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English Costume

6: Women's Clothing in the Time of Stephen

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
Child's Costume of the Time of Henry the First
• Woman's Costume in the Time of Stephen
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 time of Stephen of England.

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


Reigned nineteen years: 1135-1154.
Born 1124. Married to Matilda of Boulogne.

English woman's costume in the time of Stephen


Though many parts of England were at this time being harassed by wars, still the domestic element grew and flourished.

The homes of the English from being bare and rude began to know the delights of embroidery and weaving. The workroom of the ladies was the most civilized part of the castle, and the effect of the Norman invasion of foreign fashions was beginning to be felt.

As the knights were away to their fighting, so were the knights' ladies engaged in sewing sleeve embroideries, placing of pearls upon shoes, making silk cases for their hair, and otherwise stitching, cutting, and contriving against the return of their lords.

It is recorded that [the Empress] Matilda escaped from Oxford by a postern in a white dress, sherte or camise, an undergarment of the twelfth centuryand no doubt her women sympathizers made much of white for dresses.

The ladies wore a simple undergarment of thin material called a sherte or camise; this was bordered with some slight embroidery, and had tightish long sleeves pushed back over the wrist. The garment fell well on to the ground. This camise was worn by all classes.

The upper garment was one of three kinds: made from the neck to below the breast, including the sleeves of soft material; from the breast to the hips it was made of some elastic material, as knitted wool or thin cloth, stiffened by criss-cross bands of cloth, and was fitted to the figure and laced up the back; the lower part was made of the same material as the sleeves and bust.

The second was made tight-fitting in the body and bust, all of one elastic material, and the skirt of loose thin stuff.

The third was a loose tunic reaching half-way between the knees and feet, showing the camise, and tied about the waist and hips by a long girdle.

The sleeves of these garments showed as many variations as those of the men, but with the poor folk they were short and useful, and with the rich they went to extreme length, and were often knotted to prevent them from trailing on the ground.

The collar and the borders of the sleeves were enriched with embroidery in simple designs.

In the case of the loose upper garment the border was also embroidered.

In winter a cloak of the same shape as was worn by the men was used -- i.e., cut exactly semicircular, with embroidered edges.

The shoes of the ladies were fitted to the foot in no extravagant shape, and were sewn with bands of pearls or embroidery. The poorer folk went about barefoot.

The hair was a matter of great moment and most carefully treated; it was parted in the centre and then plaited, sometimes intertwined with coloured ribbands or twists of thin coloured material; it was added to 'in length by artificial hair, and was tied up in a number of ways. Either it was placed in a tight silk case, like an umbrella case, which came about half-way up the plait from the bottom, and had little tassels depending from it, or the hair was added to till it reached nearly to the feet, and was bound round with ribbands, the ends having little gold or silver pendants. The hair hung, as a rule, down the front on either side of the face, or occasionally behind down the back, as was the case when the wimple was worn.

When the ladies went travelling or out riding they rode astride like men, and wore the ordinary common-hooded cloak.

Brooches for the tunic and rings for the fingers were common among the wealthy.

The plait was introduced into the architecture of the time, as is shown by a Norman moulding at Durham.

Compared with the Saxon ladies, these ladies of Stephen's time were elegantly attired; compared with the Plantagenet ladies, they were dressed in the simplest of costumes. No doubt there were, as in all ages, women who gave all their body and soul to clothes, who wore sleeves twice the length of anyone else, who had more elaborate plaits and more highly ornamented shoes; but, taking the period as a whole, the clothes of both sexes were plainer than in any other period of English history.

One must remember that when the Normans came into the country the gentlemen among the sherte or camise, an undergarment of the twelfth centurySaxons had already borrowed the fashions prevalent in France, but that the ladies still kept in the main to simple clothes; indeed, it was the man who strutted to woo clad in all the fopperies of his time -- to win the simple woman who toiled and span to deck her lord in extravagant embroideries.

The learning of the country was shared by the ladies and the clergy, and the influence of Osburgha, the mother of Alfred, and Editha, the wife of Edward the Confessor, was paramount among the noble ladies of the country.

The energy of the clergy in this reign was more directed to building and the branches of architecture than to the more studious and sedentary works of illumination and writing, so that the sources from which we gather information with regard to the costume in England are few, and also peculiar, as the drawing of this date was, although careful, extremely archaic.

Picture the market-town on a market day when the serfs were waiting to buy at the stalls until the buyers from the abbey and the castle had had their pick of the fish and the meat. The lady's steward and the Father-Procurator bought carefully for their establishments, talking meanwhile of the annual catch of eels for the abbey.

Picture Robese, the mother of Thomas, the son of Gilbert Becket, weighing the boy Thomas each year on his birthday, and giving his weight in money, clothes, and provisions to the poor. She was a type of the devout housewife of her day, and the wife of a wealthy trader.

The barons were fortifying their castles, and the duties of their ladies were homely and domestic. They provided the food for men-at-arms, the followers, and for their husbands; saw that simples were ready with bandages against wounds and sickness; looked, no doubt, to provisions in case of siege; sewed with their maidens in a vestiary or workroom, and dressed as best they could for their position. What they must have heard and seen was enough to turn them from the altar of fashion to works of compassion. Their houses contained dreadful prisons and dungeons, where men were put upon rachentegs, and fastened to these beams so that they were unable to sit, lie, or sleep, but must starve. From their windows in the towers the ladies could see men dragged, prisoners, up to the castle walls, through the hall, up the staircase, and cast, perhaps past their very eyes, from the tower to the moat below. Such times and sights were not likely to foster proud millinery or dainty ways, despite of which innate vanity ran to ribbands in the hair, monstrous sleeves, jewelled shoes, and tight waists. The tiring women were not overworked until a later period, when the hair would take hours to dress, and the dresses months to embroider.

In the town about the castle the merchants' wives wore simple homespun clothes of the same form as their ladies. The serfs wore plain smocks loose over the camise and tied about the waist, and in the bitter cold weather skins of sheep and wolves unlined and but roughly dressed.

In 1154 the Treaty of Wallingford brought many of the evils to an end, and Stephen was officially recognised as King, making Henry his heir. Before the year was out Stephen died.

in the twelfth century, plaits of hair were encasedI have not touched on ecclesiastical costume because there are so many excellent and complete works upon such dress, but I may say that it was above all civil dress most rich and magnificent.

I have given this slight picture of the time in order to show a reason for the simplicity of the dress, and to show how, enclosed in their walls, the clergy were increasing in riches and in learning; how, despite the disorders of war, the internal peace of the towns and hamlets was growing, with craft gilds and merchant gilds. The lords and barons fighting their battles knew little of the bond of strength that was growing up in these primitive labour unions; but the lady in her bower, in closer touch with the people, receiving visits from foreign merchants and pedlars with rare goods to sell or barter, saw how, underlying the miseries of bloodshed and disaster, the land began to bloom and prosper, to grow out of the rough place it had been into the fair place of market-town and garden it was to be.

Meanwhile London's thirteen conventual establishments were added to by another, the Priory of St. Bartholomew, raised by Rahere, the King's minstrel.

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

Suggested Reading:

About Empress Matilda - Empress Maud - Lady of the English
British Women's History
Fashion History
Medieval Women
Index to Etexts on Women's History
Medieval History

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