When you think of the clothing of the Middle Ages, you probably envision fancy shirts and colorful dresses, richly ornamented and elaborately crafted. While this was the case for a small percentage of people, do not be deceived! Surprisingly, this was only the case for the upper class and for royalty. The medieval commoner did not strut around in such attire, as dyes and fabrics were costly. Thus, fabric and color did indeed play a significant role in defining the clothing and people of this famed historical period.
Medieval Dresses: http://www.historicalclothingrealm.com/women-s-clothing-dresses-and-gowns.html
In order to understand use of color in medieval clothing, it is of benefit first to understand the fabrics used. The two main fabrics in prominence during the Middle Ages were wool and linen. Wool was the more common material, as it was cheap and easy to come by. British woo was highly prized over other types because of the sheep’s longer grazing and cooler climate, which, in turn, made for finer threads. The longer and finer the threads, the easier it was to dye fabrics. As dyes came at a high cost, rich colors were primarily worn by the wealthier classes while lower classes stuck to more natural colors, such as beige and brown. Being resourceful, lower classes would also sometimes make inexpensive dyes from plants, thus adding green and yellow color to their clothing.
Medieval Tunic, Brown:
For those who were not satisfied with mere “earthy” colors, a process called “fulling” was developed to offer more variety. This took place in a fulling mill where fabric underwent a good beating, shrinking, and softening that enabled it to de dyed in vibrant colors, such as blue and red. On a note of interest, red dye was made from an insect known as a kermes and this color was primarily seen on the clothes of the nobility.
In contrast to the simple clothing style and color of the lower class, the upper class spiced their garb up a bit with patterns and rich dyes. Due to the lighter fibers and finer texture, the fabrics of the upper class could be colored with ease. The distinguishing colors of the wealthy class were red or scarlet, gold, and black. In addition to linen and wool, silk was also found among the nobles and was often decorated with gold embroidery, indicating power, influence, and wealth.
Each clothing color was not just something to gaze upon, but communicated a message of a person’s character or social status. For example, pink was viewed as a strong color while blue was seen as a gentle color. Red represented passion, power and riches while green signified envy, youth, and spring time. Yellow was looked down on as poor and cowardly. White symbolized purity while black was only worn for mourning by the nobility. And the most expensive and exclusive color was purple, which was reserved strictly for the clergy and royalty.
As time passed, trading grew, enabling more people to afford rich fabrics and dyes. To protect position and status, the ruling class quickly laid down the law, implementing strict laws about who could wear specific fabrics and colors.
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