During the Middle Ages, fashion became increasingly sumptuous and outrageous. Rich, imported textiles, intricate embroidery, jeweled belts, and ermine-lined coats and dresses clad the wealthy, landed gentry of continental Europe and England. The absurd attirement raised the ire of many preachers, and history preserves a strong record of ecclesiastical and social comment against the mediaeval excess in dress and adornment that made mockery of professed faith and ascetic Christianity, which was founded on apostolic precedent and the patristic stricture on dress and adornment found in early Christian writers such as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Chrysostom. Like their predecessors, many mediaeval ministers fought against worldly fashions and the vanity and pride that accompanied them.
In England, it became customary for nobles to enter church late “more to be seen there, than for their soul’s health” (qtd. in Owst 170). One preacher said: “There is most pride in entering of holy church with pomp, vainglory, with noble attire . . .” and another complained of “great lords and ladies that cometh to holy church in rich and noble apparel of gold and silver, pearls and rich stones, and other worldly, worshipful attire” cautioning that such “should take ensample of the noble Queen Esther,” who “did away [with] all her rich apparel and humbled herself meekly before God.” He concluded that “God taketh no heed of such worship” (qtd. Owst 170-171). One English manuscript appeals directly to Pauline epistle as a guide for acceptable headdress, especially at church: “Saint Paul teacheth how women should array themselves when they go to church, for to pray to God . . . And also Saint Paul saith and counseleth them that they not attire their heads, neither with silver, gold, nor pearl, nor other rich stones; but that they cover their heads with clean veils, and namely at the church, when they be to fore God, and show themselves there as good women should do” (qtd. in Owst 172). Clearly, all sense of moderation had been lost in some mediaeval churches.
Many viewed extreme fashion and luxury as a threat to Godliness and morality. Jean de Meun, a French novelist of the 13th century, complains that even nuns in abbeys and cloisters seem consumed by vanity, taking “great trouble to deck” themselves in order to “wage war on Chastity” (qtd. in Blamires 156). Maurice de Sully, a twelfth century Bishop of Paris, denounced outrageous cosmetic alteration, immodest habiliment, and proud walking:
Those women who bear their necks and heads and grease their eyebrows and paint their faces like images, lace up their arms and bodices and walk with mincing steps like a crane, face uplifted so as to be seen, these women are burning fires of licentiousness married to the devil, with hell as their dowry. They make many around them burn through their lustful tricks. (qtd. in Burns 40)
In his famous tale, “The Wife of Bath,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s female speaker laments the restriction of women’s adornment and evidences female resistance to such regulation:
And you say if we make ourselves
It only puts at risk our chastity;
And then, confound you, you must quote this text,
And back yourself up with the words of Paul,
As thus: ‘In chaste and modest apparel
You women must adorn yourselves,’ said he,
‘And not with braided hair and jewelry
Such as pearls and gold; and not in costly dress.’
But of your text, and your red-letter rubric,
I’ll be taking no more notice than a gnat! (qtd. in Blamires 208)
Ecclesiastical art also portrayed the demonic influences of vanity in the Middle Ages. Several extant woodcuts portray devils riding on the long train of women’s dresses, a style anathematized by the Church. And there are others depicting women preening in a mirror, observed by an on-looking devil. Medieval illustrated allegories known as Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) show Death, a skeletal figure, snatching gorgeously adorned men and women from life, didactically demonstrating that temporal luxury is meaningless in the face of mortality.
Perhaps one of the most outlandish developments in mediaeval dress was the elaborate headdress worn by women. While it was customary for women to wear veils; in the 1380s, they began introducing hideous conical bonnets and horn-shaped hats. The hennin was a cone-shaped bonnet that extended from the back of the head with veils of various lengths attached. Extreme examples measured from 10-12 feet in length. The escoffion, popular in France, was a two-horned accessory, each horn measuring approximately one yard in length on either side of the head, covered with a starched veil. Preachers castigated wearers of these extremities. One Catholic bishop promised ten days of pardon to any who would scream “Beware the ram!” at the approach of such a woman (Lester and Oerke 18).
Throughout the Middle Ages excesses in dress and adornment provoked preachers to call for a return to modesty and moderation in dress. To the modern eye, many of these fashions appear comical and even unattractive; but in the height of their adoption, they seemed a badge of licentiousness and an affront to Christianity. The fact of such preaching assures us that the Church has consistently recognized a marked border between the sacred and profane; and even in a historical period characterized by widespread apostasy, superstition, and Scriptural ignorance, some still contended for a standard of holiness and separation amongst the faithful. The historical documentation supports our modern continuation of the battle against pride, vanity, and immodesty and reminds us that human nature, from generation to generation and era to era, remains largely unchanged.
Blamires, Alcuin, ed. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an Anthology of Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Burns, E. Jane. Courtly Love Undressed: Reading through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. U of Penn Press, 2002.
Lester, Katherine and Bess Viola Oerke. Accessories of Dress: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Dover Publications, 2004.
Owst, Gerald R. Preaching in Medieval England. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.