Manuscript illuminations sometimes reflect the contemporary styles and fabrics of the Middle Ages, as well as economic factors behind them. In addition to her crown, the red and gold-highlighted dress worn by Anne of Brittany indicates her status as Queen.
The Struggle between Fortune and Poverty (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Renowned scholars such as the author of this text, Giovanni Boccaccio (at far right),
wore red robes that carried the prestige associated with the high cost of crimson dye, which was made from the dried kermes insects.
The status that red conferred is also reinforced by the crowned figure of Fortune.
For Rich and For Poor
Although they lived centuries before the Middle Ages, biblical figures were often represented in contemporary medieval dress to fit into the fashion of the time, such as in this scene of Christ’s crucifixion.
The Piercing of Christ's Side (about 1525–1530) by Simon BeningThe J. Paul Getty Museum
A man on horseback wears a velvet robe edged in fur. Velvet first appeared as an expensive silk material in the late 1200s, although manuscript illuminators rarely depicted it before the mid-1400s.
Here, smudged areas of color convey the effect of light hitting the fabric’s pile, while dark shadows define its folds.
Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius (about 1460 - 1470)The J. Paul Getty Museum
In this image, female personifications of philosophy and the seven liberal arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Geometry, Arithmetic, and Astronomy) are portrayed in a range of late medieval costumes.
As the mistress of the arts, Philosophy wears the most elaborate headdress: a conical gold hat draped with a translucent veil in stiff folds. Such a garment would have been worn by wealthy citizens.
In contrast to the rich materials worn by the upper classes, the simple clothing of these peasants signals their lower status and means. The bright colors in the margin of this image likely reflect the artist’s desire for embellishment.
July Calendar Page; Reaping; Leo (about 1440–1450) by Bedford MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Even though peasants generally wore undyed wool in neutral shades, they wore expensive dyed fabrics on holy days, as shown here.
For ease of work, the woman has tucked up her overdress and gathered her linen headdress at the back of her head,
while the man has undone his relatively inflexible stockings from the ties at the waist.
Dressing the Part
Manuscript illuminators used clothing to help place figures in the strict social hierarchy of the Middle Ages and to identify people by profession. Monks, doctors, lawyers, knights, scholars, queens, and courtiers could all be recognized by their distinctive dress.
But it would be a mistake to regard all illuminations as direct reflections of medieval fashion. In chivalric romances, wealthy patrons sought images of a perfect world, populated with glamorous versions of themselves.
Even peasants were too well dressed.
The Emperor Sigismund Arriving in Siena (Detail)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The fashion worn by the courtiers in this image reflects the way that impractical dress conveyed status—it would have been impossible to work in the ensembles shown here.
The tall, steeple-like hats of the women are counterbalanced by their long trains. The men, too, wear tall hats, as well as long-toed, pointed shoes.
According to an English law of 1463, short gowns that revealed men’s buttocks, such as the garment on the figure far left, were restricted to the upper classes.
In the 1400s, middle class women in France were criticized for wanting the books of hours (personal prayer books) and splendid clothes owned by the nobility.
Although the woman in this image has a book of hours, she is dressed according to her standing. She wears a simple hood and a gown with a tight bodice revealing her shoulders, signifying that she is not a member of the upper classes.
A funeral service is conducted by two priests in black and gold cloaks, which seem to be decorated with images of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
In the stalls, the clerics wear white linen tunics. Some of them have a long, furred stole on their shoulder, forearm, or head, typically worn by the more important clerics when they were in the choir.
Saint Jerome in His Study (about 1430–1440) by Master of Sir John FastolfThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Saint Jerome was an extremely influential early Christian scholar and writer, known for his Latin translation of the Bible. Here Jerome is shown in his study, perhaps at work on his Bible, wearing the black robe of a monk combined with the red, wide-brimmed hat of a cardinal.
This distinctive clerical red hat was based on a popular 13th-century account of his life, The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine, which incorrectly reported that Jerome had been a cardinal.
The legend also explains the presence of the lion, which Jerome reputedly healed by removing a thorn from its paw.
To prevent marriage and sexual relationships with non-Christians, the Pope’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 decreed that all Jewish and Muslim people in Europe needed to wear distinctive clothing.
Within the initial D on the left, a seated figure wears a large, pointed hat that identifies him as a Jew.
The image on the right shows a “Saracen” (a derogatory term for a Muslim) riding a horse and wearing a turban, which identifies him as a Muslim.
Another Time, Another Place
Certain conventions arose for dressing figures from the past.
Saint Catherine Presenting a Kneeling Woman to the Virgin and Child (about 1400–1410) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The blue robe of the Virgin Mary is based on classical garments seen in 15th-century surviving Roman paintings,
contrasting with the contemporary dress from the woman kneeling on the right.
Here, Christ’s garment is adorned with elaborate gold patterning. In the early 1400s, artists often decorated historical dress with gold bands—sometimes incorporating a version of Arabic script. . .
. . .or with lines enclosing circles as seen here.
These designs were evocative of textiles imported from the Middle East that were considered relics from the time of Christ.
In this Italian manuscript, the artist showed the Virgin Mary and Christ child being visited by the three kings, each with a different type of costume.
The Adoration of the Magi (about 1460) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The oldest king wears a simple tunic and cloak evoking biblical times, while his two companions are dressed in more fanciful outfits inspired by contemporary medieval fashion.
The youngest Magus wears a sort of turban made of striped fabric, which was associated with Middle Eastern dress.
The middle-aged king, in an ermine-lined overgarment, wears a tall hat that was likely inspired by widely disseminated images of the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos who visited Italy in the late 1430s.
Fashionable elements of dress in this image indicate that this particular manuscript was created soon after 1468, when a version of the legend of Alexander the Great (a fourth-century Greek ruler) was completed and dedicated to a powerful European duke.
Livre des fais d'Alexandre le grant (Main View (.99))The J. Paul Getty Museum
Two figures on the right wear draped garments that are meant to recall the clothing of the ancient world. The figure with a crown over his hat is Alexander, outfitted in luxurious cloth of gold and a red sash across his body.
Made for Armenian Christians in Persia, this 17th-century Bible shows King David in the bejeweled ceremonial dress of Christian Byzantine emperors who had ruled the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. King David’s clothing nostalgically links him to that ancient past.
Indications that this scene is set in the ancient Roman past are subtle: chiefly the gold lines which create animal forms in the blue garment at right, the patterned hems of the green and pink gowns, and the dotted decoration at the neckline of the pink one.
Julius Caesar’s clothing more closely reflects medieval fashion. . .
He wears a hood with some padding around the head, an undergarment with a standing collar, and a robe with loose sleeves. Only the motif on his robe is unusual for the 1400s. It probably represents the eagle, a symbol associated with emperors since classical antiquity.
Manuscript creators have left us with some wonderfully skilled representations of what people wore and wanted to wear in the Middle Ages. They also give us an insight into the symbolism of dress in the past.
© 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
For more resources:
Fashion in the Middle Ages
Fashion in the Middle Ages, exhibition May 31–August 14, 2011
The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. (Getty Publications, 2022)
Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition
Video: Making Manuscripts
Video: The Structure of a Medieval Manuscript
To cite this exhibition, please use: "Fashion in the Middle Ages" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.