Costuming takes on a very important role in fantasy writing. It sets the tone for a story and can also tell the reader much about the character. Hooded robes or other voluminous garments appear any time the writer wants to add mystery to a character or conceal the character’s identity. Clean, well-made silk dresses and capes imply wealth, while dirty, threadbare rags show poverty. An eye-patch gives a character an evil air, but replace that patch with a belled cap and he becomes a jester. Just as in the theater, a costume can tell your audience volumes about a character in very few words.
Unlike historical writers, fantasy writers aren’t bound by any set of rules. They are free to pick and choose whatever fashions and forms work best for their story. But in order to help keep the medieval pageantry so often associated with this genre, the following list should prove invaluable whether you are dressing kings or peasants.
Black-work: A gorgeous Renaissance invention, black-work was simply embroidery done with black silk.
Brocade: A tightly woven fabric with a raised pattern. Originally, the pattern was done with either gold or silver threads, but over time other threads were used. This was a material strictly reserved for only those who could afford it.
Canvas: A coarse cloth made of flax or hemp. It was worn by all.
Calico: A white cotton imported from India. Reserved for the rich.
Cambric: A fine white linen.
Damask: A silk fabric that was woven with various, often elaborate, patterns and designs. This was an expensive cloth reserved for royalty and nobility.
Embroidery: Though not a fabric, embroidery was highly prized and often decorated even the poorest of fabrics. Peasant designs were simple, often nothing more than just geometric. Noble clothing was much more elaborate and the stitches were often done with gold and silver thread.
Flannel: A lightweight woolen fabric, flannel was often used as undergarments, bandages and wash rags. It was available to all.
Freize: A thick woolen cloth, it was a lightweight silky material that also bore a semblance to velvet. It was an expensive fabric worn by those who could afford it.
Gold and Silver Tissue: A lightweight fabric that had gold or silver threads woven into it. For the most part, it was reserved for royalty. However, richer nobility and even a few enterprising wealthy merchants might also acquire a bolt every now and again.
Holland: A very finely woven lawn material that was often used for shirts and undergarments. Usually reserved for the rich.
Kersey: A woolen cloth, often ribbed, worn by the wealthy.
Lawn: A finely woven linen reserved for the wealthy.
Linen: Cloth made from flax and used by all.
Musterdevilliers: A gray woolen cloth reserved for the middle and upper classes.
Russet (more commonly known as homespun): A coarse woolen cloth that was most often reddish-brown or gray colored. Russet was a favored material of the lower classes, but could also be found among the poorer nobility.
Samite: A silken cloth that was often woven with gold. Reserved for the wealthy.
Scarlet: Not to be confused with the color, scarlet cloth was most often red, but could also be a number of other colors. It was a softer cloth that draped in folds. Usually reserved for nobility, it could also be found in the possession of outlaws.
Serge: A woolen fabric used for clothing and all types of other supplies: bed-covers, hangings, funeral drapes, shrouds and so on. It was used by all.
Silk: An expensive cloth woven from silk threads in the Orient. Originally reserved only for royalty, it gradually became used by the rich who could afford it.
Taffeta: A plain-woven glossy silk reserved for the rich.
Tartan: A twilled woolen fabric named for its tartan coloring and design.
Black: First associated with the Vikings, black was worn by all and eventually became the color worn by mourners, the elderly and scholars.
Blue: Light blue was worn by all, but dark blue was worn by higher-ranking nobles and royalty until it became associated with scholars and apprentices.
Crimson: A bright red worn by the wealthy.
Flame: A bright red-orange reserved for the wealthy.
Gold Cloth: Reserved for royalty.
Green: All shades. Worn by all.
Murrey: Deep purple red. Worn by the rich.
Parti-colored: Clothes that were often made up of several different colors like a Harlequin doll.
Purple: Reserved for royalty and very high-ranking nobility.
Red: Worn by all.
Red-browns: Extremely popular and worn by all.
Scarlet: A vibrant shade first reserved for royalty and then worn only by the nobility.
Silver Cloth: Reserved for royalty.
Siskin: Light greenish-yellow worn by the wealthy.
Slate: A gray blue. Worn by all.
Tan: A light brown worn by the nobility.
Tartan: A plaid pattern of Scottish origin, the unique colors and pattern of which denote the wearer’s clan or family.
Tawny: A brownish-yellow color that was popular. Worn by all.
Watchet: A light greenish-blue worn by all.
White: Worn by all, but preferred by the nobility and royalty.
Yellow: Worn by all.
Aprons: Used by middle- and lower-class women, they could be a variety of colors.
Barbe: A pleated piece of linen similar to the barbette and windows, it was worn underneath the chin of widows and over the chin to denote a noblewoman.
Barbette: A linen band that wrapped around the head, under the chin. It was usually pinned.
Butterfly Headdress: Worn at the back of the head, it was made of wire covered with fabric, and was draped with a fine gauzy veil that draped over the wearer’s forehead and down her back. The almost right angle differentiated it from the hennin.
Caps: Made of linen, these were often worn over frets or with barbettes or wimples.
Caul (a.k.a. Fret or Crispinette): A coarse hair net made out of silk, gold or silver. It was worn only by royalty and nobles.
Caplet: A padded roll that was worn on the head much like a hat. It was often bejeweled and embroidered. Variations of this could be horn-shaped or heart-shaped to where it dipped low around the forehead of the wearer. Some were extremely wide and high. It was most fashionably worn with the houppelande.
Cloak: An outer garment worn to keep the wearer warm in cool weather. Ofter semicircular or square, its shape was dictated by whatever was currently fashionable. Most fastened with a chord or brooch. However, there were a few styles in the early Middle Ages that fit over the head. Wealthy and nobles often lined their cloaks with fur.
Cote-hardie: A gown that was cut tight to the hips and then fell in folds to the ground. A button of rows down the front were used to fasten it.
Crispinette: see Caul.
Dagged or Dagging: Scallops cut into the fabric for decorative purposes.
Diadem: In the Middle Ages, it was a crown or golden chaplet that denoted royalty. In fantasy, they can either be the former, or are more akin to chain mail in that they are made of finely riveted silver or gold. Oftentimes jewels are interwoven with the metal. These elaborate pieces drape over the forehead and down the back. They are worn by priestesses, enchantresses, demons, ladies and thieves.
Fillet: A stiffened piece of linen, it was molded into a wide headband that was worn like a hat. Often it was placed over the barbette or a veil.
Fitchets: A hole cut into the cote-hardie that allowed the wearer access to their purse, which was hung on the girdle.
Fret: see Caul
Girdle: A leather or metal belt worn about the hip. The style and length varied depending on the fashion of the day. Sometimes a purse was tied to it.
Gloves: Made out of leather or fabric, they were worn during winter for travel. The wealthy and nobles had gloves lined with fur and some of these were scented with flower oils.
Headdress: This name referred to the combination of wimple and veil, or the fillet and barbette, or barbette and veil, or a cap and veil or barbette.
Hennin: The high pointed headdress that most people associate with the Middle Ages. It often had a piece of sheer veil worn over it, or it could have a lirapipe attached to the point. It was constructed on a wire frame either left bare or covered with fabric.
Hose: Either thick like a sock or thin like the modern-day counter-part, they were fastened about the knee with a garter.
Houppelande: A long gown that fell loose from the shoulders. It was belted at the waist and the collar was often high and tight.
Kirtle: Generic name for a dress. It could take a number of shapes and did so throughout the period. It was most often used to refer to the tight-fitting undergown or smock.
Lirapipe: A long streamer that was attached to a chaplet, hennin or heart-shaped headdress.
Mantle: A cloak worn indoors for state functions. It was attached to the dress with brooches or was tied with chords.
Pelisse: A jacket-type covering that was often worn over a dress and sometimes for outdoors.
Purse: A sack made of leather or cloth, it was drawn closed with cord or leather straps that were usually long. The chords were then fastened to the girdle and the purse hung down to about midthigh.
[PURSE: Unlike the women’s handbags of today, medieval purses were worn on the belts of both men and women.]
Sideless Surcoat: This was an outer dress worn over a smock or kirtle. The sides were left open and cut to the hip. The neck could be square or round depending on the fashion. It was worn by the rich and often as court dress, or for state functions.
Sleeves: Due to the rapidly changing fashions, these were often made to come off so that the owner could update the sleeves without throwing out the costly yardage of the dress. Women were also known to give a sleeve as a token to a knight or lover.
Smock (a.k.a. Undertunic): The chemise or gown worn beneath a dress. In some styles, it was fully concealed and in others either the sleeves or skirt (or both) were visible.
Supertunic: A strip of material with a hole cut out for the head. It could have the sides sewn shut, or were sometimes left unsewn. In the Middle Ages, it appeared around 1200 and was worn only by the lower classes. The sides were sewn up and the ends of it were tucked into the sides while they worked. Though similar, it should not be confused with the sideless surcoat worn by the rich and nobility.
Tippet: A white piece of linen that was attached to the upper arm and worn to trail down to the floor. It was a purely decorative piece.
Undertunic: Another name for the chemise or smock. It was worn beneath a gown and, depending on the cut of the gown, was hidden completely or seen.
Veil: These could be long or short depending on fashion. Some were worn down the back while others were wrapped about the shoulders. Often a circlet or band was worn to help hold it in place. If not, then it was pinned to the hair.
Widows: A wimple worn over the chin with a series of pleats down the front.
Wimple: This covered the throat and was often tucked into the neckline of the dress. Most often it was worn with a veil over it.
Braies or Breeches: Pants. The lower classes tended to wear looser pants and the nobles or wealthy wore more form-fitting ones. Many of these either had feet made into them (some of which had leather sewn onto the bottom so they could be worn without shoes) or with loops to secure them on the foot when they were worn with boots. They were usually secured at the waist with a drawstring.
Cap: Any of a variety of small, usually brimless hats.
Chaperon: Similar to the woman’s chaplet, it was made of material rolled up around the head. Extra material was placed up top and allowed to drape to one side. It was often worn with a coif.
Chaplet: Same as that worn by the women.
Cloak: Like the women, these took on a variety of shapes and styles and were worn to keep the wearer warm in winter.
Codpiece: When the hose were so long that they met and were tied together at the waist, a small triangular piece covered the joining. This codpiece could be made of a similar or contrasting color and was obviously seen with the shorter gypons and houppelandes.
Coif: Similar to the barbette, they were made of white linen and covered the head and ears. Black coifs denoted scholars and elders.
Cote-hardie: Worn over the gypon, it originally went to the knee, then was shortened to where it barely reached the hips. The front was fastened with buttons. Poorer men wore a cote-hardie of medium length.
Cowl (a.k.a. Hood): These covered the head of the wearer during inclement weather and often came to a point that draped down the wearer’s back.
Dagging: Scallops cut into the material to decorate the gorget, hem of the tunic or sleeves.
Doublet: A tailored tunic worn over the undertunic. The front of it was often stuffed to make the wearer appear more broad-shouldered. The length of it depended on fashion.
Folly-bells: Worn by noblemen and jester alike, these small bells were hung on little chains from the girdle.
Garnache: A supertunic that was allowed to drape over the shoulder to below the elbow. Like the supertunic, it was either left open at the sides or sewn together.
Gorget: The cape part of a hood or cowl that covered the shoulders.
Gloves: Usually made of leather for the rich and linen for the poor, they were worn out-of-doors. Nobles and high officials would often wear them indoors as well.
Girdle: A belt that wrapped around the waist, the style and length of which varied according to fashion.
Gypon: Another name for a doublet.
Hose: Made of linen or wool, these were pulled over the braies up to the knee and were gartered or cross-gartered to the shin. Wealthier men and noblemen often wore loose hose that reached all the way up their inseams.
[Gorget: This plain gorget covered the shoulders. Other styles might have a pattern along the bottom edge.]
Houppelande: A loose gown that hung from the shoulders and was belted to the waist. The collar was high and tight. Richer men wore it long or short, and merchants and the poor wore it calf-length. A slit was made at either side or down the center to allow for greater mobility.
Jerkin: Identical to the houppelande except that the collar was cut low into a circle or square.
Kilt: A knee-length pleated skirt worn by Scottish men. Kilts were usually made of tartan to display the wearer’s clan or family.
Lirapipe: This was the name given for the hood when the point of it was extended and left to dangle down the back to the wearer’s feet. Sometimes it was coiled around the head or neck.
Pallium: A togalike garment, it was draped over the shoulders and hip.
Phyrgian cap: A cone-shaped cap made of wool or linen, the brim of which was folded up.
Purse: Men wore purses similar to the women’s.
Supertunic: A strip of material with a hole cut out for the head. Some of these also had a slit cut up the center to allow the wearer to ride a horse. The sides were often left open, but could be sewn shut. Supertunics generally hung down to midcalf.
Swords and Daggers: Neither of these were worn with civilian dress. However, both men and women kept a small knife with them that they used for eating.
Tippet: A long streamer that hung from the elbow, down the wearer’s leg.
Tunic: A typical shirt, the style and cut of which varied according to fashion.
Undertunic: An undershirt. More pious laity would sometimes have this made out of horsehair or another coarse material (hence the term “hair shirt”).
Poorer people wore sandles or ankle-length shoes that were little more than leather tied onto their feet. Boots were mostly worn by men and they took on a variety of styles from shin-length to thigh-length. Wealthy men often had them lined with fur and would turn down the tops to show off the lining. Women wore shoes made of leather and wealthy women would sometimes have them made of fabric.
Both boys and girls were dressed identically to their parents. Babies were swaddled in blankets or lightweight and their limbs tied, much as you see the character Elora Danan swaddled in the film Willow. The thought behind this was that infants, whose movements can be somewhat spastic, would hurt themselves with their flailings about.
Nuns wore simple dresses, the style and color of which were determined by their order. Most wore veils and once the wimple came into fashion, they wore the two together. Crucifixes were often tied to their girdles and some wore wedding rings to symbolize their marriage to God and the Church. Although not sanctioned as part of their uniform, many sisters wore silk chemises beneath their coarse dresses. Some of these chemises were even dyed red! And on the opposite end of the spectrum, the extremely pious would sometimes wear horsehair shirts beneath their robes to chafe their skin and remind them of the suffering of Christ.
Monks and priests wore homespun robes, the color and style again dictated by their order. Most wore a wooden cross around their neck, and leather sandles or shoes on their feet. Bishops, archbishops and popes wore silks, the style and color of which is virtually unchanged to today.
Priestesses and sorceresses are seen in a variety of outfits. In Kinley MacGregor’s story “Born of Fire,” her priestesses wear golden robes similar to monk’s robes. In Pamela McCutchinson’s Golden Prophecies, we see priestesses dressed as Romans. And in Wizard of Seattle, by Kathy Hooper, sorcerers and sorceresses are dressed in everyday clothing.
Since wizards and sorcerer are often associated with religious figures (most likely due to the mystic legends of the Druids), they are often depicted in the same type of homespun robes, the colors of which tend to be black, white, brown or navy. The somewhat cliché image of the wizard’s robes are dark garments embroidered with stars or moons; leave this kind of garb for the Disney movies, not your novel. A much more realistic representation is that of Merlin in the film Excalibur. There, Merlin wears monk-like robes and a metal skull cap.
Although chastity belts have been used in a number of fantasy novels over the years, they were not a part of the European Middle Ages, although there is evidence to show that they were used in the Far East during that period. Chastity belts have a variety of forms, the most common of which is the belt made of a magical, nonrusting metal that either the heroine or her love must quest to find a way to open it. We see just such an example in David Vierling’s Armor Amore.
Another type of chastity belt is that made of cloth and bound with a magical spell to keep all men at bay, or one that has a magical knot that only a designated lover can undo. This latter is the type Marie de France uses in her novel, Guigemar. In this epic, the lady begs for the hero’s short and he wraps it around her in such a manner that no man can remove it without cutting it. The heroine swears only to love the man who can undo the knot without violence and, of course, that is only the hero.