Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Days of Yore When Men Wore Dresses

The Cutting Edge It was not all that long ago, in the big picture of things, that men wore dresses. Okay, they called them tunics or robes or gowns, NOT dresses, but they were dresses none the less. In VERY ancient times, in Greece and Rome, the garment was simply a piece of cloth draped and tied or pinned on the wearer. The cloth itself was one piece that was not cut to fit, but was wrapped in many ingenious ways. This is still the method used in traditional India where the Sari is a single piece of cloth carefully wrapped and tucked around the figure. This is probably the common pattern from the earliest times of making woven cloth, for who would wish to CUT apart something that took so much time and skill to weave? Well, apparently, only the Barbarians from the North would have the Gaul to do such a thing! It was sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the Dark ages or perhaps the beginning of the Middle Ages, that we see evidence of clothing that was CUT and SEWN to fit. Hence the term COUTURE (Cutting) came to define the clothing, and subsequently the fashion industry. For as every tailor knows, it is the cut of the cloth that makes the man. Or at least defines him. And the Middle Ages was no exception to this rule. There were countless laws written to define exactly what sort of cloth and cut was allowed for each class of society. I will not bore you with the details, but the general pattern was that the wealthier the man, the more cloth and jewels he was allowed to wear. The Lords had long, ample gowns with wide sleeves and full cloaks. The peasants had shorter tunics and scanty cloaks. All folks wore stockings, more commonly called HOSE, shirts, and shoes of leather. And yes, men wore "underwear" known as "braies" beneath their gowns! How do we know this? Well, the artists who painted the many illuminations in manuscripts were very fond of painting the world as they saw it around them, and so we have many marvelously detailed renditions of the clothing of all the classes of society. Below is a portion of one of my favorite illuminations from the "Tres Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry" showing peasants cutting wood in the winter. This is from the calendar page for February. The peasant laborer has hiked his tunic up in order to cut the wood, thus displaying his underwear!

It was very common for the stockings or Hose to be rolled down to the garter where it was tied just above the knee. Below is a picture of a wealthier man, huddled in his long gown beside the fire. This is also from an illuminated manuscript calendar page for January where it was traditional to paint the Lord of the household eating beside the warm fire.

Below is an example showing peasants working in the fields, and you can clearly see that their hose is cloth wrapped around their legs, tied at the ankles and below the knees.

This example below is from the "Tres Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry" the calendar page for the month of July. The weather is hot, the laborers are wearing only their shirts and underwear is clearly visible. This picture includes the shearing of the sheep which yields the wool used to make most of their cloth.

Here below we have an illumination from Boccaccio's Decameron, telling the tale of a man being robbed of his clothes, leaving him wearing only his shirt.

Apparently, losing your clothes to brigands was common in those days, for here is another version in another tale! This time you can clearly see the man has his HOSE tied to the bottom edge of his shirt with laces known as "points". This was the most reliable method of keeping your hose up when wearing very short tunics.

And another tale from Boccaccio which required the portrayal of a man's "braies" in quite a bit of detail! Very useful to anyone who wants to study and imitate the proper cut of the cloth!

So, why would I be interested in the cut of the underclothes? Well, it isn't ME, strictly speaking, who cares, but Henry does! He wanted me to get it RIGHT! No cutting corners! After all, winter is coming and he doesn't want to be shivering you know where because I left out the important parts! So, I made a start.

"Aw, I should have known you were going to show EVERYBODY," says Henry.

As quick as I could I got the shirt started.

Strictly speaking, this would have been made of linen, NOT cotton. Cotton is a tropical and sub-tropical plant that doesn't grow in the Northern countries. It was only in the very late Middle Ages that cotton came to the British Isles. Only the wealthiest people had cotton imported from the south of Spain and Egypt. Wool and linen were the common fibers and silk was the preferred fiber for the wealthy. (This would be why "linens" i.e. bedclothes, are known as linens!)

So here is Henry's shirt. I have to pretend it is linen, because cotton is easier to come by in these times! But don't tell Henry!

I hope he doesn't mind the loose fit. I'm not that skilled in making clothes his size!

Next come the stockings. I mean HOSE. He reminds me it is called "hose"! Hence hosiery!

Henry decided he likes red hose.

Once again, I am compromising the integrity of the costume by using knitted cloth for the hose. In those days knitting had not yet found its way into the common culture of Europe. I am not sure when it did, but in the Middle Ages, "hose" were made from cloth cut to fit and stitched up the back of the leg. It is so much easier for me to cut up an old knitted turtleneck shirt to use for his hose!

But, PLEASE don't tell Henry!

Here, you can even see that the stitched "hose" looks like a piece of hose..... is that why it is called "hose"?

It wasn't until later in the Middle Ages that the foot was included as one piece with the hose, thus becoming what we know of as stockings.

I debated whether to give Henry hose of two different colors, but he wasn't having any of that!

So with winter coming, we needed to get shoes as well. I had a stash of some lovely pieces of sueded leather that would make perfect shoes. I cut a pattern and tried to sew the pieces together, but the leather was too tough for my needle. So I pulled out my awl and punched tiny holes in the leather, counting carefully so the holes would match. THEN I stitched them together!

Aren't they just the cutest shoes? (Don't tell anybody, but I have a thing for shoes!)

And another picture with the laces added, and a "kiss" to give it scale...... *SIGH*

Don't tell Henry, but I LOVE his shoes!

And I guess he thinks they are pretty sharp too!

So Finally, NOW we get to the "Dress"!
(Ahem, "tunic"!)

I chose a piece of the wool scraps I have. It is difficult to find wool that is fine enough to use, and this is a little bit on the coarse side, but I liked the color on Henry, so I went with it.

I did a surprising amount of very fine stitching around the neckline and hems to keep it from fraying. I know it looks baggy at this point, but I like to think that Henry could afford enough cloth to make an ample tunic!

And with a good leather belt, it fits him just fine!

So, I hope you have enjoyed this excursion into the "cutting edge" of Medieval couture! And even though I will miss Henry in his blanket, as he reminds me, it's a lot easier to get things done when one doesn't have to worry that the "blanket" is going to fall off! ("How those Romans got anything done in those togas is a mystery to me!" mutters Henry.)

Why, he's even thinking of helping Belle make the supper!

"I'll go fetch the ale" he says, "while you bake the dough!"

"Ah, Belle!" says Henry with a contented sigh. "If you only knew some of the places I've been and the things I've seen! It's a very big world out there!"

Real Men Wore Dresses


  1. Love the tunic! And the shoes are sooooo great!

  2. What an interesting read - the research into all that is very evident and I like his shoes very much too. You've made a marvellous job of Henry's outfit. He looks very smart.

    Men have been wearing skirts in Scotland for years and still do!

  3. Muy bien vestido. Todo cosido, está muy bien trabajado. Los zapatos con cordones geniales.
    Me encanta.
    Besos Clara

  4. Dresses, Tunics, sarongs, sari, they cross cultures, don't they? Over in this part of the world, men still wear sarongs :).

    You have done a great job with the clothes and I swear the cotton you used look just like linen. Henry look really spiffy in his new clothes. But those are really killer shoes! Well done, Betsy!
    You and me both where shoes are concerned!

    I think your kitchen is looking really really good. I love all the baskets and I think your recreation of a dark and dinghy medieval kitchen is a great success!

    Thank you also for sharing those lovely illuminations. I have always enjoyed them especially with your stories. :)

  5. I love Henry. You've managed to make him very expressive he has a wonderful face. I'd like to marry him. Too bad he's taken.
    As usual, wonderfully interesting research.
    Lots of love,

  6. What a great outfit you made for Henry, I especially love the shoes too!

    Nice with the history lesson too and the paintings by Boccaccio are wonderful and so much fun! I love the points to hold up the hose!

  7. Lucky Henry!! You've done a marvellous job outfitting him!
    And thanks for the history, always happy to read about medieval stuff.
    It's amazing what you can do with a rectangle of cloth - I've made 1:1 historical clothing (viking, saxon, roman, etc) and all of it is with minimal cutting, and certainly very few curved cuts. I loved making those costumes :)

  8. Thanks, Ewa! I think I will be making more shoes in the future, they were fun to do!

  9. Thanks, Irene! I have always loved history and costume as well as the Medieval era.... so I have lots of books on the subject! As for men in skirts in Scotland.... do you think the kilt is left over from Roman times? Just a thought!

  10. Thanks, Clara! I love the word "zapatos"! Thank you for your comment!

  11. Thank you Sans! I think the rooms come more "alive" when the little people start playing in them! I am enjoying the process from beginning to end! Just a thought..... will your Palace have a kitchen?... I have not looked closely at the design picture.... I know that kitchens are sometimes in a separate building in the warmer climates... !:) Okay, just Daydreaming too much!:)

  12. Hi Mom! Henry is a great character! I am enjoying his presence in my Castle! It is amazing how expressive he is! You can come visit any time! :)

  13. Hi Helene! Nice to see you again! I have been enjoying that version of Boccaccio so much since I started to build my Castle! It is a gold-mine of realism in the minutest details! It is amazing what you find when you really look! The points for the hose must have been somebody's great idea once the tunics began to be so short!

  14. Thanks, Glenda! I love history and costume history too, so I just hope I don't get too boring on the subject! It is amazing to me, when we look back at what were considered "normal" ways of doing things, and realize how much has changed, how much just hadn't been invented yet!

  15. Not sure about the kitchen because these palaces usually have the kitchen in an annex but I definitely want to build a harem ..hehe and a bath house :).

  16. Loving Henry's Outfit and especially his shoes..x

  17. OOOH, Sans! The harem sounds fascinating! Kitchens are common, but harems are anything but! And a bath house..... sort of like the picture in my other post??? The one with dining in the tubs? :) :) I am sure there is so much that is a tradition in India that I know nothing about!

  18. Thanks, Debbie! I had a lot of fun making the shoes... It makes me want to do a whole lot more... good thing too as I seem to keep making more dolls that need them! Thanks for commenting!