The Return of Medieval Fashion

 I twirled, enthusiastically, in my new dress.  

"Do you like it?" 

My sixteen year old looked me up and down, and then lazily flicked her eyes back to her book. 

"I think a Medieval person would love it," came the flat reply. 


My dress is dark brown. It has tiny flowers, slightly flouncy cap sleeves, a v-neck. It tucks into the waist before flowing out to the ankles and grazing the floor. If anything, it's more 1940s than 1340s, in which case it would have come with a wimple and some soft leather flats. Maybe a jug of ale or mead tucked into the parcel if I was lucky. 

But it's hard to deny that set among our city skyscrapers, e-scooters and telecom towers there is a huge demand for Medieval fashion. Type 'Medieval' into SHEIN, Amazon or Etsy and you'll find sword-themed jewellery sets, leather-laced cinch belts and puffy white blouses. There are floor-length tunic-type dresses, hooded cloaks, belted handbags you tie onto your waist (I do love those) and even some "rustic pants". You can even buy a replica of Elizabeth Woodville's chunky necklace to wear out on a date.

It's all over high fashion, too. Designers like Viktor and Rolf and Paco Rabanne have channeled Joan of Arc, Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine in their collections, with models strutting the catwalk in scoop necks, crowns and slinky, head-to-toe body armour. 

But why? And why now? 

Some would say it's a response to the Coronavirus situation, and being reminded of our fourteenth-century ancestors who faced the Black Death. A human response to a catastrophic event is often to find a historic equivalent. I mean, it's a lot less scary if we know we've tackled something like it before. So we salute our fallen ancestors and channel their courage by sliding on pearled headbands and masking up for the weekly shop. But tap out a quick internet query and you'll find that a love for Medieval-themed fashion goes back years before the pandemic, including Balmain in 2012, Tory Burch in 2014 and Ellie Saab in 2017. In 2019 Nabil Nayal took inspiration for their collection from Medieval manuscripts with calligraphy, ruffles and flowing, whisper-thin tunics.

Photo by Joel Overbeck on Unsplash

For others, it's a love of historical fiction and drama. Are we simply just emulating our favourite box-office stars? Game of Thrones and films like The King and The Duel bring a cleaner, more glamorous version of the Medieval world, with demure horseback riding, perfectly braided buns and a slick of lip gloss. And who doesn't look sexy in a coat of armour? But again, this doesn't explain why we weren't all donning cravats and cleavage-enhancing bustiers when 82 million of us watched Bridgerton. 

OK, some of us were. 

For me our fascination with Medieval fashion goes deeper than this. 

Think back to the first fairy-tale stories you read, or listened to, as children. I bet they're tales like Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, King Arthur and Robin Hood, all generally set between the sixth and the fifteenth centuries. Even 80's favourites like He-Man and She-Ra had their own Medieval vibe with magic swords and fancy armour. For many of us, a love of the Medieval is simply ingrained in our childhood. Stories of knights fighting dragons lulled us to sleep at bedtime and inspired our play (I remember skipping to the bottom of my garden aged six - I was on horseback, obviously - wielding a stick to fight off the dragons that lived under my dad's shed). 

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

We're hooked in as adults, too. We love finding out about chivalry, the code of honour and of course, the political games and characters that dominated the Plantagenet court. The fact that it's out of the grasp of living memory makes it even more mysterious. Green dragons and strange creatures curl their way around the margins of manuscripts and on our days off to relax we walk around grand castles with tall turrets and damp, musty dungeons. Old banqueting halls and corridors twinkle with silent, armoured mannequins and portraits gaze down at us indifferently from their gilded frames. There are real-life heroes (William Marshal, Edward III) and the villains (sorry, John and Richard II). Warrior queens like Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Tournaments, jousts and banquets. The flutter of bunting and the shrill fanfare of trumpets. It's sometimes difficult to figure out where real Medieval history ends and fantasy and legend begin

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

This love for an idyllic Medieval construct is nothing new. Edward III emulated King Arthur and his Round Table by forming a special knight's club, calling it the Order of the Garter, which still exists today.  Henry VIII showed off the Round Table at Winchester to the Emperor Charles V on a visit in 1522. During the nineteenth century, train stations were built to resemble Medieval castles - take a look at Bristol Temple Meads. And Victorian churches and town halls are carved with stylised stone heads, complete with Crusader chainmail, crowns - and fashionable handlebar moustache. 

The way I see it, our modern love of the Medieval comforts us. It takes us back to snuggling up with a book at storytime, listening while brave knights rescue cursed princesses and make all right again with the world. The impeccable order of the Arthurian court and the complicated web of chivalry that controlled the realm and made it a safe, respectful place to live. 

Whether it's the nostalgia of childhood games or bedtime stories read, soothingly, by a loving parent or grandparent, we are drawn to the imagined, idyllic glory of the Medieval world. For centuries we have often turned for comfort to a time we've perceived to be stronger, ordered and fairer than our own. 

It's not too much of a stretch to wonder then, at a time when the world is confronted by a pandemic, religious and political upheaval and social change, whether we wouldn't regress a little into our imagination and be our own heroes again, like when we were six. 

It's ironic too, that despite the barbaric, erratic nature of real Medieval England, there's something extremely settled and dignified about Medieval fashion. It evokes control, respect, strength, courage, grace and power.

And it looks pretty damn stylish, too. 

Did you enjoy this? You might also like: Sir Gawain's Skull at Dover Castle, Review of Netflix The King and 7 Reasons You Don't Really Wish There Was a Time Machine

Are you interested in women's Medieval history? I explore a number of women involved in the Wars of the Roses conflict in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. There's also a section on Medieval fashions of the day, and how important this was to influence, power and wider support. It also discusses women who created these fashions: embroiderers, silkwomen and laundresses, all working beneath the conflict. Order your copy here. 

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