What is medieval dress? The Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, is regarded as the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, or the 5th – 15th centuries. While a vast period, there are so few surviving garments from this time period that they, like archeological dress, are generally looked at by object, not collection. Because of their rarity they are often the most important objects in their collection. Some of the museums have even commissioned recreations of the extant garments to further study.
1. Surcoat of Leonara of Aragon
Museum of Medieval Textiles, Museo de Burgos, Monastery of Las Huelgas (Burgos, Spain)
This sideless surcoat, or “pellotes” belonged to Leonora of Aragon, and dates to ca. 1244. It is part of a collection of other medieval garments (mostly from the graves of kings of Castille) in the collection, which reopened in 2008 after extensive renovations, and is considered one of the best collections of secular medieval garments.
Notre Dame Cathedral Treasury, Paris
Called the “World’s Oldest Extant Undergarment”, this chemise dates from ca. 1250, and was supposedly worn by King Louis IX of France, later Saint Louis. It’s difficult to find much information about this garment online, but the above link has a nice description and layout of the pattern.
Musée Historique des Tissues, Lyon, France
This is one of the few secular garments that survive from the late Middle Ages. This closely-fitting style of doublet was developed for knights to wear under the plate armor worn during the 1300’s-1500’s. Of damask satin, it is padded and quilted with cotton between the face fabric and the lining, and fastened with 32 buttons up the front and 20 along the sleeves. Charles I, the Duke of Brittany ,was a nephew of King Phillip VI of France, an accomplished military leader, and later canonized as a saint, which may be how this garment survived, if it was cherished as a religious relic.
The Cathedral Museum, Uppsala, Sweden
Called the “world’s oldest gala dress”, this dress from the early 15th century belonged to the Danish Queen Margareta, and was taken from Roskilde as war booty by Swedish king Karl X Gustav in 1659. It has been stored at the Uppsala Cathedral (which was begun in the late 13th century, and is still the largest cathedral in Scandinavia) since 1665. The fabric is an Italian gold brocade with pomegranate pattern in gold on a purple silk background, and has been carbon dated to 1403-1439. A recreation in partnership with the Borås School of Weaving and the Durán Textile company was commissioned in around 2009, and is exhibited at the Historical Museum (Historiska Museet) in Stockholm, while the original is still on display in Uppsala.
A book written about this garment is Drottning Margaretas gyllene kjortel i Uppsala Domkyrka (The Golden Gown of Queen Margareta in Uppsala Cathedral), but is not widely available.
5. Lengberg Bra
Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol, Austria
A reconstruction project in 2008 discovered a hidden vault in the second floor of this castle, parts of which date from the late 1100’s. Among the 15th century debris hidden during the addition of a second story were shirts, shoes, and a collection of linen undergarments, notable for their resemblance to modern bras. Because undergarments are so rarely depicted in artwork from this period, and because almost none of it survives, this was an epic discovery (which came out in the media in 2012). I don’t know if any of the garments are on display anywhere, or even where they are stored, but it surely counts as one of the more exciting clothing discoveries of the last few years!
Historical Museum of Bern (Historisches Museum), Switzerland
This impecably preserved satin jacket from ca. 1477 was featured in a recent exhibition called Charles the Bold: Splendour and Fall of the last Duke of Burgundy (here’s the exhibition catalog) at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
More coming soon:
Kunthistorische Museum, Vienna
This collection has a number of medieval garments, but sadly they don’t even publish a textile collection on their website. Am looking into it!
This list does not include ecclesiastical garments and textiles.