Also see Cynthia’s “Source of Confusion” for a great page explaining the different types of sources and what to watch out for.
Just because something is period-appropriate for 13th century England doesn’t mean it was used at all in Germany… or in 16th century England. Be precise. With the paucity of primary source material for the Middle Ages, we have to extrapolate in places, but don\’t do so randomly. “Period” spans a millenium and covers many countries. 10th century Indians were wearing cotton regularly, but is your persona a 10th century Hindu? The most common fabric in medieval England was wool, but the Japanese hadn’t even heard of sheep until the 16th century. Silk brocade was popular in 14th century France, but would your persona have been able to afford it? Focus on a time and place and be specific.
Nothing beats a primary source. You can argue and argue and argue that darts aren’t period, but when you find them on a 16th century gown in a bog find, you can’t argue with that!
It is very valuable to know who your source was. In Irish research, many sources are Englishmen who were trying to discredit the Irish. These sources are not reliable because of their obvious bias. Investigate who your source was and how he came to represent the clothing of the people in question. Also, some paintings are allegorical or fantastical. These cannot be trusted to accurately mirror the kind of clothing that was worn by real people. After all, if you were a painter, would you paint the Greek god Apollo in a three-piece business suit?
Even if your source is a modern costume historian who is considered “the world’s expert,” it doesn’t mean he can’t be wrong. Everyone can be wrong. The world of academia has learned much from re-enactors in the past few decades. It’s easy to look at pot shards, but how many of them have ever tried to cast a replica of one of those pots?
Frankly, this is a hard one for me to remember. When I feel passionately about something (like the Irish never having worn kilts), I get practically evangelical! But since we don’t know everything about the medieval period, and we probably never will, it is safe to say, “No evidence exists of this,” or “The current research supports that.” Try to avoid saying, “They always did this,” or “That was never done in period.” Unless, of course, it’s something totally provable like, “They never used polyester.”
Although it is not absolutely or always true, three separate secondary sources can be used in place of one primary source. Of course you must be careful when doing this substitution. Sometimes the secondary sources come from the same artist or “school” and you find that they are copying each other, not the reality of the clothing they portray. In this case, it is best to do a little research into the history of your source. If, for example, you have three paintings of a chemise, they are all by different and unrelated painters, and they occur in the same time period, they are probably reasonably reliable as sources.
Sometimes (in particular, in Irish research) there are simply not enough sources to find three reliable secondary sources. In this case, we can only do the best we can with the available evidence.
Perhaps you have heard the phrase “you cannot prove a negative”. This is true. However, if you cannot prove the positive, you are not documenting anything. If, for example, no evidence exists of men wearing neckties in the Middle Ages, it doesn’t mean they did. “They could have” isn’t documentation. It’s guessing. If you cannot find an example in a period source, it is best not to assume its existence. Just because it makes sense to modern people doesn’t mean it existed in the Middle Ages.
Many countries’ National Costume are based on folk costumes dating no earlier than the 19th century. Do not assume that because they are traditional, they date to the Middle Ages or before. After all, 21st century Americans don’t wear Colonial short gowns and petticotes (unless we are Colonial re-enactors too!). Why should people from other countries be wearing clothing from centuries before? Even in more traditional cultures, fashions change. Assuming that “old” equals “medieval” is a trap. Beware of it.
It is best to define types of sources and their levels of usefulness so that you may judge what will be helpful and what will be a waste of your time.
The best source for historical clothing is an extant example of the garment. Extant means that someone dug the garment out of a bog, grave or cesspit (rarely do garments from the Middle Ages survive in someone’s closet as have garments from the Colonial period and American Civil War) and it is preserved in a state that it can be studied by archaeologists and anthropologists. This is known as a primary source.
Paintings are usually secondary sources. The painter is in effect “telling” you what the garment looked like. You are not looking at it yourself. Even though you may think that a picture is worth a thousand words, paintings can lie. The artists that made them were not tailors. They may have missed an important seam here or there, or drawn the drape of the gown differently because it “looked better.” Also, in most of the medieval period, the concept of “perspective” was not yet known in painting. This makes it difficult to figure out what people and their clothing really looked like. However, they are still useful sources, especially when used in conjunction with primary and tertiary sources.
Verbal descriptions are either secondary or tertiary sources. The author is either describing the garment to you (secondary) or describing a painting or description he witnessed of the garment (tertiary). These are the least reliable sources. However, sometimes they are all we have. When used along with other types of sources, they can be useful. Some paintings are also tertiary sources. If the painter based his work on a verbal description or someone else’s painting and not real life, it is a tertiary source.
There are some great books on medieval textiles. Most discuss extant examples and go into dyes and stitches used. Some even show how the garment may have been cut out of the cloth. However, they will not spoon feed you the information. If you want to undertake this level of research, this is the best place to start. Some great examples of this type include: Frances & Pritchard; and Kay Staniland
Some costume books try to cover every time period and every country in Western Europe. These sources are valuable as a starting point (perhaps to decide which century you like best), but they won’t be your only sources. They suffer from the need to cover too many topics and end up skipping some and brushing over others. However, there are a couple that are worth taking a look at:
20,000 Years of Fashion by François Boucher
History of Costume by Blanche Payne
The Book of Costume by Milia Davenport
These sources are best used as starting points. Look at the pictures and the text and then try to find the original picture in an art book and look at it more closely.
In this category, avoid any book that redraws figures. Many times these authors redraw them incorrectly and they become useless for our purposes. Authors guilty of this include Herbert Norris, Braun & Schnieder, Iris Brooke, John Peacock, and Doreen Yarwood.
A History of Costume by Karl Kohler is good for some things and not for others. Kohler was the first researcher in the area of costume and established the basis upon which Norris & Boucher and others built. However, like all groundbreakers, he has his problems. Kohler’s redrawn figures are very close to the original paintings and sculptures. But be aware that very few of his pattern layouts are accurate in the slightest. He was a researcher, not an experimental archaeologist. Nonetheless, Kohler showcases the largest amount of photos of extant garments in a single place. This alone is worth the cover price.
Art books (“coffee table books”) are not without their uses. They often have large, full colour reproductions of original paintings and illustrations. However, be aware of their limits. Even if the author comments on the clothing of the figures, it is best to ignore these remarks. The author is an art historian, not a clothing historian. There are more often wrong than right. Look at the pictures and make your own decisions about the clothing.
Be wary! There are some books out there that are how-tos but they are intended for makers of theatrical costumes, not for re-enactors trying to make historical clothing. Some of their information is useful, but remember that their purpose is to make clothing that looks good for the stage, not clothing that was actually worn in the Middle Ages. Books in this category include:
Period Costume for Stage & Screen : Patterns for Women\’s Dress, Medieval-1500 and 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett
The Evolution of Fashion by Hill and Bucknell
Hill and Bucknell sometimes accurately redraw a period illustration for their figures, but their patterns are not correct. In some cases, the patterns they have in their book look very little like the intended outfits. In most cases, their patterns are not made according the period cutting techniques and end up wasting a lot of fabric. You may get good ideas from Hill and Bucknell, but do not accept them as a good source for patterns.
Hunnisett sometimes gets costumes so close to real medieval construction, it’s wonderful! But then she’ll go and drape a kirtle on the bias. She can teach you many things about draping garments from scratch, but never forget that her outfits are stage costumes. Clothing has to wear.
Here are some sources if you want to undertake your own study of medieval clothing:
Cut My Cote by Dorothy K. Burnham
The Development of Costume by Naomi Tarrant
If you like Cut My Cote, you may be interested in delving more deeply into the study of how the technology and production of textiles affected the shape of clothing. Here are some sources focusing on the study of primitive textiles and their manufacture:
Women’s Work : The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Prehistoric Textiles by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Warp-Weighted Loom by Margaret Hoffman
Cloth and the Human Experience by Annette Weiner
© 2002, 2014 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.