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English Costume

3: Women's Clothing in the Time of William the Second

More of this Feature
Woman's Costume of the Time of William the First
• Woman's Costume in the Time of William the Second
Woman's Costume in the Time of Henry the First
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Woman's Costume in the Time of Henry the Second
Woman's Costume in the Time of Richard the First
Woman's Costume in the Time of John
Woman's Costume in the Time of Henry the Third

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© 2000-2002
Jone Johnson Lewis

What did the clothing of a Norman woman look like? Here's one author's presentation of a typical noblewoman during the reign of William Rufus in England.

Source: Calthrop, Dion Clayton. English Costume: I. Early English. London, 1906. This article is an excerpt from the chapter, "William the Second." Color plate and line illustrations also from this chapter.

William The Second

Reigned thirteen years: 1087-1100
Born c. 1060.


And so the lady began to lace . . . .

English woman's costume in the time of William Rufus showing a laced gownA moralist, a denouncer of the fair sex, a satirist, would have his fling at this. That thundering epithets and avalanche of words should burst out at such a momentous point in English history!

However, the lady pleased herself.

Not that the lacing was very tight, but it commenced the habit, and the habit begat the harm, and the thing grew until it arrived finally at that buckram, square-built, cardboard-and-tissue figure which titters and totters through the Elizabethan era.

Our male eyes, trained from infancy upwards to avoid gazing into certain shop windows, nevertheless retain a vivid impression of an awesome affair therein, which we understood by hints and signs confined our mothers' figures in its deadly grip.

That the lady did not lace herself overtight is proved by the many informations we have of her household duties; that she laced tight enough for unkind comment is shown by the fact that some old monk pictured the devil in a neat-laced gown.

It was, at any rate, a distinct departure from the loosely-clothed lady of 1066 towards the neater figure of 1135.

The lacing was more to draw the wrinkles of the close-woven bodice of the gown smooth than to form a false waist and accentuated hips, the beauty of which malformation I must leave to the writers in ladies' journals and the condemnation to health faddists.

However, the lacing was not the only matter of note. A change was coming over all feminine apparel-a change towards richness, which made itself felt in this reign more in the fabric than in the actual make of the garment.

The gown was open at the neck in the usual manner, was full in the skirt and longer than heretofore, was laced at the back, and was loose in the sleeve.

The sleeve as worn by the men -- that is, the overlong sleeve hanging down over the hand-was also worn by the women,the sleeve in the eleventh century and hung down or was turned back, according to the freak of the wearer. Not only this, but a new idea began, which was to cut a hole in the long sleeve where the hand came, and, pushing the hand through, to let the rest of the sleeve droop down. This developed, as we shall see later.

Then the cloak, which had before been fastened by a brooch on the shoulder or in the centre of the breast, was now held more tightly over the shoulders by a set of laces or bands which ran round the back from underneath the brooch where they were fastened, thus giving more definition to the shoulders.

You must remember that such fashions as the hole in the sleeve and the laced cloak were not any more universal than is any modern fashion, and that the good dame in the country was about a century behind the times with her loose gown and heavy cloak.

There were still the short gowns, which, being tucked in at the waist by the girdle, showed the early English cloakthick wool chemise below and the unlaced gown, fitting like a jersey.

The large wimple was still worn wrapped about the head, and the hair was still carefully hidden.

Shall we imagine that it is night, and that the lady is going to bed? She is in her long white chemise, standing at the window looking down upon the market square of a small town.

The moon picks out every detail of carving on the church, and throws the porch into a dense gloom. Not a soul is about, not a light is to be seen, not a sound is to be heard.

The lady is about to leave the window, when she hears a sound in the street below. She peers down, and sees a man running towards the church; he goes in and out of the shadows. From her open window she can hear his heavy breathing. Now he darts into the shadow of the porch, and then out of the gloom comes a furious knocking, and a voice crying, 'Sanctuary!'

The lady at her window knows that cry well. Soon the monks in the belfry will awake and ring the Galilee-bell.

The Galilee-bell tolls, and the knocking ceases.

A few curious citizens look out. A dog barks. Then a door opens and closes with a bang.

There is silence in the square again, but the lady still stands at her window, and she follows the man in her thoughts.

Now he is admitted by the monks, and goes at once to the altar of the patron-saint of the church, where he kneels and asks for a coroner.

The coroner, an aged monk, comes to him and confesses him. He tells his crime, and renounces his rights in the kingdom; and then, in that dark church, he strips to his shirt and offers his clothes to the sacrist for his fee. Ragged, mud-stained clothes, torn cloak, all fall from him in a heap upon the floor of the church.

Now the sacrist gives him a large cloak with a cross upon the shoulder, and, having fed him, gives him into the charge of the under-sheriff, who will next day pass him from constable to constable towards the coast, where he will be seen on board a ship, and so pass away, an exile for ever.

The night is cold. The lady pulls a curtain across the window, and then, stripping herself of her chemise, she gets into bed.

Next page > Woman's Costume in the Time of Henry the First

Suggested Reading:

British Women's History
Fashion History
Medieval Women
Index to Etexts on Women's History
Medieval History

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