Gunnas to Houppelands
A Thousand Years of English Dresses
by Affreca McNaven
What do you see when you think of typical Medieval clothing? Do you
think of flowing pink dresses with pointed princess hats? Since the
Middle Ages lasted a thousand years, there were a lot more types of dresses.
This paper will trace fashions for women's clothing in England for the
fifth through fifteenth centuries.
The Middle Ages started in England during the fifth century. The
Saxon period (from A.D. 460 to A.D. 1066) had a distinctive style of
dress (Evans (120).
The first garment is the tunica. It was a fitted underdress,
usually made of linen. It had long tight sleeves and the skirt reached
to the floor (Evans 120).
Over this was worn a gunna, or gown. It was fitted also and had
sleeves that reached only to the elbows. The hem was tucked up on the
right side into an embroidered leather belt. Saxon women did this to
show off the bright material of the tunica (Evans 120).
Customs often create a demand for new fashions. Saxon custom
"decreed that the locks of the fair Saxon woman be entirely concealed"
(Evans 120). To do this, many Saxon women wore headrails. Headrails
were two and a half by three quarter yard strips of linen or silk that
were drawn from the right shoulder over the head and to the left
shoulder (Evans 120-1).
During the latter part of this period, the ninth and tenth
centuries, the tunica began to change. The sleeves flared out
extravagently. They also gained bands of decoration (Harris and
Johnson 140). The trend was toward barbarian extravagence.
The Norman invasion changed the trend of English fashion, as an
invading army usually does. The ideea was for elegance, simple yet
One thing the invasion changed was the name of the overdress.
It was now called a bliaut. It was tight at the top with a very
full skirt. The sleeves were still very wide. It was not made of
one rectangular piece, like the earlier dresses. The top, or bodice,
was sewn to the skirt (Harris and Johnson 140). It was a dress made
to show off the body, not hide it.
The major change in the twelfth century was the sleeves. They
were now narrow until the elbows, or sometimes the wrists, and then
widened out so far that they dragged on the ground. To deal with
this, women would often tie up their trailing sleeves. Consequently,
tied sleeves became the fashion (Koehler 156). Fashion is often
influenced by necessity.
The late twelfth century introduced parti-coloring. Parti-
colored clothing was made of two or more colors or patterns of
material making up different halfs or quarters of the garment.
Parti-coloring lasted until the end of the Middle Ages and is often
considered to be a typical Medieval fashion (Yarwood 315).
The next century, the thirteenth, is "remarkable for its
simnplicity and grace" (Clinch 36). It, and the fourteenth
century, are also remarkable for their tight and fitted styles.
The button was the innovation hat brought about the fitted
style. Brought back by the Crusaders, buttons made it not
necessary foir dresses to be loose enough to be pulled over the
head. The waist could be tighter than the shoulders with buttons.
Also gussets, wedge shaped inserts that increase movement, made
tight fitted dresses practical (Brody-Johnson 122-3).
As a result, the cotehardie became the fashion. It was a
fitted dress that flared out at the hips or waist. The sleeves
extended to the wrists or to the knuckles. An underdress was
worn underneath the cotehardie and would peek out at the neck
or sleeve edges (Kinsey and Gandy-Harsh 54-5). It was a style
designed to show off how tight your tailor could sew your dresses.
Over the cotehardie was sometimes worn a sideless surcoat.
The sideless surcoat was sometimes called the Gates of Hell
(Kinsey and Gandy-Harsh 55). It consisted of a narrow bib
attached to a full skirt. It was often trimmed with fur. The
belt was worn over the cotehardie, and not the surcoat (Rowland-
Warne 15). This ephasized one of the major parts of this period,
"From 1350 to 1380 all women of fashion were to be seen with
tippets at their elbows." (Evans 125) Tippets were not little dogs;
they were strips of fabric attached at the elbow to the sleeves of
cotehardies. They were very long and hung down to the knees (Evans
125-6). They emphasized another focus of this period, the vertical
The trend in the fifteenth century went the other way. Width
was now the emphasis, not slim and vertical. It was now stylish to
have wide hips and voluminous sleeves (Houston 159).
The new style of dress was called a houppeland. The bodice
had a deep V-neck that showed off the shoulders. The skirt was
enormous and attached to the bodice above the hips (Lester and Kerr
101). It was fashionable to be a big woman.
The most obvious feature of hte houppeland was its sleeves.
They no longer hugged the arms, but were instead very baggy (Houston 159).
Wealth was shown by how much material you could waste in baggy sleeves.
Another common characteristic of the houppeland is dagging. The
edges of sleeves often had scalloped edges called dags (Yarwood 236).
The purpose of fifteenth century fashion, showing off wealth, was done
with dags since it also wasted a lot of fabric.
This paper answered the question "What was typical women's
clothing in the Middle Ages in England?". English fashion in
the Middle Ages ranged from gunnas to houppelands, and many things
in between. Flowing pinl dresses with cone shaped princess hats
was clearly not the case.
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