The Middle Ages are commonly dated from the 5th century fall of the western Roman Empire until the end of the 15th century. During the history of mankind, fashion was always a subject of controversy, and Medieval Fashion followed the rule.
The Great Charlemagne did not like luxury in daily life. His household officers did not dare to show themselves in any clothes but those made of leather, wool or cloth. However he used to make the most magnificent display on the occasions of political or religious festivals, when the imperial dignity with which he was invested required pompous ceremonial and richness of attire.
The Medieval Fashion hardly changed during the reign of the other Carolingian kings. Amidst political troubles, internal wars, and social disturbances, people had neither time nor inclination for inventing anything dress related. For example, the dress in France had undergone only minor changes in the late 9th Century, since the time of Charlemagne, and the influence of Roman tradition was still felt in the dress of the nobles, especially on festive occasions.
During the 10th Century, the dress of the two sexes did not change much either. The elegant appearance of the women garments recalls that of the Greek and Roman women. Their dresses were at times so tight as to display all the elegance of their form, whilst at others they were made so high as to completely cover the neck (cottes-hardies).
Overall, no important change was made in the Medieval Fashion before the end of the 11th Century. The ordinary dress made of thick cloths and of coarse woolen stuffs was very strong and durable, and not easily spoiled.
In the 12th Century, the women of nobility wore a sort of cap made of linen, with lappets hanging down over the shoulders. The robe was fastened round the waist, with long bands attached to the sleeves near the wrists. They also used the long cloak, and the closed shoes which had begun to be made pointed. The men wore similar garments, with the robe descending only to the instep, and the belt with no hangings in front. Women, in addition to their head-dress, often wore a broad band, which was tied under the chin, and gave the appearance of a kind of frame for the face. Both sexes wore colored bands on their shoes, which were tied round the ankle like those of sandals, and showed the shape of the foot.
The Crusades gave rise to the general use of the purse, which was suspended to the belt by a cord of silk or cotton, and sometimes by a metal chain.
In the 13th Century, in the times of Louis IX, the Medieval Fashion considerably changed when the surcoat was introduced. It was at first a garment worn only by women, but it was soon adopted by both sexes. From this period gowns with tight bodices were generally adopted. The women wore over them a tight jacket, reaching to a little below the hips, often trimmed with fur when the gown was richly ornamented. Also the fur was richly ornamented itself when the gown was plain. At the end of the 13th Century luxury was at his height at the Court of France. Moreover, the magnificence and display was not confined to the Court, but it extended to the bourgeois class.
In the 14th Century France, the men fashion, especially that of the young courtiers, took a turn for ridiculous and extravagant taste. Some had their clothes so short and so tight that it required the help of two persons to dress and undress them. Others had their head-dresses and sleeves reaching to the ground, some had tippets of one cloth, others of another.
Women dress, on the contrary, owing to a strenuous effort towards a dignified and elegant simplicity, became of such character that it combined all the most approved fashions of female costume which had been in use in former periods. The coat, or under garment, which formerly only showed itself through awkwardly-contrived openings, now displayed the harmonious outlines of the body, thanks to the large openings in the overcoat. The surcoat, kept back on the shoulders by two narrow bands, became a sort of wide and trailing skirt which draped the lower part of the body. The external corset was invented, which was a kind of short mantle, falling down before and behind without concealing any of the fine outlines of the bust. It was generally made of fur in winter, and of silk in summer.
The fashion of wearing false hair continued in great favor during the middle of the 14th Century. The hair was being parted from the forehead to the back of the head in two equal masses, and waived over the ears. Nets were again adopted.
At the beginning of the 15th Century men's dress was still very short. It consisted of a kind of tight waistcoat, fastened by tags, and of very close fitting breeches, which displayed the outlines of the person wearing them. In order to appear wide at the shoulders artificial pads were worn. The sleeves were slashed, the shoes armed with long metal points, and the conical hat, with turned-up rim, was ornamented with gold chains and various jewels.
During the reign of Charles VI, women still wore long trains to their dresses, which they carried tucked up under their arms, unless they had pages or waiting-maids. The tendency, however, was to shorten the inconvenient trains, as well as the long hanging and embroidered or fringed sleeves. Becoming shorter, ladies' dresses were trimmed in the most costly manner. Their head-dress consisted on very large rolls, surmounted by a high conical bonnet. It was at this period that they began to uncover the neck and to wear necklaces.
The Medieval Fashion continued to evolve towards a shortened costume. At about the same time when ladies ceased to wear trains, men took to wearing shorter clothes than ever, having them to fit tightly to the body. The sleeves of their coats were slit open so as to show their fine white shirts. Knights and squires wore silk or velvet doublets. And almost everyone, especially at Court, wore the long pointed shoes. Under Charles VIII, the mantle, trimmed with fur, was open in front, its false sleeves being slit up above in order to allow the arms of the under coat to pass through. The cap was turned up. The breeches were made tight-fitting. The shoes with poulaines were superseded by a kind of large padded shoe of black leather, round or square at the toes. The women continued to wear conical caps of great height, covered with immense veils. Their gowns were made with tight-fitting bodies, displaying the outlines of the body.
The last major change in the Medieval Fashion is a result of the expedition of Charles VIII of France in Italy, which led to the introduction of Italian fashion. Although it did not differ much from the already adopted fashion, the Italian fashion exhibited better taste and a greater amount of elegance.