Late Middle Ages 14th and 15th centuries

October 16, 2009

Late Middle Ages: 14th and 15th Centuries
The dates from 1300 to 1500 are generally considered the late middle ages. It seems that the Italians passed the Late Middle ages in 100 years and were into the Renaissance period in the 15th Century, but generally the rest of Europe had the Late Middle Ages mentality the 16th century or 1500s. Let me again re-emphasize that when you are given dates for an art movement, decorative arts, musical styles, religious and political reforms, they (the dates) are approximate as not all movements reached all people at the same time, all people did not follow trends to the same degree, and some people held onto them longer. Costume did not suddenly change at the end of the Middle Ages, it evolved.

Inside of Westminster
Abbey, London.
This photo is a good example of Gothic Architecture, the prevailing architectural style of the time. Other examples of Gothic architecture would be Notre Dame and Chartres. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco also exhibits some characteristics of the Gothic style even though it was built six centuries later. For additional information on England in the 14th and 15th centuries see

In the Late Middle Ages the people are just beginning to show an interest in classical life and recognize the essential goodness of man rather than having a sense of gloom and guilt. They see man as a rational being. This spirit of humanism had enormous influence in scholarship, literature, fine arts, science, and philosophy. Some of the important people of this time were Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Martin Luther, Jeanne d’Arc, Chaucer, and Wycliffe.

While etiquette was becoming important there were still some facts that we might find abit strange. Typically forks and knives were known but not used widely. Therefore it was considered uncouth to plunge more than the first 2 joints of three fingers into a sauce when serving yourself. People washed their hands and eyes every morning in cold water, hair was typically washed every week, and hot water was used for a bath taken once a year, generally in autumn.

With the exception of the Jewish populations, animals often lived inside and bathing was infrequent, so people often carried pomanders or smelling balls around with them. These would be hung from a cord and attached to the waist. The Christian religion begins to lose its hold on the culture due to the Great Schism, the Black Death that killed 1/3 of the population of Europe in 1348, and the abuses of capitalism. The printing press is invented in the 1400s and makes the Bible readily available to more people increasing the number of interpretations. The plague hit Europe several times and was spread by fleas that fed off infected rats and were carried to household animals.

Trade and commerce flourished. In fact, architects began to design buildings for commerce rather than just religion. Many portraits of families engaged in some kind of commercial venture. The middle class has more money and is beginning to take an interest in financial affairs, politics, the arts, and governing laws.

Public baths were installed in large cities in the 14th and 15th centuries. There were many restrictions on them, but the following are some illustrations depicting public baths. Generally, women were there to help men bathe. Soap making started at this time.

Sumptuary Laws: These were laws that regulated the consumption of a people according to their rank. These laws might dictate the height of the hennins, headgear of the women, the number of gowns and amount one could pay according to the income and station of the wearer. For example, the extension of a shoe, poulaine, (the man’s shoes in Figure 3) beyond the toe was limited to 6 inches if you were a commoner, 12 inches if a gentleman, and 24 inches or more if you were a nobleman. If you were a duke your mourning wear could contain 16 yards of material, if an earl 14 yards, if a viscount 12 yards, and a baron 8 yards.

The art of heraldry continues in this period as well as the early middle ages. Heraldry gives way to pied or parti-colored which refers to clothing items have a different color on the left and right side, much like a jester’s costume. Note the legs on the men in Figure 8. Often the men would cut their clothing, some with tiny slits, some with larger slits. These were called slashings. Supposedly it started when a Swiss mercenary group won a battle but their clothing was cut to shreds. Other groups wanted to imitate it. Slashings will be an important decorative element throughout the next century.

In addition, they practiced dagging, a fabric edge treatment that is uneven. Castelation is a dagged edge resembling the upper edge of a castle wall, foliated refers to a dagged edge that resembles oak leaves, and there are others.

In the 15th century the Renaissance was in Italy only. Cultural glory in abounded in Italy and had a classical feeling, but was an imitation rather than an equal of Greece. Michelangelo, Raphael, and deVinci all created at this time. Painting was brought to perfection and the status of the artist was rising. The role of women was not strong. Although there women who had power such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (wife of Henry II of England, and dated to the early middle ages), most women had to fight for their rights. Historic research is full of women fighting for
their children, land, and inheritance. In the early Middle Ages women were known to have 108 professions including doctors, weavers, traders, managers, but their roles fell back and by the end of the 15th century women were thought to be empty vessels with nothing to say. France did not even allow a woman to ascend to the throne, although England had a more progressive spirit concerning this law. Most marriages for the nobility were arranged and many arranged at the ages of 5 through 10. Children were thought about but expected to act like miniature adults. Too many children died before the age of four and parents tended to keep their emotions in check.

Due to the crusades, Renaissance, and technological developments, the culture begins to be more extravagant, worldlier, and life is growing easier. Literature flourishes with the help of the printing press; increasing styles of textiles are imported due to the crusades, and the visual arts become important due to the Renaissance, a revival of the classics. Chivalry was the living ideal and is at its height in the beginning of the 14th century,
after which it begins to decline.

Wool and flax were the main fibers for both commoners and nobility. In addition, the wealthy could import silks and cottons. Fabrics were velvets, taffeta, lace, gauzes,chiffons, broadcloth, brocades, damasks (often studded with pearls, sapphires, rubies, etc.) satins, poplins, and burlap-like materials.

Fabrics were dyed and embroidered, but printing was not yet a stable process. There was marketing fraud going on as well. The expense of cloth was very great in some instances so dyers and weavers would often sneak wool and linen into silk cloth.

Tapestries were common and woven to decorate the great halls as well as to keep out the drafts in the cold of winter. The tapestries were art forms and often were allegorical in nature as they told stories. Many ideas of what costume looked like came from these

Women’s Costume
The gown of the female was called a houppeland. See Figure 14 It generally had a vshaped neckline, tight sleeves, was high waisted, most often had cartridge pleating, long train, and was held up in the front by the wearer making the female appear pregnant.. The ideal in a woman’s shape was an “S” curve, therefore holding up the skirts and tilting the body backwards a bit, gave this appearance. Bare arms were never seen in public.

The cotehardie or cote-hardie (shaped cotte, like the chainse), was worn over a chemiseand often under a full houppeland. This garment could also be worn alone and resembled a flared dress.

Many times it was worn with a surcoat over the cotehardie. The surcoat was made of the skirt and plasteron, a stiffened portion, was sleeveless with large armholes called“Windows of Hell”. The surcoat often had a seam at the end of the plasteron. An increasing amount of cutting and sewing the fabric was in evidence. The costumes of the
cultures used more and more tailoring techniques.

Women’s Headdress
Headdress for both men and women was very important as it told of their status in the society as well as the male occupation. It continued to be socially necessary for the women to cover their heads. See Figure 12 and note that all women have something covering their hair. They might do this through the caul, a netting or fabric piece
covering the hair. However, the hennin was the fashionable headdress for women and it was a cone that sat on the head on top of a small cap called a calotte (See Figure 12). The front of the cap had a small loop called a frontlet or bingrace. This was used for easily removing the calotte and hennin. The illustrations demonstrate the proper position of the hennin and from that the student will see that the women plucked their hairlines so that they obtain very high foreheads as well as plucking their eyebrows. Attached to the tip of the hennin was a wispy scarf that was the remains of the wimple.

coffer, a short hennin that covered the ears only and was highly decorated with jewels. It is said that women when traveling would hide valuables in the coffers, thus we get the name coffer, a kind of jewelry chest. As the woman’s hair was worn long, they divided their hair in half and wound them around each ear (like Princess Leia) in a fashion called reticulation.

Men’s Headwear
Men, too, wore many hats but did not gain the exaggerated height of the woman’s hennin.They were very familiar with the art of felting, so many of the hats ( sugar loaf, roundel, bourrelet) were shaped through this process. See Figure 4,5, 7 and 10. Hats were madeof felt or straw. The sugar loaf hat was a soft tall cone sitting on top of the head.

The chaperone was one of the first stylized marketing efforts in fashion. It consisted of the roundel that had a caplet with liripipe stuffed into it. See Figure 35. This style was first done spontaneously as a place to store the caplet, but then became such a fashion that the hat was sold in that configuration.

Men wore their hair about shoulder length and often wore a bowl crop….a bowl would be placed on the head and used as a guideline for cutting the edges even (See Figure 2). For the most part they were clean shaven but might sport beards.


The men wore a soft shoe generally made of fabric or leather called a poulaine or crackow. These poulaines are remarkable because they are the brunt of contemporary amusement since the pointed toes often extended many inches beyond the toe of the foot. We might think of these as jester’s shoes. The length of the toe was governed by sumptuary laws. Often the tip of the toe had to be stiffened or tied to the knee by a thin thread.

Mens Wear
The men, too, wore a garment called the houppelande, however, it was not as fitted and
engaged large cartridge pleats at the yoke. This was a long gown. The 15th century man
was becoming a tailor’s joy which he has never ceased to be. There were extremes in the
upper silhouette with crisp pleats, tight belts, padded clothing, and stuffed sleeves. Tailor
guilds started in the 13th century with clothing for special events. The nobility wanted to
be distinguished from the commoners by their dress.

Women wore poulaines , but they never were the exaggerated styles of the men. These were fabric or leather slender shoes covering the top and bottom of the foot. They often wore galoches, a wooden sole that covered the bottom of the foot only and was attached by straps. These items protected the shoes from the filth of the streets. As this footwear evolved they were built up and had straps to slip one’s foot into. The built up portions elevated the wearer. Called pattens or chopines.

The extreme short version of the male houppeland is called a houppelande a mi-jamb (see text). In the next century this garment evolves into the doublet and is often called soin various textbooks. This garment reached mid thigh or shorter and was accompanied by hose or the legging-like leg coverings.

Since the hose were so tight they outlined the body shape and the clergy was upset by the pronounced look of the male genitals. Therefore, a codpiece was stitched to the crotch seam to cover the genital area for men.

Since the hose were so tight they outlined the body shape and the clergy was upset by the pronounced look of the male genitals. Therefore, a codpiece was stitched to the crotch seam to cover the genital area for men.

Men also wore a jerkin, huke, or jupe which was a sleeveless outer garment worn over the houppelande a mi-jamb or over the long houppeland as you see in Figure 45.. The jerkin in its short form often carried heraldry symbolism on it.

Important for men and women. Agnes Sorel the mistress of Charles VII (French) was the first to enlist someone to cut a diamond. Thumb rings were popular, heavy gold chains, small silver bells, pearls were all important. Our term “pin money” comes from this time as headdresses were fastened by pins that were expensive and ornate, but not necessary. There were laws limiting gifts if these pins to the first two days in January. Buttons were used at the end of the 14th century (See figure 46) for before that they were considered to be part of the “loose” life as they allowed one to loosen ones garments with

Movies: Henry IV, Martin Luther, Jeanne d’Arc, Hunchback of Notre Dame

Discussion #10. Discuss any connection between the popular Gothic
architecture and the clothing/accessories worn. Look at silhouette, fabrication, motifs,
details, or other items that make a connection.

Reading: Tortora and Eubanks, Chapter 6. Late Middle Ages.


In the late middle ages of the 14th and 15th centuries,  the headdress for both men and women was highly important to their ranking, status, and occupation in society. In this culture, women did not like to show their hair. The women during this time wore headdress that covered their whole head. Women covered their hair with a caul which was a piece of fabric. Not only did they have this to cover their head but they also had a calotte which was a small cap that lay under the hennin which was a cone shaped hat. Not only were women conscious of their revealing their hair, women liked to alter their heads by plucking their foreheads and eyebrows to give the illusion of an elongated forehead. I was interested in the way they used the coffers as a traveling luggage to hold valuables. Though women has long hair, they kept it hidden underneath, maybe because it was sacred.

Men’s headgear during this time was not as determined to touch the sky as that of the women’s headdresses. Though the men’s hair was about shoulder length, they often had bowl cropped hair, and covered it with headdress called a sugar loafer, a soft tall cone shaped hat, roundel or a bourrelet, which looked sausage-like, or flat-like usually made out of felt or straw. They also wore chaperones which was worn in many different ways. It could be worn all on the head, or half on the head draping down onto the shoulder. Either way, it was worn to determine their status in society.

Gothic Cathedral
Architecture during the late middle ages of the 14th and 15th centuries was that of the prevailing gothic style. This type of architecture is most familiar in cathedrals, churches, town halls, universities, and castles. It was mostly the churches and cathedrals that made bold and powerful statements.

Below is an image of the Gothic Cathedral in Notre-Dame de Chartres. This image distinguishes the many different parts of the cathedral by numbering each section with a specific name.

Comparing the men and women’s attire to the gothic cathedrals, I concluded that the hennin headdress of the women depicted the “Spire” of the gothic architecture with it’s pointed top of the tower. Also the footwear of the leather made poulaine or crackow could represent the tip of the gothic tower as well with the pointed tip of the shoe. Also, with the detailing of the pied colored patterned garments, could represent the detailing of the columns mixed with the wide arches. Here is a picture of a the inside of a colorful cathedral.

Definitely I think that the middle ages was a way to “blend in with their surroundings”. Fashion during this time was a bold statement and I think that it’s interesting how we can see a balance between the art of fashion and the art of architecture. I found a couple examples online of architectural inspired clothing. These are garments that are being showcased on the runway, and is probably not your average everyday wear. These are just some representations of how architecture could still influence fashion today.

In this image, geometric shapes are used to represent the contours of the buildings.

In this image, the design element of color is being represented.

One Response to “Late Middle Ages 14th and 15th centuries”

  1. Paula said

    I find Gothic womens clothing need not be boring. By choosing unique materials and designs, you can wear something Goth and still be yourself.
    Great post thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: