R-EP-Costume-art - 12/4/97
³Researching Early Period Costume² by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
NOTE: See also the files: East-Eur-msg, clothing-bib, Celts-msg, cl-Norse-msg,
cl-Rom-Brit-art, clothing-books-msg, underwear-msg, p-shoes-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Researching Early Period Costume
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
Rather than give you an overview of all the minute details of costume
construction and ornament over a six hundred year period, I am going to keep
things simple, discussing briefly the basic principles of cut and construction
in this earlier period, followed by some general observations on the joys and
difficulties in researching dress in this period.
Throughout all of the period from 600 to 1200 (and indeed, up to about
1350 or so), the main principle of cutting fabric was the straight line. This
means simply that instead of cutting the pieces into form-fitting, curved
shapes, as is generally done today, the pieces were largely (more or less)
triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids. This method conserves fabric (an
important factor in a day in which all fabric was hand woven and dyed) and
produces a characteristic look and drape. You may still see vestiges of the era
of straight line cutting in the folk dress of many Eastern European and Indian
Four general principles may be noted:
1. Sleeves are straight-set. There is no curved armscrye. Gussets may be
added under the arms for ease in movement.
2. To produce a flared look, gores (triangular pieces of material) were
added to the body of a garment.
3. To produce tightness, lacing and curved cuts were introduced, starting
around the end of the eleventh century. The properties of the bias
(diagonal) of the fabric were used to produce the necessary stretch.
4. Layering of items was frequently used.
It is important to keep these principles in mind if you wish to produce a
garment that wears and hangs like a period piece. But to create a garment that
also looks authentic, you should remember the following:
1. Width of the fabric. Period looms most often produced fabric that was
either 22-27² or 44²-45² wide. Keeping this in mind will help you
understand why particular cuts or decoration patterns are used.
2. Colour. It is not true that everyone in the Middle Ages wore dull
browns and greys. It IS true, however, that the most brilliant and
permanent dyes were also the most costly to obtain. Less costly cloth
was often quite colourful to begin with (simple vegetable dyes can
produce some vivid colours), but over time, faded with wear. Better
quality cloth demanded better quality dyes, and so forth. The upper
classes in the earlier periods seemed very fond of mixing bright
colours and patterns. As a general rule, modern jewel-tone colours and
earthtones will best reproduce the available dyes.
3. Cloth. Wool was the universal fabric of the Middle Ages. Everyone
wore it, from the homespuns of the peasants to the fine weaves of the
nobility. For undergarments, linen was the fabric of choice (cotton
being a luxury fabric in these days); it is important to note that
linen is difficult to dye and was almost always white or pale in colour
in period. Hemp cloth was also available for heavier garments.
Finally, silks were always in demand for those who could afford them.
4. Pattern and decoration. Both twills (denim is a typical twill) and
tabbies (straight weaves) were known in period. Some twills, such a
lozenge twill, produce dramatic patterns in the fabric; stripes and
plaids were also known. Brocading (in which a pattern is woven directly
into the fabric) became more common towards the end of our period.
Fabric could also be embroidered or stamped with a design.
Researching Early Dress
You will probably not find all of what Iıve just discussed in any single
costume book. Many of our standard sources, in fact, barely discuss dress in
the early Middle Ages. From these sources, youıd never have a clue that Vikings
wore clothes. This can be extremely aggravating for the beginner.
Part of the problem is the paucity of surviving garments: I can literally
count them on one hand, though we have quite a number of tantalizing bits of
cloth. Part of it is the relative disinterest of many costume historians in this
period, which cut-wise was exceedingly conservative--if itıs simple, it must be
boring and not worth our time. In fact, much of the research into early dress
has been done by archaeologists and anthropologists, who have managed to
reconstruct entire costumes from some threads in a brooch and some darker-
coloured bits of dirt where fabric has rotted away.
Early period costume sometimes gets short shrift from those studying later
periods, but in fact, doing research beyond getting the basic look down from a
few pictures is considerably more difficult than it is for later periods. If
you decide to try it, youıll find yourself becoming amateur historian,
archaeologist, and textiles person all in one. Youıll find yourself ordering
books in Swedish through interlibrary loan, just to look at the pictures.
Youıll find yourself playing and draping fabric to try to figure out how they
did it. Youıll find yourself looking at odd bits of sculpture, manuscript
illumination, jewellery, vats of foul-smelling period dyes, and other such
things in order to try to flesh out the picture. Itıs difficult work--but if
you like a good mystery, and donıt mind libraries, youıll have fun.
A Brief Bibliography to get you started...
Burnham, Dorothy. Cut my Cote . Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1973. Just a
simple little booklet, but if you want documentation for early-period gore and
gusset construction, look here.
Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years of Fashion (expanded edition). New York: H.N.
Abrams, 1987. This book is most useful for its pictures, many of which are in
colour. The narrative tends to focus on French fashions, and the early period
section does so exclusively.
Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., and Stanland, K. Textiles and Clothing c.1150-
c.1450. London: HMSO, 1992. One of the few available books based primarily on
archeological evidence; you will learn a great deal about fabric and its
manufacture in its pages.
Davenport, Milia. The Book of Costume, 2nd ed. Crown Publishers, 1970. Another
great book for pictures, though most are in black and white.
Owen-Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester (UK) 1986. One of
the only books available which focuses exclusively on early-period dress;
luckily, itıs a good one (though not perfect). Relies mostly on text, rather
Tkach, Yuri, Ukrainian Costume. Melbourne: Bayda Press, 1984. I throw this in
for a little Eastern European content. Itıs in English, and gives you good
proof that the basic ³early period² cuts apply (in slightly modified form)
Northern European Womenıs Clothing (from the Compleat Anachronist Series,
available through the SCA Stock Clerk) is the best book on early period costume
Iıve yet to find. All the examples are taken from actual archaeological finds,
and invaluable information on textiles is included. Here youıll find the latest
on the ³Viking apron² controversy. Unfortunately, menıs dress is not included.
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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