Medieval Dress for the Casual Re-Enactor
Yes, You Can Look Medieval!
I am a medieval re-enactor. This page contains information on making a reasonable attempt at medieval clothing. I originally used some of this information to help my family dress for my medieval wedding, but this content is also good for people who want to be really well dressed at Halloween or for a costume contest, who are interested in getting into the SCA, or who want to go dressed to a Ren Faire.
Buying Pre-Made Clothing
You can purchase medieval clothing online, but most outfits will set you back $100-$200. (You can also make your own clothing, but purchase accessories, such as pouches, belts and jewelry from one of the merchants listed below.
You have to be careful of many websites which claim to make medieval clothing; they most often make fantasy/Halloween costumes that actually have very little, if anything, to do with what was actually worn in the middle ages. Which, if you are just looking for a Halloween costume is fine, but if you are going to attend a re-enactment, you might find someone gently leading you off and dressing you in something else.
Corsets were never, ever worn on the outside of clothing and didn't even exist until the late Tudor/Elizabethan period.
(Picture is of the 'Lancelot du Lac' cotehardie from Revival Clothing.)
Medieval Clothing and Accessories
Medieval Clothing - Commercial Patterns
Where do I get a pattern?
McCall's, Butterick and Simplicity are turning out some decent-looking medieval patterns these days. They're not historically accurate from a sewing perspective (princess seams, for instance, seem to be a fairly modern invention), but they generally have the right look and aren't hard to construct. If you can follow a regular pattern, you can make any of the medieval clothing from these companies.
Hancock's Fabrics puts patterns on sale once a month (usually over 3 or 4 days, including a Saturday) for $1.99 each. Go into the store and get a flyer to see what days are listed for their pattern sale. Never pay full price! JoAnn's and Hobby Lobby also occasionally run a $1.99 sale, but I'm not sure if they run them every month. JoAnn's, however, will honor Hancock's coupons, and possibly their ads, so you can always take a Hancock flyer to their storeand see.
At various holidays, patterns often go for 99 cents, limit 5.
Winging It - Making Clothes Without Patterns
I would give my reader some advice about using the Tunic Construction pattern: it's more complicated than it has to be. It is done the way it would have been done in the middle ages, but it can be modified to be easier on the more novice modern sewer.
For example, you don't need the arm gussets; just make the sleeves as wide as the sleeve and gusset together, then taper the sleeve down to the wrist measurement, as called for. You also don't need the gores, if you use fabric 54" or wider. If you want a man's tunic, you can just cut the skirt with a flare rather than using the gores to give it fullness. For a woman's dress, follow the same pattern, only lengthen it to the feet (flaring as you go down from the hips or waist).
You can also use the same pattern to make a man's shirt, only make the body straight and hem it just below the waist.
You can make a chemise (the medieval equivalent of a slip) to wear under your fitted dress using these instructions too. I would recommend, though, before you cut the neck hole, to lay the pattern pieces for your dress on the chemise and trace out that neckline front and back so that your necklines will match up; generally, in the middle ages, the chemise is not seen when the overdress is worn, but it's okay if your chemise shows at the neck. Chemises were made of linen in the middle ages, but a cheaper substitute is muslin or cotton broadcloth.
I am fond of the braided-looking trims, which look like couching embroidery, but plenty of people wear the woven/brocade trims. Cording and ribbon is also appropriate, although I would refrain from fringe, lest you look like a walking drapery.
If you are interested in embroidery, there was a large variety of it in the middle ages; cross stitch wasn't terribly popular (although it existed), but couching was quite popular, as was blackwork. There is plenty of information online, or you can also look at the Reader's Digest Guide to Needlework.
(Trim pictured from The Pillaged Village.)
Altering Commercial Patterns and Cheating
Removing a Zipper
I noticed that many of the new patterns call for lacing in the back of dresses, which is good. However, if your dress calls for a zipper, you can easily modify this and install eyelets/grommets. Sew your dress up in the back to the point where the zipper should be installed. Instead of putting it in, though, hem either side of the back opening by stitching your 5/8" seam allowance down on either side. Install or make eyelets/grommets between the edge of the fabric and your topstitching seam (i.e. place the eyelets/grommets in the double thickness of fabric). Be sure you mash down any rough edges on the inside if you install the metal eyelets, especially in children's clothing.
Making a False Sleeve
If you want to wear a short-sleeved cotehardie, but don't want to make a chemise to go under it, then you can make a false sleeve. Either measure your arm from the shoulder to the wrist or measure the sleeve of a non-knit blouse. Add 1" in length to allow for seam allowance at the shoulder and hem at the wrist. Take your short sleeve pattern and using a water-soluble quilter's pen, lengthen the lines of the sleeve until you have the appropriate length. Your sleeve at the wrist should be at least as wide as the circumference of your hand (or you won't be able to pull the sleeve on). The sleeve should taper in from the top down to the wrist (it's really up to you how tight-fitting you want the undersleeve, but cotehardie sleeves were close-fitting). Cut these undersleeves from some contrasting fabric (it can even be fancier than your regular fabric), sew them up, sew up the short sleeves, then put the long sleeve inside the short one and sew them both into the armhole at the same time. Voila, the look of two garments when you're only wearing one.
How to Properly Lace a Medieval Dress
You may be tempted to lace your dress up like a shoe, but this is actually not a good way to lace up a piece of clothing, because that method is terrible to cause gaping and lace shifting. The medieval way of lacing up a dress is to spiral lace it. Knot your lacing on one end and thread it up through an eyelet. Go down through the eyelet on the next side, then up through the eyelet on the first side and so on. When you get to the top, you can tie the end of your string off on the last lace crossing, and then tuck it down inside the dress.
Get Creative with Layers
A friend of mine in the picture, Baroness Rhiannon, is wearing an early-period dress, which can be made using the T-tunic method. She is wearing an overtunic with her dress, which is both acceptable and more visually appealing (also warmer). Note she has cut the sleeves of her overtunic long--longer than her hands--and with a flare or bell-shape; the sleeves of her underdress are fitted as the pattern instructions call for. Her overtunic is also cut shorter so that she can show off her matching dress. This is a very good example of how you can play with a very simple design and make it look great.
Fastenings and the Like
Elastic, of course, was unheard of in the middle ages. Where we would have elastic--namely in pants--the alternative is a drawstring (but if it can't be seen, you can cheat and use elastic). Necklines and cuffs should not have drawstrings in them.
Zippers are a big no-no. You should really try to convert to lacing instead (see my section on altering commercial patterns and cheating).
Hooks and eyes are medieval (one of the oldest fasteners known to man, actually).
Snaps and Velcro are not medieval, and can usually be replaced with a hook and eye. Snaps, being by their nature hidden, are okay to use, but I must warn not to use them where they are going to be under a lot of stress (tight-fitting outfit), as they will unsnap.
In the middle ages, people would have not had metal grommets, but a lot of people cheat because they are so easy to install, and who has time to stitch-up dozens of eyelet holes by hand? (besides me, of course). This is how most people do back-lacing dresses.
It is also appropriate to install small rings inside a dress to lace it closed invisibly. The best source for tiny rings is the jewelry section of Michael's or Hobby Lobby; get tiny split rings (the kind of ring that you put your keys on) if you can because many of the jump rings won't hold up under tension and will bend out of shape and come off. You can also use little plastic rings that are sometimes used on curtains or as knitting stitch markers.
Buttons, as far as I know, were only worn on the sleeves and up the fronts of outfits. Most modern patterns, though, call for the opening to be in the back, so it's best to stick to lacing (buttons in the back and long hair don't mix anyways--ask me how I know this).
If you do use buttons, shank buttons seem to have been more common in the middle ages than non-shank buttons, but re-enactors use both kinds equally. Try to get a wooden, bone or metal button. It's okay if they have some sort of simple design on them, like a star or flower or geometric pattern. Plastic will work if it is a reasonable facsimile of those three materials. Avoid buttons with "gems" set in them. While they had gemstone buttons in the middle ages, I have yet to find a plastic version that looks realistic. People in the SCA cheat all the time and make buttonholes on the sewing machine (guilty!).
(Button picture is a sample of buttons provided by The Pillaged Village.)
Rule for placing buttons, grommets and lacing rings:
The closer together you place these things, the less gaping and lacing shifting (where you gap in one spot and are too tight in another) you get in your outfit. Never place these things less than 1" apart and, really, it's better to have them closer together than that, I have found.
Additional Men's Clothing Options
Men's pants should be hemmed, if possible, down to the top of the foot, rather than around the ankle. Men in the middle ages actually didn't wear pants, but rather socks/hosen, so longer pants not only help hide the shoes, but cover the modern socks as well.
The best kind of pants that you can purchase (making them also works) are actually women's plain knit pants/leggings. Stirrup pants also work well. Sweat pants without an elastic cuff at the bottom will work in a pinch. Blue jeans and pantyhose/tights should be avoided (modern tights are much too tight-fitting to look like medieval hosen; the lower class the man, too, the looser his hosen would have fitted). If you cannot get knit pants, plain slacks in black or brown/khaki will work.
Men may wear a kilt, if they like. (Please remember to sit demurely while wearing it, especially if you are wearing it "traditionally".) While the modern kilt has many more pleats than a medieval kilt, and is a single skirt--whereas the medieval great kilt was about 9 yards of fabric half pleated up, belted around the waist, with the excess thrown over the shoulder--many men in the SCA and at Ren Faires wear them, so it's not a faux pas. The best thing to go with a kilt is a loose, blousy shirt, usually referred to as a "poet's shirt"; this simulates the loose tunic undergarment we think the highland Scots were wearing at this period. Lowland Scots dressed like the English. The Irish wore long, one-piece tunics, belted at the waist--not kilts. The less pleats your kilt has, the better.
Clothing for Pre-Teens and Teens
Girls and boys of this age would have worn clothing just like their parents', so for kids big enough to wear small adult sizes, you can just make their clothes from the patterns listed above.
Clothing for Babies and Toddlers
It is easiest to just make clothes for babies and toddlers following the instructions for adults below. Basically you take a doubled rectangle of fabric, wide enough to fit over the baby, cut a neckhole, add some rectangles for sleeves and put a little bonnet on the baby's head and booties on its feet and you have a medieval baby.
Toddlers of both sexes get the same look (boys would not have started wearing hosen until they were completely potty-trained), but depending on how well the baby is walking, you might want to hem the tunic up a bit short so it's not a trip hazard and add a little flare in the skirt to make walking easier.
Completing Your Look
Women's underwear consisted of a chemise and little else. When dresses were loose-fitting at the top (prior to the 1300's), large-busted women might have worn some sort of banding cloth to hold their bust in. With the advent of the cotehardie, however, the dress itself was tight enough to hold the bust in. This was worn until the advent of the corset in the Tudor or Elizabethan era.
Corsets should never be worn on the outside of the clothing. Corsets were always underwear. Also, corsets in these time periods gave a very tubular silhouette. They never, ever cinched in the waist, nor really even gave any hint of a waist at all; the "wasp-waist" look is Victorian. A woman's breasts were shown in low-cut gowns (upper class women) in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, but probably less so among lower-class women (who needed more practical clothing to work in). Breast exposure should be no more than what is seen in any of the Jane Austen movies. If you are at a family-friendly re-enactment, you may be asked to cover yourself or put on other clothing if you are wearing a corset as an outer-garment, or if you are in danger of having a wardrobe malfunction.
It is thought that women did not wear any form of panties or bloomers, but it could just be that no one mentioned them in writings (the original "unmentionables").
Men would have worn a linen undershirt and braies, which are probably not unlike what our grandfathers used to wear and called "drawers." They started out long--to the knee--and as time went on, they got shorter and shorter until they resembled modern jockeys.
Men's socks would have come above their thigh--getting higher up the leg as the centuries progressed, until they joined into one piece of clothing and became the forerunner of pants. Women would have worn knee socks.
It is very common for re-enactors to wear modern underwear under their medieval clothing.
(Picture of braies and chausses (hosen) from Revival Clothing.)
Shoes aren't much to fuss about. Women should try to wear plain, flat shoes. I wore a pair of black loafers for a good while before getting a pair of Chinese cloth shoes that look slightly more medieval (www.pillagedvillage.com). Men should try to wear plain black or brown shoes like dress shoes or loafers, or plain, solid black or brown hiking boots or riding boots (not cowboy boots or work boots). My husband is rather fond of his surplus East German Army boots which look like a shortened riding boot. For women, your shoes should be hidden beneath your dress anyway, so that makes them even less important. Children should try to wear plain, dark shoes as well or non-cowboy boots.
(The shoe in the picture is a real medieval shoe; it is housed in the Museum of London.)
Hair and Hats
Men's hair went through numerous changes throughout the middle ages and in different places. Beards and moustaches went in and out of style constantly as well, with older men usually sporting a beard and younger men frequently keeping shaven. There is no need to do anything unusual with your hair, facial or otherwise. Hats and hoods were quite popular among men, but not a requirement. A coif is easy to make and generally looks like a modern-day baby's bonnet.
Women with short hair may prefer to wear a veil or snood (a heavy hairnet) to cover their short hair. An unmarried woman usually left her hair exposed (hanging down or braided), whereas a married woman tended to keep all or part of her hair covered by a veil, snood or some sort of headdress.
Men and women both wore jewelry in the middle ages. Rings were quite frequently worn, usually in great abundance, and women wore them above and below the knuckles on any of the fingers (including thumbs). You can't go wrong with simple gold or silver bands. Faceted stones were done, but they were quite primitive looking compared to our precision-machined, multi-faceted stones today, so I usually look for rings which have a cabochon (unfaceted) stone. Medieval rings were often large and gaudy as well.
Women's earrings seem to have been almost exclusively of the hoop variety, sometimes with dangles or beads on the hoops, but you can also wear a post-and-dangle style earring. Some of the new "chandelier" earrings have a medieval feel to them. As far as I know, men only wore earrings in the Elizabethan period (also hoops, although sometimes some sort of post earring with a dangle).
Paternoster beads (the precursor to rosary beads) were worn by both sexes and a single strand could be anywhere from 5 beads hung from a belt to 150, worn like a bandolier across the chest, and the wealthiest people had theirs made from very nice beads. My own paternoster is 50 black wooden beads divided into 10's by white bone beads, in a loop with a tassel at one end. I usually wear mine casually and looped over my belt.
Necklaces were common for women, but not so much for men in the high middle ages, except for collars or chains of estate. Crosses were, obviously, commonly worn on necklaces. If you are going for an earlier Celtic or Viking look, men and women both wore beaded necklaces or torcs (a necklace that is not unlike a cuff bracelet in form). In the Elizabethan period women liked to wear multiple strands of pearls and sometimes the men would wear these too.
Brooches, especially of a religious nature, are also appropriate for both sexes (follow same guidelines as rings as to stone settings), although you may find some of the medieval replicas of "badges" at Pillaged Village and Revival Clothing humorous; some are of quite a sexual nature if you look close enough and, given the number found in archeological digs, apparently were quite popular. Medieval people were far from the prigs many of us today think they were.
Of course, you may always elect to wear no jewelry at all; it's certainly not a requirement to costume.
Since some links are scattered throughout this mega-lens, I am repeating them here, where they will be easy to locate, as well as some other links that you might find interesting.
- Society for Creative Anachronism
This is the medieval re-enactment organization that I belong to. It's the largest in the United States, and possibly the world. It roughly covers the years 600-1600 and concentrates on Western Europe, but does not exclude the Middle East, Eastern Eur
- Revival Clothing
Clothing, and a good source for shoes and boots.
- Historic Enterprises
Mostly clothing and accessories.
- The Pillaged Village
Offering affordable dress accessories and other items, such as table settings.
- Extant Medieval Resources
A website of mine containing pictures that my husband and I took of various medieval items while we were in England and Scotland. Contains my notes on the clothing and accessories.
- Stefan's Florilegium
This is a massive database of discussions by SCA people on a variety of topics--including costuming. You can glean a lot of information from it.
This is my BIBLE for making 1200-1500's clothing for myself and my husband. If you want historically-accurate clothing and you're willing to make your own patterns, it is an absolute MUST.