What Not to Wear in the 14th Century
by Amanda Forester
One of the most interesting, or at least the most time consuming, aspects of writing historical fiction is conducting all the research. Clothing is one of the biggest questions I need to figure out before my characters can step forth on their journey. In my newest release, The Highlander's Heart, the heroine is an English countess. The date is 1355. The question: what would she wear?
In the first scene Isabelle (Countess of Tynsdale) is separated, or I should say separates herself, from her traveling companions (and the guards who are taking her back to be killed). As I wrote the scene I had to try to picture what she might be wearing. We're in medieval England, so obviously she will be wearing some sort of gown, but what fabric?
Sumptuary laws can be a help. In the 14th century, the rise of a prosperous merchant class became a bother for the nobility. The upstart commoners were gaining as much wealth as the established aristocracy and could start dressing the part (oh, the horror). Can you imagine the daughter of a merchant wearing a similar gown as the daughter of an earl? Certainly not! Sumptuary laws strictly governed what people of different classes could wear so the privilege and rank of the aristocracy could be maintained, and the prosperous bourgeoisie could be kept in their place. In particular, women were not to wear clothing above the rank of their fathers or husbands. Certain fabrics, such as velvet, silk, ermine, or sable fur were prohibited to "commoners". Since my heroine is a countess, it would be likely her clothing would reflect her rank, thus I dressed her in a rich wine-colored velvet.
But wait, I am getting ahead of myself. What about underclothes? Under her gown, a medieval lady would have worn a linen or silk chemise, which was a loose fitting smock-like dress. She would have worn hose, though usually only to the knee, and leather shoes, which in the 14th century would have had a pointed toe. These shoes were generally for castle use; if going outdoors, one would put on wooden patens to avoid getting wet feet.
Over the chemise, a lady would wear her gown called a kirtle. In the 14th century, the previous fashion of straight seams and draped garments were giving way to curved seams and more careful tailoring. Since Lady Isabelle is noble, I expect her clothes would have had the benefit of time and money, so likley her gown would have fit her quite well. Since she would have had ladies to dress her, she would probably have been laced into her gown in a way not possible if you were dressing yourself. Her sleeves would have been form fitting and long, perhaps to her knuckles. These long sleeves would have been laced or buttoned in place. The neckline of this era was becoming wider and lower, and may even have revealed a little cleavage.
Over the kirtle, a medieval lady may have worn a variety of different kinds of overgowns. Some may have had loose fitting sleeves, while others were sleeveless (called surcoats), which may have been worn loose or laced. Later in the 14th century, surcoats became shorter, ending at the waistline, and were often form fitting to reveal a small waist. A belt was commonly worn, hanging low on the hips. These belts, or girdles, could be quite ornate. Sumptuary laws forbade commoners from wearing a silver girdle, so clearly the nobility were using their belts to show their rank. These belt could be quite fine and even encrusted with jewels.
On her head a lady would wear some sort of covering. Being married, Isabelle's veil would be more modest, possibly including a gorget, which wrapped around the chin and covered the neck. Being a lady, she would most likely wear a veil made of silk. Unfortunately for Isabelle, she loses her veil during her escape, and so when she meets the hero, Laird David Campbell, he assumes she is not of high social standing or moral character. No true lady would be traveling alone with her hair flowing loose. Thus begins the story of David and Isabelle!
I have always loved the long flowing gowns and rich colors and fabrics of medieval times. What would you have enjoyed wearing if you were living in the 14th century? Comment on the blog for a chance to win a copy of THE HIGHLANDER'S HEART. (US & CANADA ONLY)
THE HIGHLANDER'S HEART
Lady Isabelle escapes her murderous English husband only to be abducted by a Highland warrior and held for ransom. Her determination to break free from captivity is exceeded only by the passion growing between her and the Highland Laird. David Campbell plans to hold Isabelle for ransom as an easy way to line his pockets and return her back where she belongs, but he is unprepared for a feisty English lass with a penchant for finding trouble. Caught between rival clans bent on claiming the throne of Scotland, Campbell must choose a side, and a bride. Standing on the brink of war, Isabelle may be his only hope to save his clan, and his heart