Early medieval European dress

Early medieval European dress changed very gradually from about 400 to 1100. The main feature of the period was the meeting of late Roman costume with that of the invading peoples who moved into Europe over this period. For a period of several centuries, people in many countries dressed differently depending on whether they identified with the old Romanised population, or the new populations such as Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Visigoths. The most easily recognisable difference between the two groups was in male costume, where the invading peoples generally wore short tunics, with belts, and visible trousers, hose or leggings. The Romanised populations, and the Church, remained faithful to the longer tunics of Roman formal costume, coming below the knee, and often to the ankles. By the end of the period, these distinctions had finally disappeared, and Roman dress forms remained mainly as special styles of clothing for the clergy – the vestments that have changed relatively little up to the present day.[1]
Many aspects of clothing in the period remain unknown. This is partly because only the wealthy were buried with clothing; it was rather the custom that most people were buried in burial shrouds, also called winding sheets.[2] Fully dressed burial may have been regarded as a pagan custom, though it would also have been highly pragmatic for an impoverished family to keep a serviceable set of clothing in use.[3]

Anglo-Saxon Adam and Eve from the Caedmon manuscript, c. 950. The angel wears iconographic dress


1 Materials

1.1 Decoration

2 Male dress

2.1 Charlemagne
2.2 Clergy

3 Female dress
4 Regional variation
5 See also
6 Notes
7 References
8 Further reading


Shoulder-clasps for an Anglo-Saxon king of the 7th century. Sutton Hoo

Apart from the elite, most people in the period had low living standards, and clothes were probably home-made, usually from cloth made at a village level, and very simply cut. The elite imported silk cloth from the Byzantine, and later Muslim, worlds, and also probably cotton. They also could afford bleached linen and dyed and simply patterned wool woven in Europe itself. But embroidered decoration was probably very widespread, though not usually detectable in art. Most people probably wore only wool or linen, usually undyed, and leather or fur from locally hunted animals. Archaeological finds have shown that the elite, especially men, could own superb jewellery, most commonly brooches to fas