborhood seamstress or make their outfits themselves, especially since fashion was not their foremost concern. While some made their own cloth, it was far more common to purchase or barter for finished cloth, either from a draper or peddler or from fellow villagers. Mass-produced items like hats, belts, shoes and other accessories were sold in specialty stores in big towns and cities, by peddlers in rural areas, and at markets everywhere.

The Working Class Wardrobe


It was sadly all too common for the poorest folk to own nothing more than the clothes on their back. But most people, even peasants, weren't quite that poor. People usually had at least two sets of clothes: everyday wear and the equivalent of "Sunday best," which would not only be worn to church (at least once a week, often more frequently) but to social events, as well. Virtually every woman, and many men, were capable of sewing -- if only just a little-- and garments were patched and mended for years. Garments and good linen undergarments were even bequeathed to heirs or donated to the poor when their owner died.

More prosperous peasants and artisans would often have several suits of clothes and more than one pair of shoes, depending on their needs. But the amount of clothing in any medieval person's wardrobe -- even a royal personage -- couldn't come near what modern people usually have in their closets today.

Sources and Suggested Reading


Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp.

Köhler, Carl, A History of Costume. George G. Harrap and Company, Limited, 1928; reprinted by Dover; 464 pp.

Norris, Herbert, Medieval Costume and Fashion. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1927; reprinted by Dover; 485 pp.

Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Boydell Press, 2007, 221 pp.

Jenkins, D.T., editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles , vols. I and II. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 1191 pp.

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