Dress Style in the Two Millennia'
Dr Gale R. Owen-Crocker
University of Manchester
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...