European Peasant Dress

What Men and Women Peasants and Laborers Wore in the Middle Ages

Peasants of the Fourteenth Century
Peasants of the Fourteenth Century, from A history of mediæval and modern Europe for secondary schools, by William Stearns Davis, 1920. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

While the fashions of the upper classes were changing with the decade (or at least the century), peasants and laborers stuck to the useful, modest garments their progenitors had been clad in for generations. Of course, as the centuries passed, minor variations in style and color were bound to appear; but, for the most part, European peasants wore very similar clothing in most countries from the 8th to the 14th century.

The Ubiquitous Tunic

The basic garment worn by both men and women alike was a tunic. This appears to have evolved from the tunica of late antiquity. Such tunics are made either by folding over a long piece of fabric and cutting a hole in the center of the fold for the neck or by sewing two pieces of fabric together at the shoulders, leaving a gap for the neck. Sleeves, which weren't always part of the garment, could be cut as part of the same piece of fabric and sewn closed or added later. Tunics fell to at least the thighs. Though the garment might be called by different names at different times and places, the construction of the tunic was essentially the same throughout these centuries.

At various times, men and, less often, women wore tunics with slits up the sides to afford more freedom of movement. An opening at the throat was fairly common to make it easier to put on over one's head; this might be a simple widening of the neck hole; or, it might be a slit that could be tied closed with cloth ties or left open with plain or decorative edging.

Women wore their tunics long, usually to mid-calf, which made them, essentially, dresses. Some were even longer, with trailing trains that could be used in a variety of ways. If any of her chores required her to shorten her dress, the average peasant woman could tuck the ends of it up in her belt. Ingenious methods of tucking and folding could turn the excess fabric into a pouch for carrying picked fruit, chicken feed, etc.; or, she could wrap the train over her head to protect herself from the rain.

Women's tunics were usually made of wool. Woolen fabric could be woven rather finely, though the quality of the cloth for working class women was mediocre at best. Blue was the most common color for a woman's tunic; though many different shades might be achieved, the blue dye made from woad was used on a large percentage of manufactured cloth. Other colors were unusual, but not unknown: pale yellow, green, and a light shade of red or orange could all be made from less-expensive dyes. All these colors would fade in time; dyes that stayed fast over the years were too expensive for the average laborer.

Men generally wore tunics that fell past their knees. If they needed them shorter, they could tuck the ends in their belts; or, they could hike up the garment and fold fabric from the middle of the tunic over their belts. Some men, particularly those engaged in heavy labor, might wear sleeveless tunics to help them deal with the heat. Most men's tunics were made of wool, but they were often coarser and not as brightly colored as women's wear. Men's tunics could be made from "beige" (undyed wool) or "frieze" (coarse wool with a heavy nap) as well as more finely woven wool. Undyed wool was sometimes brown or gray, from brown and gray sheep.

Undergarments

Realistically, there is no telling whether or not most members of the working classes wore anything between their skin and their woolen tunics until the 14th century. The contemporary artwork depicts peasants and laborers at work without revealing what's worn underneath their outer garments. But usually the nature of undergarments is that they're worn under other garments and are therefore ordinarily unseen; so, the fact that there are no contemporary representations shouldn't hold much weight.

In the 1300s, it became the fashion for people to wear shifts, or undertunics, that had longer sleeves and lower hemlines than their tunics, and therefore were plainly visible. Usually, among the working classes, these shifts would be woven from hemp and would remain undyed; after many wearings and washings, they would soften up and lighten in color.

Field workers were known to wear ​shifts, hats, and little else in the heat of summer.

More affluent people could afford linen undergarments. Linen could be fairly stiff, and unless bleached it wouldn't be perfectly white, though time, wear, and cleansing could make it lighter and more flexible. It was unusual for peasants and laborers to wear linen, but it wasn't altogether unknown; some of the clothing of the prosperous, including undergarments, were donated to the poor upon the wearer's death.

Men wore braes or loincloths for underpants. Whether or not women wore underpants remains a mystery.

Shoes and Socks

It was not at all uncommon for peasants to go about barefoot, especially in warmer weather. But in cooler weather and for work in the fields, fairly simple leather shoes were regularly worn. One of the most common styles was an ankle-high boot that laced up the front. Later styles were closed by a single strap and buckle. Shoes were known to have wooden soles, but it was just as likely for soles to be constructed of thick or multi-layered leather. Felt was also used in shoes and slippers. Most shoes and boots had rounded toes; some shoes worn by the working class might have somewhat pointed toes, but workers didn't wear the extreme pointy styles that were at times the fashion of the upper classes.

As with undergarments, it's difficult to determine when stockings came into common use. Women probably didn't wear stockings any higher than the knee; they didn't have to since their dresses were so long. But men, whose tunics were shorter and who were unlikely to have heard of trousers, let alone wear them, often wore hose up to the thighs.

Hats, Hoods, and Other Head-Coverings

For every member of society, a head-covering was an important part of one's attire, and the working class was no exception. Field workers often wore broad-brimmed straw hats to keep off the sun. A coif -- a linen or hemp bonnet that fit close to the head and was tied under the chin -- was usually worn by men undertaking messy work such as pottery, painting, masonry, or crushing grapes.

Butchers and bakers wore kerchiefs over their hair; blacksmiths needed to protect their heads from flying sparks and might wear any of a variety of linen or felt caps.

Women usually wore veils -- a simple square, rectangle, or oval of linen kept in place by tying a ribbon or cord around the forehead. Some women also wore wimples, which attached to the veil and covered the throat and any exposed flesh above the tunic's neckline. A barbette might be used to keep the veil and wimple in place, but for most working class women, this extra piece of fabric may have seemed like an unnecessary expense. Headgear was very important for the respectable woman; only unmarried girls and prostitutes went without something covering their hair.

Both men and women wore hoods, sometimes attached to capes or jackets. Some hoods had a length of fabric in the back that the wearer could wrap around his neck or his head. Men were known to wear hoods that were attached to a short cape that covered the shoulders, very often in colors that contrasted with their tunics. Both red and blue became popular colors for hoods.

Outer Garments

For men who worked outdoors, an additional protective garment would usually be worn in cold or rainy weather. This could be a simple sleeveless cape or a coat with sleeves. In the earlier Middle Ages, men wore fur capes and cloaks, but there was a general view among medieval people that fur was worn only by savages, and its use went out of vogue for all but garment linings for quite some time.

Though they lacked today's plastic, rubber and Scotch-Guard, medieval folk could still manufacture fabric that resisted water, at least to a degree. This could be done by fulling wool during the manufacturing process, or by waxing the garment once it was complete. Waxing was known to be done in England, but seldom elsewhere due to the scarcity and expense of wax. If wool was made without the stringent cleansing of professional manufacturing, it would retain some of the sheep's lanolin and would therefore be naturally somewhat water-resistant.

Most women worked indoors and didn't often have need of a protective outer garment. When they went out in cold weather, they might wear a simple shawl, cape, or pelisse. This last was a fur-lined coat or jacket; the modest means of peasants and poor laborers limited the fur to cheaper varieties, such as goat or cat.

The Laborer's Apron

Many jobs required protective gear to keep the laborer's everyday wear clean enough to wear every day.

The most common protective garment was the apron.

Men would wear an apron whenever they performed a task that could cause a mess: filling barrels, butchering animals, mixing paint. Usually, the apron was a simple square or rectangular piece of cloth, often linen and sometimes hemp, which the wearer would tie around his waist by its corners.

Men usually didn't wear their aprons until it was necessary, and removed them when their messy tasks were done.

Most chores that occupied the peasant housewife's time were potentially messy; cooking, cleaning, gardening, drawing water from the well, changing diapers. Thus, women typically wore aprons throughout the day. A woman's apron often fell to her feet and sometimes covered her torso as well as her skirt. So common was the apron that it eventually became a standard part of the peasant woman's costume.

Through much of the Middle Ages, aprons were undyed hemp or linen, but in the later medieval period they began to be dyed a variety of colors.

Girdles

Belts, also known as girdles, were common accoutrements for men and women. They might be made from rope, fabric cords, or leather. Occasionally belts might have buckles, but it was more common for poorer folk to tie them instead. Laborers and peasants not only tucked up their clothing with their girdles, they attached tools, purses, and utility pouches to them.

Gloves

Gloves and mittens were also fairly common and were used to protect the hands from injury as well as for warmth in cold weather. Workers such as masons, blacksmiths, and even peasants cutting wood and making hay were known to use gloves.

Gloves and mittens could be of virtually any material, depending on their specific purpose. One type of worker's glove was made from sheepskin, with the wool on the inside, and had a thumb and two fingers to offer a little more manual dexterity than a mitten.

Nightwear

The idea that "all" medieval people slept naked is unlikely; in fact, some period artwork shows folk in bed wearing a simple shirt or gown. But due to the expense of clothing and the limited wardrobe of the working class, it is quite possible that many laborers and peasants slept naked, at least during warmer weather. On cooler nights, they could wear shifts to bed -- possibly even the same ones they'd worn that day under their clothes.

Making and Buying Clothes

All clothing was hand-sewn, of course, and was time-consuming to make compared to modern machine methods.

Working class folk couldn't afford to have a tailor make their clothes, but they could trade with or purchase from a neighborhood seamstress or make their outfits themselves, especially since fashion was not their foremost concern. While some made their own cloth, it was far more common to purchase or barter for finished cloth, either from a draper or peddler or from fellow villagers. Mass-produced items like hats, belts, shoes and other accessories were sold in specialty stores in big towns and cities, by peddlers in rural areas, and at markets everywhere.

The Working Class Wardrobe

It was sadly all too common for the poorest folk to own nothing more than the clothes on their back. But most people, even peasants, weren't quite that poor. People usually had at least two sets of clothes: everyday wear and the equivalent of "Sunday best," which would not only be worn to church (at least once a week, often more frequently) but to social events, as well. Virtually every woman, and many men, were capable of sewing -- if only just a little-- and garments were patched and mended for years. Garments and good linen undergarments were even bequeathed to heirs or donated to the poor when their owner died.

More prosperous peasants and artisans would often have several suits of clothes and more than one pair of shoes, depending on their needs. But the amount of clothing in any medieval person's wardrobe -- even a royal personage -- couldn't come near what modern people usually have in their closets today.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp. Compare Prices

Köhler, Carl, A History of Costume. George G. Harrap and Company, Limited, 1928; reprinted by Dover; 464 pp. Compare prices

Norris, Herbert, Medieval Costume and Fashion. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1927; reprinted by Dover; 485 pp. Compare prices

Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Boydell Press, 2007, 221 pp.

Compare prices

Jenkins, D.T., editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles , vols. I and II. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 1191 pp. Compare prices