To understand how costume works we must know what was worn under it, and the social customs connected with wearing it. The basic undergarments of civilian and soldier alike were the same until the first issue of military underwear in the 19th century. They consisted of underpants (braies), stockings (chausses) and a shirt (Latin camisia, Norman chemise, Anglo-Saxon smock).
At first braies were an important garment, almost like trousers, tucked into stockinglike hose. By the 14th century the hose had become tight-fitting separate 'trouserlegs' which were laced at the thigh to a jacket-like doublet. During the 15th century they became one trouser-like garment supported by lacing to the doublet. At the end of the century they were cut higher above the hipbone and became self-supporting. For physical labour or relaxing in warm weather the doublet would be unfastened at the chest and thrown back with the sleeves hanging (see page 53). Most of the following examples are taken from non-military sources, but all apply equally to the soldier and his followers.
(A) The tunic, the basic male garment from the earliest medieval times. Initially a shirtlike garment which was pulled on over the head, this became more or less tailored to shape as the centuries passed. The simple primary colours shown in early manuscripts may owe more to the artists' palette than to actual fabrics; but it appears that there was a love of bright colours, in applied decorative bands or overall patterns. We know, for instance, that a Saxon nobleman presented to Ely Abbey a tunic of red and purple interwoven across the shoulders and heavily embroidered in gold. (Bronze font. Hildersheim Cathedral, c1210)
(B to I) These illustrations from various sources show the development of braies and hose. At first the braies resemble light trousers (B), slit at the bottom so that they can be tied comfortably round the ankle (C), tied up at the knee (H), or to the waist (E, F). The waist is rolled over a belt or cord, sometimes with a suspended purse (G) worn safely out of sight under the tunic. Stocking-like hose are worn at first to the knee, and later to mid-thigh. tied up to the waistband
(J) Although they usually slept naked, medieval men are rarely shown stripped to the waist for work; instead, they took off their hose and worked in their shirts and underpants - as in this mid-15th century French illustration of a harvester, with the skirts of his shirt tucked up into his belt. (K & L) This 15th century source shows shirts with unusual features: deep side slits, back slits and square neck openings. Since 15th century fashions rarely exposed the shirt it was usually cut along the simplest T-shaped lines with a slit opening at the neck. The author has found no 15th century references to drawstring fastenings at neck or wrists.
(M) Typical 15th century underpants based on several illustrations: left, the commonest style (Ducal Palace, Dijon); right, 'bikini' pants with side lies - far less common, these do appear in some Swiss-German and Italian sources. Tiny black ones appear in some manuscript illustrations, but may have been added to nude figures by later, more prudish hands.
(N) Reconstructions based on several contemporary illustrations.
(O) Reconstruction of a typical man's or woman's shirt, with gussets under the arms and inserted to widen the skirts. (P) One of the Duke of Berry's Books of Hours shows a good example of a woman's everyday working dress, suitable for any camp follower. It is hitched up and bunched over the waist belt to shorten the skirt, with the front also folded up and tucked into the belt. Separate long sleeves might be pinned on. (Q) Reconstruction of the long-skirted doublet and separate-legged hose typical of the late 14th-early 15th centuries. (R) Front view of the same, from a drawing by Montagna. Details of shirt collars, late 15th century, from: (S) Pietro di Domenico, (T) Piero della Francesca, and (U) Piero di Cosimo. (V) Landsknecht shirt with its normally gathered collar loosened. At the end of the 15th century the shirt became increasingly visible, so more attention was paid to making it decorative.
(W) Two 'ladies' who followed the armies, drawn by Urs Graf, c 1516-25. The previously hidden and humble shirt has now become an important part of high - and not so high - fashion.
(Left) Basic masculine undergarments during the 14th and 15th centuries consisted of shirt and braies (underpants), usually of linen. (Photo John Howe)
From the 4th century to the 12th a loose smock-like tunic, varying in length and detail, was by far the commonest outer garment for all classes. The earliest were cut along simple geometric lines, and except for periodic fashions for tighter fitting garments - notably during the 12th century - little attempt was made to fit the clothes to the body until the 14th. The 15th century saw an increasing interest in tailoring, and towards the end of the century almost skin-tight hose and doublets were the rage. Tight-fitting, high-waisted hose and bulky sleeves gave way to the 'square' look in the early 16th century (see Plates 10 & II. pages 89-91).
(Above & right) Over the shirt and braies were worn woollen hose, cut as tight as the material allowed; these are 15th century one-piece hose with integral feet. Over the hose, with their modest codpiece, is worn a tight-fitting black doublet to which the hose are attached by metal-tipped laces ('points').
Over these goes a red 'coat' or jacket - in this case fashionably short and pleated, of a style popular with soldiers as well as young bloods.
Finally, depending upon circumstance, season and pocket, a woollen gown might cover the whole ensemble. A common soldier would rarely have one as long and well-fitting as this splendid example. Shorter gowns of many styles were popular cold weather wear for soldier and civilian alike; but one can imagine that any soldier 'finding' an elegant gown like this, unsuited to the workaday world, would be templed to sell it on to those with the money and leisure to enjoy it. (Photos John Howe)
(Opposite) The everyday working dress of the soldier cannot be understood without knowledge of contemporary civilian dress, a version of which was worn by all soldiers. The weight of cloth, the way it was cut and fitted together changed over time, but clothes for war and work have always been basically practical. What may seem like bizarre 'fancy dress' to modern eyes turns out, when properly reconstructed and tested, to be at least as comfortable as the modern equivalent. (But make a careless mistake or a short-cut in your reconstruction, and you will end up with something that restricts movement and is unrealistically uncomfortable.)
We should not imagine that soldiers were generally ragged and dirty. Those who followed a rich lord were doubtless well looked after, and campaigns that reduced men to scarecrows were comparatively rare. Armies collected a 'tail' of followers; camp women would have made 'running repairs', and merchants and tinkers were actively encouraged to come into camp to sell necessities and luxuries to the soldiery. After victories looted clothing, including gaudy finery, was doubtless mixed with practical everyday wear.
iRight) Garrison life could be comfortable, and many a man retained in the service of a lord would have spent much of his time dressed like this 1470s Swedish soldier in Savoyard service. He wears a comfortably long livery coat of good quality woollen cloth 'fulled' to give it a felt-like appearance, with hose, a dagged hood with a long liripipe, and a cap. He shows off his relatively prosperous position by the ornaments on his dagger, belt and long sword, and his concern with fashion by his long hair. Eating grapes from the local vineyard, he has the air of one enjoying a 'cushy number'. (Photo Gerry Embleton)
'He does not do it for fighting, hut to have deeper breath: and it is a certain thing that one is titter and more erect and much straighter for it - all these good things come from fencing'. (Photos Gerry Embleton)
Was this article helpful?