10 Tips to Look More Medieval
Take It to the Next Level
Are you a medieval re-enactor who wants to get beyond basics? Are you ready to test your sewing skills? Are you ready to spend a little cash? Do you want to look like this professional re-enactor at the Tower of London? Here are some things that you can do to look more impressive and wow your fellow re-enactors.
1. Ditch the eyeglass (sunglasses are right out)
While I wear eyeglasses mundanely, I religiously crack open the old contact lens case every time I put on my medieval clothing. Nothing ruins a perfect outfit like modern eyewear. Sunglasses are even worse; most people do not need sunglasses for medical/sight reasons. To me, they're akin to wearing tennis shoes while in costume.
If the sun bothers you, wear a hat or hood--that's how medieval people kept the sun out of their eyes (of course, spending more time outdoors should also make your eyes less sensitive).
Although, if you manage to find or make yourself a pair of 14th century spectacles, and have your modern prescription put in them, I'd give you bonus points!
- Antique Spectacles - Rivet Spectacles
A history of the invention and earliest (medieval) use of eyeglasses.
- Make Your Own Historic Eyeglasses
This link is to a downloadable .pdf (I downloaded it without any problems). The style of the glasses that the author makes are 18th century. Medieval eyeglasses, as far as I am aware, were only of a pince nez style, or I seem to recall seeing a la
- Buy Medieval Replica Eyeglasses
This website is in Dutch, but they're one of the few places I found making proper medieval eyeglasses (it's their product in the picture above), and at a reasonable price. They have an e-mail address at the bottom; as most everyone in the Netherlands
2. Make your own clothing from your own patterns
Anyone that makes their own clothing can tell the difference between the people who have made their clothing from commercial patterns, the people that have made clothing from their own patterns, and the people that have bought off-the-rack; medieval seaming is not the same as what they put in modern costume patterns or in many boughten garments.
Also, while places like Revival make clothing with accurate seaming, they're still off-the-rack clothes, and it really shows up in fitted items like gambesons and cotehardies. Cotehardies are just sad when they aren't tailored properly. They look limp and dejected. Not to mention Revival has their own line of linen fabrics, and they're all the same type of linen and the same colors of linen, and I'm now familiar enough with their stuff that I can pick it out by the fabric alone.
If you want to look unique and period-correct, make your own medieval patterns, tailored to your body, and then make your own clothing. You will gain instant respect from the costumers who can tell that you're an original.
(Don't feel bad if you have been doing commercial patterns; I started out with commercial patterns too. In fact, I still have some of those dresses in my wardrobe because I haven't got enough really good clothes to replace them with just yet. It takes time to get enough sewing skills to start making your own, but when you can make that leap, do. It definitely takes your look up to the next level.)
- Reconstructing History
An informative site with costuming information on various times and places. THE source for information on medieval Irish clothing. Kass McGann also has her own line of patterns, but I haven't tried any, so I can't speak to how well they make up. T
- Cotte Simple
A website on the construction of cotehardies. I still suggest that you buy "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant" (shown towards the bottom of this article) for clear instructions on creating patterns and a basic cotehardie, but this website helps more wi
Don't forget necklaces, brooches, rings, earrings, belts, pouches, hats and hoods, knives, cloaks, market baskets and all the accoutrements that make you stand out and look more realistic. Men who wear hosen should take the time to make or get themselves a nice set of garters to wear too--either leather with studding or woven/cloth with embroidery.
And speaking of wearing hats in lieu of sunglasses, a cheap, simple straw hat is perfectly acceptable; there are a lot of examples of peasants, especially, wearing straw hats while outdoors, and it's quite likely that even noble men and women wore a straw hat when casual and at home. A felt hat blank (commonly found among 18th century re-enactor goods) also makes a good medieval hat (commonly seen on pilgrims of all ranks and sexes). Such a hat probably would not have been decorated, except for pilgrim badges (see the Medieval Pewter Replicas shop below for very reasonably-priced badges), although it might have had a linen lining and some are shown with a cord hanging down, so the hat could be tied on in windy weather.
Women, especially girls and young, unmarried women, can wear flower garlands in their hair. I've woven garlands from live flowering vines and also from stripped-down honeysuckle, to which I glued silk flowers. You can also buy a vine of silk flowers and weave it into a garland. When I have worn mine, they have seemed very popular (in fact, a bunch of little girls at a wedding asked me to make them some after seeing mine).
- The Pillaged Village
A store containing many medieval accessories for re-enactment and home. You must be careful, as some things are fantasy, not medieval. Still, I usually have cause to buy a few things from them every year; they have good prices.
- Extant Medieval Resources
One of my websites, containing pictures of extant medieval clothing accessories from the British Museum and Museum of London, as well as representations of clothing on the tomb of Katherine and Thomas Beauchamp of Warwick.
- Medieval Pewter Replicas
A variety of different pewter accessories, such as mirrorcases, needlecases, pomanders, belt buckles and studs, jewelry and badges, spoons and more. Very reasonably priced. I ordered from this store and was very pleased with the quality and weight of
- How to Make a Reticulated Headdress
This lady has done some great experiments with headgear. She also has a very plausible theory on how to keep a henin on your head.
- Richard the Thread
A supplier of corset and hat-making supplies (very hard, if not impossible to find in regular fabric stores).
- Jas. Townsend & Son, Inc.
This re-enactor's store (they specialize in the 18th century) carries two different kinds of straw hat and a wool felt hat blank--all of which are acceptable for medieval men or women to wear. The linen work cap is also acceptable for men to wear if
I get so many compliments on my hair, and, hey, it's just hair; everyone has it. I just take the time to braid mine and pin it up in a medieval fashion. Women who do not have long hair should consider the wide assortment of hats and veils popular throughout the middle ages, which will disguise the fact that they don't have long hair. Then they will get a lot of compliments on their hats.
I also know a couple of ladies who have false braids, well-matched to their natural hair color, which they neatly arrange and adorn and they look fabulous: like an Italian Renaissance fashion plate. And, actually, wearing hair pieces and even wigs was medieval; keep the tradition alive!
As for men, it's a sacrifice, but a tonsure if you're a monk or a pudding bowl haircut if you're 15th century really wows people. I saw a man at a big event last year who did have his hair in the pudding bowl cut and I remember just staring at him in awe bordering on reverence. Even if it's not practical to do it all year, doing it at one large, week-long re-enactment works and generates maximum impact.
And, in the case of that particular hairstyle, it can be cut shorter pretty quickly and be back to a modern hairstyle without problems. The tonsure style, however, would need an all-over buzz cut to be corrected.
You can make false braids from wool, flax or horsehair (see links below), or you can buy false braids at accessory stores or hair shops, like Claire's or Sally's.
- Wig-Making Step-by-Step
For the really, really ambitious, here's how to make a wig. In the middle ages, the very rich would have had wigs made of real human hair, but many had wigs made of flax (the raw material that becomes linen). Horsehair was also sometimes used, but I
- Roman Wig
A neat experiment into making a Roman wig. Medieval hairpieces could be made on the same principal. Note they used wool, which is probably easier to come by than flax, but flax is still preferred because it looks more like real hair (also it is blond
- Crown Braid How-To
Braiding such as this was popular during the Italian Renaissance, where the braids, when complete, might be wrapped with ribbons or strings of pearls. The two drawbacks here are that you need to have somewhat long hair, and you can't braid it your
Shoes are expensive and not something most people can make for themselves. But if you can afford to splurge on a pair of medieval shoes, do so. Shoes get a surprising amount of attention and, especially for men, are a serious fashion accessory.
Pattens are also head-turners, and actually are quite easy to make (even without prior wood- and leather-working skills, I made a fully-functional pair based off the picture of this one in the Museum of London).
Of course, more power to you if you can make your own shoes. Even very plain, basic shoes are impressive when you make them yourself.
- Footwear of the Middle Ages
Medieval shoe research and some very basic patterns (no instructions on making them up, just drawings of the individual pieces).
- Making Medieval Shoes
This link does contain instructions for making a simple shoe. Once you learn this, you should be able to make up some of the shoe patterns at the previous link.
- Pattens and Overshoes in Art
A selection of medieval pictures showing pattens and other forms of overshoes.
- Revival Clothing and Talbot's Leather Goods
A few shoe/boot options for purchase.
- Historic Enterprise
A few more shoes, boots and pattens to purchase.
(Not to be confused with Revival Clothing, which is run as a separate business.) The best selection of shoes and boots. I have their sueded medieval shoe, my husband has the late medieval riding boot and the low boot (referred to as 14th century s
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Many people buy woven trim, stick it on an outfit and call it a day. But the people that have crowds gathering around them have some other form of embellishment to their outfits; something more time-consuming and laborious.
Buttons are about the easiest and fastest embellishment that you can do. Instead of placing them every inch all the way down the front of a cotehardie or houpplande, put them in groups of twos: one button, one inch space, one button, two inch space, repeat. Or groups of three. Or place them in one pattern above the belt (closer together) and another pattern below the belt (further apart). This was commonly done on men's cotehardies and houpplandes, yet few people think to change it up. This one little thing will get people's attention precisely because not many people do it.
Also, you can have an usually high number of buttons. I have a rather plain gray linen cotehardie, but for one thing: it has 99 pearl buttons on it, between the front and the two sleeves. I get a lot of compliments on it. Massive numbers of buttons on women's cotehardies is also period.
Do hand embroidery on your clothing. Machine embroidery looks like machine embroidery (although it has its uses; more on that in a minute), and hand embroidery looks like hand embroidery. Even if your embroidery is simple and not very good, you will find that more people notice it and comment on it than if it were perfectly rendered machine embroidery.
One case of machine embroidery that did wow me was a cotehardie worn by one of our queens. I asked her where she managed to find this wonderful blue fabric with gold fleur-de-lis embroidered on it, and she said that her husband had gotten the pattern online, and put it in their embroidery machine, and had applied each one. Running a cuff through a sewing machine with a simple embroidery setting: eh. Carefully measuring and marking off a pattern layout and running 7 yards or more of fabric through an embroidery machine: now that's devotion!
Even if you are all thumbs when it comes to embroidery, at least buy trim which looks like embroidery (not the woven/brocade trim) and hand-stitch it onto your clothing. I've done this in a few instances and some people think I did all of it by hand.
Embroidery and Trim Links
- Hancock Fabrics
The trim selection at Hancocks (better selection online than I've ever seen at one of their stores). As mentioned above, look for trim which has depth/texture and looks like thread embroidery.
- Historical Needlework Resources
VERY good descriptions and pictures of embroidery stitches (this is the first person who has fully explained underside couching to me). Also has definitions of various medieval embroidery techniques that you might run across in research, such as "
- Textiles Illuminated (Medieval Beads)
THE website and THE expert on medieval beadwork. Has the largest collection of pictures of extant beadwork anywhere, and Grizel also has her class handouts posted, which show how to do medieval bead embdroidery (it is a form of couching). The pict
- Couched Metal Threads
Real, honest-to-God gold embroidery thread. She also has silver and copper (silver was used medievally, but I've never heard of them using copper). At the bottom of the page she has fake gold thread for those with a tighter pocketbook. Mind you, t
- Ball Buttons
Instructions on how to make flat and ball buttons from cloth. Can be made with or without an interior form.
- Basic Instructions for Creating Period Cord with a Lucet
Make your own laces for dresses, armor attachment, etc.
Instructions for making medieval sequins.
Sleeves are such an easy thing to play with, and yet they get so much attention. I had an old linen dress where the sleeves had become impossibly tight (thanks to working out with the manure rake). The dress still fit and was wearable, but I couldn't bear the sleeves. So I ripped them out and took the dress to the fabric store and found some fabric in a purple that worked well with the color of the dress. I got a yard and took it home and make up sleeves. I ran them through the embroidery machine with some silver thread, then added pearlized glass beads by hand to the embroidery pattern. Then I hemmed up the armholes on the dress and pinned the new sleeve on at the top. Again, something that was often done in the middle ages, but which is seldom done among re-enactors. I have gotten many compliments on those sleeves, which is funny considering that it's an old dress and I just made the sleeves quickly, out of necessity, not original design!
Long trailing sleeves, bag sleeves, and especially dagged sleeves always draw admirers.
The other great thing about sleeves is, even if you have a small clothes budget, you can look great simply by splurging on fabric for the sleeves. It was not uncommon in the middle ages to have fine silk brocade sleeves, velvet sleeves, or sleeves worked heavily in embroidery and beading, and have the same attached to a somewhat plain dress.
Notice the picture of Mary Magdalene by van der Weyden; on close inspection, her contrasting brocade sleeves are pinned on with a straight pin, but in period some were laced to garments with a matched pair of eyelets (I prefer tying on with eyelets, personally; pins have a tendency to come out).
- The Knitted Scogger
This sleeve (arm warmer) is from the 1500's. While the author made a common scogger, she does hint that there were some which were very elaborate which were worn by the upper classes as a decorative over-sleeve. Make a pair of these and share t
- Bag Sleeves
An article of caution when working with commercial bag sleeve patterns, how they go wrong, and how to make ones that actually work.
8. Fur and brocade
Yes, it usually requires a goodly outlay of cash, but nothing attracts admirers like a fancy brocade or real fur. If you take your time and really hunt, you can sometimes catch a decent price on brocade (I got some once for $5/yard). Also, if you go to yard sales and flea markets, you can sometimes get old fur coats for cheap, which can be cut up and pieced back together to make sideless surcoat tops or the lining of a short mantle.
Even if you can't afford a lot of brocade or fur, you can get a lot of the value of it by using it selectively. You can get a small piece of rabbit fur from a leather goods shop and put fur trim around sleeves or collar, or line a hood or hat. You can get a one yard remnant of brocade and make detachable sleeves, as I mentioned above, or make undersleeves to a short-sleeved cotehardie. You could even make an underdress with a brocade panel about one yard in length at the bottom, and then wear your overdress pulled up just enough to show it off. This was also done in period (well, at least showing off the nice underdress; theirs were probably all brocade).
Fake fur is better than no fur at all, and is all that will work in some places. While old fur coats are a great source of real fur on the cheap, you're also limited in how large a piece you can remake from them. Fake fur, which is bought by the yard, the same as any fabric, can be had in large quantities, allowing you to use it for large projects, such as cloak linings. However, fake fur is very expensive; the best price I've ever seen was $5 a yard, but most of the time it is $10-$14/yard, making it as expensive or more so than a real fur coat bought at a yard sale.
The benefit of using fake fur instead of real fur, besides being able to get enough to do a large project, is that it is less messy than real fur to cut and make up. Fake fur makes plenty of mess, but even it can't compare to real fur bunnies rolling across the floor and getting up your nose (I highly suggest wearing a dust mask when working with real fur). However, I think that real fur is better at hiding where you have pieced it together because the hairs are denser.
Fake fur generally comes in two types: really fake-looking and reasonable facsimile. And, actually, both types have their uses. Use cheesy-looking fake fur to line garments and hats. It is typically cheaper than the higher-end stuff, not to mention that people will be able to see that you have a fur-lined garment or hat, but won't be able to tell that it's really cheesy fur. It's also warm for winter. In short, you get all the benefits of appearing to wear fur without anyone knowing it's crappy fur. Use the high-quality stuff for sideless surcoats, trim, collars and anywhere else you are showing off the fur.
You can also get fake fur coats from yard sales and thrift stores and cut them up, but you do run into the problem of having only a couple of yards worth of material to work with. Still, if it's excellent-quality fake fur, you can probably get it for cheaper as an old coat than if you bought it at a fabric store.
The picture of Mary Magdalene by van der Weyden (yes, he painted several of her) shows both a fur-lined houpplande and a brocade underdress. Women in houpplandes were often painted holding their dresses up so that you can see their underdress (women in cotehardies sometimes tucked their dress up into their belt), which makes me suspect that it was something done in real life too--not the least of which was to keep the long houpplande up off the muddy ground.
- Modern Imitations of Medieval Brocades
A good article on medieval brocades and what sort of modern fabrics replicate it. Remember, just because it's brocade doesn't mean that it looks anywhere near medieval. This guide will help give you an idea of what to shop for.
- Brocade Fabric from Gypsy Caravan
Good-looking synthetic brocades. These are light-weight brocades, made to simulate silk and are VERY hard to find in stores. Pricing is reasonable. The gold brocade they have is not dissimilar to the underdress of Mary Magdalene above.
- I Luv Fabrix
Has heavier-weight brocades (sometimes referred to as tapestries; more for use as light-use upholestry than the garment brocades at Gypsy Caravan--still, as this type of brocade is more easily acquired, it is frequently used by re-enactors).
- Dharma Trading Company
An excellent resource for light-weight silks; perfect for banners, veils and garment linings. They also sell silk paint and dye for the really creative. Good prices, super fast shipping.
- Fashion Fabrics Club
My favorite online fabric store. They often have linen and wool for very good prices. I even got 50/50 silk/linen fabric there once for a song (it was an ugly color of green, but I dyed it a better color, no problem).
I was not aware of the importance of lining garments until I went to a re-enactors' market in England in March. Being from Tennessee, our clothes are more or less divided into cold and oh-my-God-it's-miserably-hot-out-here! Needless to say, no one lines their hot-weather clothing (heck, most people try to wear as little clothing as possible in August). But when I looked at the re-enactors in England, everyone was wearing lined clothing. It really makes a big difference (at least to a costumer, like me) on how the clothing fits and looks. It's hard to describe the difference, really, but one aspect is that the clothing lies smoother when it's lined.
I have found that lining silk is a requirement. I have made clothing from fine silk shirting, and after a few wears, the fabric is starting to pull apart in the seams. I also have a sideless surcoat which is made from a heavy duponi, but which twists and rides up and just does not want to stay still. I think a lining would help weight it down so it moves less, not to mention a cotton or linen lining is much less slippery than silk, so it should "stick" to my chemise, rather than slide around on it.
In the case of silk, it is best to take a firm broadcloth (cheap muslin will do if you have cost concerns) and baste your silk pattern pieces to your broadcloth pieces and treat them as one piece when you sew them up. This adds weight to your garment and, more importantly, provides reinforcement to the seams so that they will not tear out. You can then treat the seams as you would normally--flat-fell them, overlock them with a serger (yes, I cheat on the inside of my clothing most of the time!), or make a separate lining and insert it by hand. But, whatever you do, take it from me: reinforce all of your silk material (no matter how heavy and durable it appears to be) with a cotton or linen broadcloth before sewing it up.
If your climate will allow, make the effort to line your clothing. Even if you can't afford a linen or silk lining, at least line with muslin; it will help. Also, never go without an undergarment. Men and women both should wear at least one undershirt/chemise. This too helps the garment lay smoother.
Clothing Construction Links
- Lining a Kirtle the Easy Way
Important instructions on how to line a garment so that the lining doesn't sag and hang funny.
This is for the men folk, as women's underwear should never be seen. Braies can be bought or made fairly easily. Hosen is much more difficult to make, but there are several places online which sell it. These two items put together make a world of difference to a man's appearance. We have a friend who wears simple, early-period tunics--nothing fancy--but he also wears braies and hosen and it makes a world of difference to his appearance. Even dressed casually, he looks impressive because he has all the details right; he looks more medieval than someone wearing a very expensive houpplande over a pair of modern pants.
Also, wear garters below the knee. This helps keep your hosen from sagging around your ankles and is a great detail that many people forget. Men's garters could be quite elaborate and decorative, so, as mentioned above, it's a great way to accessorize.
- Recreating 14th Century Braies
This man's design for braies is very unusual; it is not the style used by commercial manufacturers, nor is it the way they are made in "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant." But, of course, that means you have one more alternative for construciton.
- Chausses and Braies
Good research on the first page, followed by information on making up chausses (hosen) and braies on the second. His braies are early--13th century and prior. Later braies are more fitted because men's garments became shorter and showed off more l
- Revival Clothing
Two different styles of braies to buy.
- Historic Enterprises
More hosen than you can shake a stick at. Also includes two different kinds of garters AND very early period leg wraps (mucho brownie points for wearing those with your viking kit). They also have three types of braies in their underwear sectio
Bonus - Persona Development
Something which is less noticeable than outward appearance, but which is really impressive in conversation, is persona development. A lot of re-enactors never get any further than picking a name, time and place. And some go off on long, unbelievable fictions of how their persona was captured by the Vikings, sold to as a slave to the middle east, then wound up sold as a slave to Japan.
If you like wearing a bunch of different outfits, that's okay, but don't try to come up with outlandish explanations behind them. Your persona should be who you are MOST of the time; it's okay, though, as a Viking, to pull out your Elizabethan a couple of times a year.
Some clever people, however, when they can't make up their mind between two different times or places, come up with two completely different personas, and even have different names, so that they are one person sometimes and the other person at other times.
Whatever you do, make your persona story believable. Where were you born? Who were your parents? How were you raised and educated? If you are a man, how are you making a living? As a woman, who are/were you married to? (As a single woman, you can still play a widow and even run your own business as such.) Where did you end up living most of your life? What real medieval people were your contemporaries, and that you would have personally known?
The more you know about your persona, the more impressed people will be with your research and story-telling abilities.
Misc. Helpful Links
- Medieval Dress for the Casual Re-Enactor
Woah... is this a bit much? If so, you might want to try this lens, which is more like a starter course to dressing medievally.
- The Society for Creative Anachronism
A description of my re-enactment organization.
- The Medieval Nun's Lensography
A list of all of my Squidoo lenses, organized by topic.
- The Medieval Combat Society
They have a LOT of pictures of medieval brasses and tomb effigies, including examples of women's and men's clothing and armor. A very nice resource for your own research.
- Pictures from the Manesse Codex
Medieval pictures of clothing from the early 13th century. Originally from Switzerland (which, as far as I am aware, followed German fashion at the time).
- Men's Heraldic Surcoats
A collection of medieval pictures of men's surcoats, as well as various styles of arming coat.
- The Maciejowski Bible
Pictures from the Maciejowski Bible. Considered the premiere primary source for 13th century armor and weapons (although there are some pictures of clothing too, mostly men's).