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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


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'Reverie: Dress Style in the Two Millennia'
Dr Gale R. Owen-Crocker
University of Manchester
November, 2000

I sat in Affleck's Palace pretending to be invisible. What, you may ask, was a middle-aged lecturer in Old English doing in Manchester's High Temple of Youth Culture? The answer lies in motherhood. My son had long desired a Goth accessory known as finger armour, and with his thirteenth birthday money had purchased the item from Affleck's. In the joy of possession, he had thrown away the packaging containing the receipt. After he had worn the finger armour for the rest of the day and all evening, he appeared woefully to report that it had broken. Faced with a despairing son and an apoplectic father ('You never spent all that', he said, but what he was thinking was 'On jewellery - for a boy!') it was time for me to step in.

When I phoned Affleck's the next day I was quite proud of my description: 'A mushroom-headed rivet has sheared off', I said confidently, having spent a large part of my life describing Anglo-Saxon jewellery to students. The person I spoke to was kind, tolerant of my vintage and helpful. She explained that there were several 'shops within the shop' which sold 'Goth stuff' and even went to talk to some of the sales staff, but could not identify where my son had bought his finger armour. It became clear that Mother would have to go in, to testify that he was not a 'scally' out to defraud but a person of good character who had been sold faulty goods .

I didn't bother to change, just set off with my son and his friend in the old tracksuit I wear to write books on Beowulf. I felt, and I'm sure looked, as alien as my hero in Grendel's lair as I stepped through the door of Affleck's Palace. A creature with orange hair in a crest and ponytail with bald side-pieces walked up the stairs ahead of us and three Goths with rigid black spikes all over their heads came down. The place itself was a cross between a fairground side-show (things in glass cases) and an oriental market (brightly coloured garments hanging from the ceiling and racks everywhere). I immediately lost my sense of direction and was delighted by the arrays of jewellery until I realised that most of it required the body to be pierced to display it. My son found his shop at once but no-one there remembered him, or he them. The assistant who had served him had, he remembered, dark hair and an orange top. The staff knew no-one of that description. The manager had gone out for twenty minutes; could we come back? I asked for the Ladies and was told it was 'next to tattooing'. I shuddered and settled for a chair in the café where I crouched, cloaked in invisibility.

As I cowered, I gazed. You can't be a costume historian without noticing what people wear. I realised that all the people walking in Affleck's appeared to be wearing new clothes. Nowhere were there the frayed and faded jeans which had been obligatory for University students in past years. There was denim, certainly, in vast quantities, but it was bright and pressed. There was leather, but it was smooth and shiny, not creased and greasy, and it smelled wonderful. There was pink hair and green hair and many surprisingly spherical heads with no hair at all. How our concept of baldness is changed - a few years ago a man would comb a few graying hairs across a bald patch in a ludicrous attempt to conceal it. Now you flaunt your scalp and reveal it deliberately before Nature does.

There were a lot of strappy tops that revealed shoulders with tattoos on them. (How do they see them round the back of the scapular, there? They must be placed for other people to enjoy ...) There were nose rings and ear rings and navel rings and I-don't-like-to-think-about- it-because-it-makes-me-cringe-rings ... None of this was scruffy and none of it accidental; in fact, the scruffiest, least contrived outfit in the place was probably my own. No, this was Style, 2000 variety.

How different would it have been at the first millennium? The Anglo-Saxons, unlike my husband, would have been comfortable with male jewellery, and by the year 1000, like our Goths, they would have favoured silver. It would mostly have been manifested as round brooches (see The Strickland Brooch available at the British Museum's COMPASS site). They would not, I think, have liked the ostentatious use of many pieces of jewellery worn simultaneously. Church treasures and statues could be be jewelled, but personal dress was more austere. Jewellery then was still functional - you used your brooch to fasten your cloak - not purely decorative as today.

Wealth and status were marked by clothes, not so much by the design of the garments but by differences in materials: silk for the prosperous, with linen undergarments. The poor, the peasants, would have worn wool and never experienced the astonishing texture of silk. Metalwork, too, denoted status. Gold was always the most desirable, and even when silver brooches were fashionable they could be decorated with gold, or gilded. For the less well-off there were base metals, and you could have a nice little brooch in copper alloy, with an animal design on it, or the cast of an exotic coin in the middle. For the very poor, presumably, there was little or no metal at all. There had always been bone pins, and there were probably horn and wood fasteners, none of which have survived.

Precious metals would have decorated garments as well as jewellery. The braided borders which edged cloaks and tunics would be decorated with filé threads - thin strips of gold or silver wound round a fibre core. Even in this luxurious technique there were degrees of expense - for the really rich, gold wound round silk; for the slightly less prosperous, metal wound round cattle tail hair! This gold-work was worn for its beauty and workmanship, but it was also visible wealth; and when the textile wore out you could melt the gold down and use it again.

Cloth types were much more limited than they are today. Not only did the Anglo-Saxons lack man-made fibres, they didn't even have cotton. Preparation of cloth was a labourious and often unpleasant business. Sheep were apparently not sheared in those days, they were plucked ('Keep still, Baa-lamb'). They were also milked; how wasteful we are today. Brought up on the history of the Industrial Revolution, we in the UK have learned that the wool industry established itself in Yorkshire because there was soft water there for washing the wool. We are inclined to forget the fact that you don't have to wash wool, or even comb out the tangles and thorns. If you don't mind your wool rather greasy from lanolin, and your thread with the odd flock and foreign matter in it, you can get wool from sheep's back to human back within a day. I expect it would be a bit rough, but it would serve. Most of our surviving Anglo-Saxon wool fragments are better than this, evenly spun and of good quality, but they come from the (pagan) fifth-seventh century graves of persons who were prosperous enough to be given a burial with grave-goods; who knows what the churls wore? Linen is even more unpleasant to prepare. The retting process is smelly and pollutes the water supply, and the preparation of linen from fax takes months. No wonder garments were valued. Cloth production, at least through most of the Anglo-Saxon period, was in women's hands. If you were a rotten weaver the whole village would know it every time your husband went out; and if he didn't bring in enough firewood at winter you could keep him waiting for his new shirt. When people owned very few clothes they would be recognisable by them and the advent of a new garment would be a noticeable event.

We can, and usually do, wear different garments every day. They are machine made and factory produced. We can buy them in shops and choose which we prefer. Though the rich Anglo-Saxons would have had more variety than the poor, they would still have had to wait patiently for their clothes to be made. The spinning wheel had not yet been invented and fibres had to be spun by hand on a drop spindle, at a ratio of at least ten hours spinning work for one hour's weaving. Weaving too, was still done by hand. Women wove on an upright loom, either the two-beam or the traditional northern warp-weighted (see Forest and Ravinet's recreation).. The horizontal treadle loom, a man's machine, was only just appearing (c. 1000). With its mechanical action it would speed up weaving, but must have created pressure on the spinning industry which had no equivalent technological development at the time. Embroidery, especially goldwork, was specialised and no doubt expensive. (It still is expensive, but can be carried out quickly by machine these days.) Clothing would usually be made in the household, as it was needed. The great estates had workshops for the purpose, and clothing was probably still produced domestically in villages at the turn of the century. The growing urban centres, like York and London, certainly had manufacturing areas. You could get your shoes made, and perhaps buy a belt and cloth, or even a cloak; but it is doubtful if you could buy all your garments 'off the peg'.

The concept of beautiful cloth has changed over the centuries. The Anglo-Saxons rarely fulled or teaselled their fabrics, practices which were usual in the English wool industry later in the Middle Ages and which made a soft, silky surface, concealing the weave. Instead intricate geometric patterns were created by complex weaving processes, especially diamonds and lozenges. Sometimes colour contrast would have been used to highlight patterns, sometimes the light-and-dark effect of the self-patterned cloth would have been sufficient to proclaim its quality. It was the play of light on silk which made that shiny fabric so beautiful.

Today we pay no more for a garment coloured red than a garment coloured brown. In the Middle Ages dyestuffs were expensive, and many were imported. Poorer people probably relied on the natural pigmentation of sheep's wool to make striped or checked garments, with vegetable dyes giving a more colourful touch to the braided bands at neck and wrists. The rich would have had access to kermes, an expensive insect dye (an opulent red in colour), and to purple colouring made from molluscs, as well as to a greater range of vegetable dyes. Their very choice of colour would have proclaimed their wealth. We expect our dyes to be colour fast. Some medieval dyes were, some were not, but that didn't matter very much unless you got caught in the rain. You wouldn't be washing your clothes very often (washing, for example, would remove the waterproof benefits of natural wool).

Knitting was not known among the Anglo-Saxons though the Vikings had developed a looping technique known as nalebinding which used one needle and the fingers of one hand. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of knitted fabrics, essentially machine-knitted fabrics, in our own society. Knitting imparts a flexibility, an elasticity, which is not present in woven fabrics. We are used to garments that fit. Without knitting, and also without many of the tailoring techniques that were to develop later in the Middle Ages, such as the use of gores (a triangular piece of material, used to make a garment wider), the clothing at the first millennium clearly did not fit. It was girdled, pinned and pouched to accommodate its wearer, and though it might take on his shape to some extent, especially if it was made of wool, it could be adapted effortlessly for its next owner. That there would be a next owner was almost a certainty (unless you were buried in the garment, that is). The practice of passing down garments was not confined to the poor. Clothing was sometimes precious enough to be bequeathed in the wills of the rich, but even if it wasn't mentioned individually, we can be sure someone would grab a garment if it had any useful life left. The recycling of textiles, cutting down, re-making into other garments and re-using cloth in ever decreasing pieces until it reaches the rag stage has been the norm since cloth was invented, until the last few decades. (Just consider your Granny's silver polishing cloth. It was probably a 'good' duster in its previous existence, and before that was almost certainly Grandad's underpants.) For the mass of the population in Anglo-Saxon times, it would be difficult to exhibit an individual 'style' unless you were the original owner of a garment. For many, trapped in the traditional fibres and colouring of their class, and wearing the hand-me-downs of older, richer or deceased relatives, clothing would have been functional, not a statement of personality.

MS Junius 11, p.58Costume historians insist that 'fashion' is a concept which was not known until the twelfth century, but I am doubtful about this. Certainly, women's clothing changed several times in the course of the Anglo-Saxon era, and the adoption of a long gown for men which was just creeping in for the aristocracy at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period was surely a revolutionary fashion change. Admittedly change must have happened more slowly in a pre-machine age, but the kinds of influences people were subject to at the first millennium were not so different from those that affect us today. We change our clothing according to what we see in magazines. The Anglo-Saxons were influenced by graphic images too - the voluminous wimple for women was surely copied from Byzantine Style depictions of the Virgin Mary in a headdress that was ultimately Syrian. Our fashion sometimes responds to economic conditions: women's hemlines were raised and lowered in response to the austerity of the Second World War and the reaction of the New Look. Likewise the late Anglo-Saxon decline in the use of gold and the innovatory importation of silk were responses to international economic factors. We are also subject to ethics - witness the pro-animal, Diana-fuelled reaction against real fur we witnessed a few years ago. The prevailing ethics of the medieval period were Christian ones, and when it came to clothing it seems they were chiefly directed at women: the necessity for covering the head in public and the appropriateness of wearing dark colours when receiving the Eucharist were religious directives which became fashion rules.

In Anglo-Saxon days foreigners were foreigners and they dressed accordingly. Diplomatic and other visitors from abroad would have been instantly marked out by their costume. Their furs, their textiles, their very colour-schemes would have been strange, quite apart from the cut and style of their garments. Sometimes national dress could appear quite barbaric to the host country; even the great Emperor Charlemagne had been persuaded to replace his Frankish costume of cloak and tunic with long robes when visiting Rome. The exotica remained exotic, I think. Gifts of furs and textiles would find their way into the individual wardrobe of the recipient and his heirs, but that did not mean that the fashion caught on. This is a very different situation from later in the Middle Ages when crusaders came back from the wars and started dressing like Saracens.

MS Junius 11, p. 46National dress is one of the disappearing species of our global village culture. OK, you can distinguish an Italian businessman by his shoes and a Japanese tourist by her little white rain hat, but those are national preferences not national dress. Many of the world's nations now dress in a similar way. There are exceptions, of course, and there are ethnic communities in multi-racial Britain which maintain a national style of dress. Integration seems to be one way here, in that you can get sari plus cardigan and anorak but when Cherie Blair (wife of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair) wears a shalwar kameez (loose fitting trousers) or David Beckham (an English footballer) a sarong, it looks like fancy dress and we do not flock to copy them.

We exploit foreign textile industries of course, because of their cheapness. In my childhood there was still a vestige of the Lancashire Cotton industry and in Manchester they still remember 'King Cotton'; but it has all gone now. I expect almost all of the clothing on sale and worn by the customers in Affleck's Palace is imported. Some of it looks exotic - there are Indian embroideries, for example - but most of it does not, and we hardly question the fact that as individuals in Britain today, we have lost the skill to make our clothes. In Mrs Gaskell's novels the female characters rarely sit down without their workbox: they are always busy with the household sewing. Who darns a sock these days? We throw it away.

We returned to the jewellery counter and the Manager recognised my son immediately; she had served him. She had auburn hair and a pink top, but admitted to wearing an orange top the previous day. Five out of ten for observation. The finger armour was exchanged, I stowed the packaging and receipt in my middle aged person's handbag and we returned home. A teenage girl in the train immediately spotted the finger armour and came over to talk. She had just been in Affleck's herself, she said. Getting pierced ...

G. Owen-Crocker


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors