I’ve been doing some dressmaking this week and it made me think about what people wore in the fourteenth century and how it was made, not that I’m not thinking about such things all the time.
Everybody, whoever they were, wore some woollen garments. It was England’s largest export and items woven from English wool were highly prized all over Europe. Tunics, cloaks, dresses and stockings were all made from wool. The wealthiest people in the country also wore silk. Wool and silk were only what they wore on the outside, however. Everyone, regardless of how rich or poor they were, wore linen next to the skin.
Forget what you think you know about how filthy people were in the Middle Ages. They liked being clean as much as you do and they liked wearing clean clothes as well. Clothes get dirty, though, even if you’re not particularly active. If you are active, clothes get even dirtier. Bodies sweat, which isn’t too much of a problem for wool, but silk doesn’t always wash well.
Whilst you can wash wool, which actually copes quite well with some kinds of dirt, it soaks up a lot of water and takes forever to dry. You’ll know that if you’ve ever washed woollen socks or a jumper. If you have several items of woollen clothing and have to wash one of them, it’s not necessarily a problem, even in winter when the whole process of washing and drying takes longer. If you only have one, or even two, sets of clothes, it’s a real problem if you need to wash something.
The way in which people coped with this was by wearing linen next to the skin. The linen soaked up bodily fluids and could be washed and dried fairly easily and quickly. Outer layers could be shaken or brushed to get rid of the worst of the dirt.
Whilst the woman at the top of this post is, rather immodestly, naked, and has her hair uncovered, she would normally have worn a chemise just as the man fleeing (or perhaps approaching) her bed is. Unlike the man, however, she would not have worn anything beneath it. Men could also remove their chemises for more physically demanding work, something that a woman could not do. These undergarments were also made of linen. They were easy to wash and dried quickly.
Whether a man or a woman was wearing it, a chemise was long, about knee length on a man and calf length on a woman. It had sleeves.
This second woman is more demurely dressed. You can see that her chemise is tied at the neck and has long sleeves. The woollen gown that she’s removing wouldn’t touch her skin anywhere and could be taken off at night, shaken and hung over a rail, while she slept in her chemise. The gown would eventually need to be washed, but it could be at a time of her choosing, probably in the summer, when it would dry quicker.