Medieval Underclothes

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.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

24 responses to “Medieval Underclothes

  1. I always find this subject interesting. Thank you.

    I wrote an article for Rochester Cathedral a few years back about its thirteenth-century custumal for Rochester Priory, which included details about the monks’ undergarments. The laundry servants were to repair and salvage where possible and each item had its owner’s name sewn into it. Wonderful!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I also wanted to say that I suspect since many of our modern clothes are cotton or synthetics based that today we have gotten into the habit of washing clothes too often. Wool, as you say, really doesn’t need washing often at all. If aired, woollen stuff in particular repels bodily odors from sweating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t do wool, have always found it too scratchy, I suppose I needed the linen chemise! Cool post!

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Your comment about wool taking so long to dry reminds me of something I’ve often wondered about: How on earth did they cope with the rain? It does rain a bit here.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Chris

      Wool has a nice bit of water resistance built into it thanks to lanolin. It’s not Gore-tex by any stretch but a competently made woolen cloak/tunic will wick away quite a bit of your regular Spring shower (or light snowfall).

      And, yes, once we can travel again, we should all consider packing a couple pair of wool socks and just leaving them hanging over a chair to air out instead of washing them every day! Certainly helps to reduce the pack size.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad someone knew the answer, because I’d have had to thought about it for a while.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. lydiaschoch

    I didn’t know wool clothing could be worn so many times before washing! The linen underclothing for everyone makes perfect sense.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The picture are brilliant (yes I did read it too hehe) …also love the feel of linen. I think too we smell more when are dirty – and even get dirtoer maybe – these days because of the products we use. I had a friend who went productless and he smelled lovely and ‘earthy’!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Since they chose linen to solve the problem, it makes me wonder why—other than its obvious quick-drying qualities! Was it particularly cheap and plentiful in medieval England?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was cheap(ish) and plentiful everywhere in Europe until the last hundred and fifty years or so. I’m not sure when cotton started to replace it in underwear, as it’s well after the period I’m interested in, but people were still wearing linen underwear well into the nineteenth century. Linens used to be a synonym for underwear, but I’m not sure when it fell out of common use.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Making Medieval Clothes | A Writer's Perspective

  9. Really fascinating stuff. I’ve often wondered about this, but didn’t like to ask 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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