15th century working class wedding dress


Well-Known Member
May 4, 2007
I'm attempting to research the above for my story - the family live in a rural location, working class but a bit higher status, perhaps think blacksmith? And I'm trying to research what they would have worn to get married in. I know a dress, perhaps blue, that could be worn again is the gist of it. I'm wondering if, for example, they may have made or bought trim to jazz it up for the wedding that would then be removed, and what sort of embelishments might have been available to them. It's a secondary world, late mediaeval/early renaissance, think perhaps mediterranean/southern Europe, but much of my research has been based in the UK. I wondered if anyone can recommend any sources, however deep or superficial. It's not a major part of the story, so I don't want to go down a big rabbit hole or spend hours ploughing through books, but I want it to be vaguely right.

There is also a younger potential bride and an older (widow) bride, if that would make any difference. All the resources I can find have working class or upper class fashions, and modern 'inspired by' ' wedding clothing.
As a general note, I'd be very wary in historical matters of extrapolating from the UK to the Mediterranean area -- which of itself comprises a number of different countries and cultures, of course, so even giving detail about Italian life might not resemble anything found in Spain. Clothing can vary enormously from place to another, and the lower down the social scale the more differences are likely to appear.

Anyhow, I can't point you to any specific book or website about wedding clothes, but I can waffle on about generalities if it might help.

You're right that (in England, at least) in previous centuries most women would have married in coloured gowns -- a new book I've got about Victorian clothing at the V&A confirms that the fashion for white wedding dresses only started in the mid C18th and even for a long while after that was restricted to the wealthy. By the early C19th the less well-off are choosing colours like dove grey or fawn or light blue, which were more practical and could be worn on other occasions, and I suspect that such colours -- comparatively sober without being sombre -- were prevalent in the previous couple of centuries. (But of course, by then England was a Protestant country, which had an effect on what was worn.)

If you're looking at the artisan class, for the most part they are likely to ape the current fashions of the wealthy -- sumptuary laws permitting -- so if you have some idea of upper class wedding dress fashion I'd suggest you use that as a basis and dial down on the quality of the materials used, so eg linen not silk, rabbit not sable. Hair coverings are going to be one way of distinguishing between the young bride and a widow, as are the colours, with fresher, slightly brighter colours for the younger girl.

Whether they make the clothes themselves or have them made depends on their skills, the time available, their wealth, and the availability of seamstresses locally. I suspect, though, that many brides wouldn't go to any great lengths or expense but instead they would marry in their best gowns, perhaps slightly tarted up for the wedding. If this is set in a kind of Renaissance, then you've no doubt got sleeves tied onto the bodice, not set into it. If that's the case they might well have new sleeves made in a richer, more sumptuous material, perhaps with slashing so that the fabric of a new underdress/shift/smock beneath can be pulled through and puffed. Similarly an old dress could be refashioned by a gore to give a new panel of more expensive material at the front, or lace could be used to decorate the neck.

Are the characters marrying in a religious ceremony in a church or similar? If so, then you'll have to take account of what restrictions are placed on women generally eg hair coverings might be compulsory and fashionable low cut dresses might not be allowed -- though the latter could be disguised with a scarf or the equivalent of a fichu. You also need to take into account the climate and season when deciding on how to dress them, and of course, you must think of their characters -- in every society there will be some who don't adhere to the usual forms of dress for one reason or another, so if these people are quite self-sufficient and don't care what the neighbours think they might not go to any trouble at all when it comes to what they wear at their weddings.

Frankly, though, despite the fact I'm very interested in historical clothing, and I've ensured I know exactly how my characters are dressed in all my WiPs, unless it's a plot point I don't see you need to give anything more than a basic description of what the two women are wearing. No one is going to "see" precisely what you describe, even if you go into detail, few readers are going to care one way or another, and fewer yet are going to have enough historical knowledge to question what you've done, and since it's fantasy even I'd give some latitude for artistic licence!
Excellent advice from The Judge. I thoroughly agree. I'll emphasize that the very notion of a "wedding dress" is a bit out of time and place. More likely it would be whatever was worn for Easter services (many rural folk attended Mass only once a year). That would be her finest clothing.

I'd also emphasize cultural differences across the Continent. Climate plays a role here, as does time of year, but so does local custom.
Thanks @sknox and @The Judge ! It's not based on a specific country, but i've taken some inspiration from Italy in my recent research as a similarly post feudal society where the climate is fairly similar, though the world I'm writing in has a pantheon, so many cultural aspects have to rely on imagination as catholicism affected so much in renaissance / mediaeval europe. I also find it hard that, in this story at least, it's largely set in a rural commuity the like of which don't tend to make it into the history books in any great depth. I don't go overboard on world building, just what's relevant to the story, so i have no idea what their cottage is made of for example, or the colour or fabric of their clothes normally. In this case, I'm looking for wedding related activities to be happening, and dress preparation is one of the obvious ones. @The Judge I have just learned detatchable sleeves would be for people who can afford to have help putting them on, but lots of interesting questions there to look into.
I have just learned detatchable sleeves would be for people who can afford to have help putting them on, but lots of interesting questions there to look into.
Don't forget, though, that until relatively recently even the middling sort of the middle classes could afford to have a servant or two, and this would certainly have been the case for artisans in the early renaissance, even if it was only a girl of around 12-15 effectively getting instruction on running a household from a friend of her mother's, in a similar way that sons would be sent out to another household to learn a trade/be apprenticed if they weren't working with their father.

Even if your characters have inset sleeves into their workaday gowns, unless they're really on their uppers they're going to have one good dress, which might well have separate sleeves (and if not might suddenly find itself sleeveless as they prepare for the wedding). If the two women aren't in the same household prior to their joint wedding, perhaps they live close enough by -- or have neighbours close by -- so that they helped each other out by popping round and tying on the sleeves when necessary. And I dare say that if that's not feasible, even men might have cottoned on how to do it. ;)

As for wedding preparations, the obvious thing is going to be food, especially if they're having a lot of guests. Or perhaps they'll want to decorate the house in some way -- if you have a pantheon of gods, perhaps they'll propitiate the god of good fortune/marriage with special swags and wreaths of flowers, or a wedding cloth might need to be woven on which they stand or under which they're married. They might all have to undergo a kind of purdah in which they read their equivalent of the Bible while fasting, or there might be cleansing ceremonies prior to marriage, which would require something like a sauna or bathhouse to be built and outfitted. Or the men/women might have to make a special garment like a shawl for their about-to-be-wives/husbands, or even for the officiant, who might have other specific requirements.

Since this is fantasy, don't limit yourself to what might or might not have really happened in Renaissance Catholic Italy, think about the society you've created and what it might have developed as wedding customs.

Anyway, good luck with it!
There is actually quite a large literature on rural medieval life. True, you won't find it in survey books and what's on the internet is sometimes pure nonsense (along with much that is good), but medieval villages have been studied in detail for several generations now. Admittedly, most of these will be had only via a library, but here's a sampler.

Katherine French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Gies, Francis, and Joseph Gies. Life in a Medieval Village (New York: Harper and Row)

It will be particulary difficult to find material on rural 15th Italy because urban history dominates that century. And of course finding anything on specific items of dress or common practice that far back will be tough. It simply wasn't anything that was recorded, and the physical artifacts haven't survived in any quantity. Another angle you could try would be to find 19thc (rarely, 18thc) illustrations of "traditional peasant" dress and use that as a jumping off point for your own account.
@sknox yes, this is an issue I find with that particular era in history. Thanks for the reading recommendations. I read an interesting paper on commoners (as in people with rights to common land) in the alps (switzerland I think). I need to get myself down to the local university library when i've got a bit more covid risk tolerance. Not being a historian and with limited capacity for non fiction reading, I find the questions writing throws up can be really randomly specific and stuff that isn't in the popular history/internet articles.

@The Judge thanks for the thoughts and ideas! Sometimes with historical context a bit of direction really helps, understanding just how limited in quantity their clothes were for example. I guess my thoughts when asking the question were partly in terms of what sorts of crafts/embellishments may have been available. They would clearly have had access to fresh flowers, however I know crochet was a much later invention. I'll have to have a general wedding brainstorming session. It really didn't occur to me (as someone who isn't a follower of fashion) that people would be aping the styles of the rich and making do with family members if they didn't have a pile of servants.

The older woman is the younger one's mother, trying to marry her off but it ends up more the other way round.
I guess my thoughts when asking the question were partly in terms of what sorts of crafts/embellishments may have been available. They would clearly have had access to fresh flowers, however I know crochet was a much later invention.
Ah. Some ideas that might help:
  • lace-making is centuries old, both needle lace and bobbin lace, and Italy was at the forefront of its making, but it's not something a beginner could do well and quickly, but they could certainly buy it even perhaps in rural areas -- though it's so labour intensive it would be expensive -- and use it to decorate cuffs and necklines
  • embroidery is even older, and could be done straight onto a gown or underdress or onto separate material that is then sewn on to the garments. Blackwork was very popular in Tudor times but had far earlier roots, and was certainly known in Spain
  • smocking is originally an English technique, but I've no idea if that made it to Southern Europe and it's only for lightweight fabrics, but would work for the cuffs of a chemise/shift
  • braid and tablet weaving are also very old techniques, and can be used to make narrow lengths of fabric, ideal for borders or garters
  • cording is again an old technique, and could be used by way of decoration or for practical use eg lacing up a bodice (so an old dress could be made over with more expensive lacings) or for hanging a small bag from a girdle
  • I doubt they could make brocade, but they could again buy it, though perhaps only in bigger towns and again it would be costly
  • buttons were in use from the C13th, and though they were usually made of eg horn, they could be made from thread over a form, and against could serve as both ornament and practical fastening
  • simple decorative pieces can be made from small lengths of fabric gathered into rose-like shapes and eg sewn onto a band for holding back the hair
Obviously, though, it's going to depend on their access to thread and/or fabric and their skills if they're doing any of these things, and if you've not shown them eg embroidering before it's going to be rather strange to have them suddenly proficient. So it might be easier -- but more expensive -- if they buy in the requisite passementerie and just affix it to their clothes.

By the way, I trust the men are also being given work to do for the wedding!
Speaking as someone who did 17th century re-enactment - English Civil War but also civilian re-enactment.

Men had detachable sleeves too - for both sexes you might have workaday sleeves and take them off for a hot or mucky job and roll up the sleeves of your shirt/shift.
You can attach sleeves to the garment before you put it on.
Garments and cloth got re-worked - even in high status families there are surviving examples of interesting seams in hidden places that show the dress or doublet was made from cloth previously used.
There was a really big second hand clothes trade.
Really posh garments with lots of fur or braid trim would generally have the expense trim removed before sale, so you'd have less faded lines on the cloth where it had gone
It is entirely possible that someone could buy a many times re-sold originally posh garment with just enough nice fabric left to make a pair of fancy sleeves, or even to be carefully cut into strips to make fancy ribbons/braid to be sewn in lines onto a less fancy garment.
Natural dyes fade under sunlight far faster than modern dyes - and you'd have a fade pattern that varies with the position on the garment - shoulders see more sun for example
Bear in mind the decorative styles I am talking about are 17th century English.
There was also red work that was similar to black work in pattern - and blackwork was imitating printed wood cut and later engraving plate pictures. It is very exacting needlework - not just a bit of black embroidery slapped on, but you are actually counting the threads of the cloth you are embroidering and maybe wrapping the black silk thread over and under individual threads in the cloth - especially when aiming for the sort of hatching you get in engravings. Not for the amateur.
Not entirely.....High status Medieval men could be peacocks.
Look at the Procession of the Magi by Gozzoli, painted for the Medici

Stocking knit hadn't been invented yet, so all the hose are cloth cut on the bias, and tightly fitted to avoid creases and sags - a Medieval re-enactor friend says done properly, you can't sit down in them - and there are modern peacock young men who'll be prepared to strut their stuff in period hose at a re-enactment and not sit down all day. For the modern world, think skinny jeans or leather trousers so tight you have to put them on with talcum powder.

High status marriages were alliances, and there would be processions from both families to show how superb they all were - in fact competitive processions.

Now blacksmith - don't think you'd have clothes so tight you couldn't sit or work in them. But you could have somebody swanking by above their station, or the local Lord dropping by in passing to pay respects to a noted local figure. Or sending his steward with a present or the like.
Further thoughts - fashion - 17th century fashions took up to a decade to change unlike today. Unless you had a political upheaval like the start of the Commonwealth when everything turned more sober - so higher necklines, sober colours and then the Restoration of the Monarcy and much lower necklines and much brighter colours.

Colours - the more intensely cloth is dyed, the more expensive that cloth will be compared to others of the same colour that is less intense.
Colours from a dye plant can vary with the mordant (fixative) used - brighter or duller. Madder plus alum is a spectacular foxy orange colour.
Sombre colours that are intense, can be more expensive than a pale bright colour.
Dyers would use a vat several times over - starting with the best quality cloth, or spun thread, getting the most intense colour and then working down the cloth quality as the dye vat got weaker.
Blue - is likely to be from woad. That is actually one of the cheaper colours in what is now the UK and was very common in Scotland in particular. Woad is home grown, and a bit tricky in the dyeing and comes out on the part faded blue jeans level. The pigment in woad is indigotin, so related to indigo (the dye on blue jeans).
The very cheapest is "in the grey" as it was known on wool cloth - undyed. It wasn't grey it was natural sheep's wool which can be creamy, or greyish, or speckled - pale but not pure white.
Linen was bleached in the sun.
Imported dyes are usually more expensive than homegrown.
Some mordants are more expensive than others.

Just a thought - you could wrap in a bit of non-western tradition like painting on patterns on hands in a dye such as is done with henna at Indian weddings. But different pattern and a local dye. Or something else that is pure invention to ring the changes a bit.
Not entirely.....High status Medieval men could be peacocks.
Look at the Procession of the Magi by Gozzoli, painted for the Medici
It was of course a joke. I've done a lot of weddings and know they come in all flavors and fervors, but in general the grooms I knew were less involved and occasionally almost not involved with the minutia of the wedding and it's reception.
It was of course a joke. I've done a lot of weddings and know they come in all flavors and fervors, but in general the grooms I knew were less involved and occasionally almost not involved with the minutia of the wedding and it's reception.
Absolutely. Buy suit and book honeymoon and stay well out of the way of the prospective mother in-law who has been planning every aspect of the wedding since the day her daughter was born. Talk about irresistible force.
Thanks @Montero! Wrong century but a lot of it will still hold true. I'd seen about the first batch of dye thing, which is interesting. I would guess for a sheep farming community undyed clothes would have been the norm for a lot of clothes as they have more access to wool than to the industries processing it.

I can see how the male fashion thing might affect two of my main characters. They are living in a time when men were being told off for having tunics indecently short, but their profession - working with dragons - requires a lot of practicalities. Interesting that blue is cheap, I can see how it became a wedding tradition.
To be clear, not all blues are cheap. Woad faded-blue-jeans blue is cheap. A lovely intense Virgin Mary blue is expensive. Don't know how you'd achieve that one on cloth. In high class art it was achieved by powdered lapis lazuli and horrendously expensive.

Regarding a sheep farming community and wool production.
People handling sheeps wool a lot a) honk of sheep and b) may well have good skin on their hands from the lanolin.
(Some) Tall people get back trouble when bending over shearing sheep. Short and stocky is a more practical.
It takes 8 carders to keep one spinner working full time and 8 spinners to keep one weaver working.
Carding is really hard work on your hands.
17th century men used to be carders and spinners as well as weavers, but there were a lot of women spinning too - spinning houses would be set up where single women could live and support themselves (in the basics) by spinning wool - hence spinster.
Carding and spinning on a drop spindle or distaff can be something you pick up and put down and work on while walking - well at least a distaff, drop spindle would be a little harder - thinking walking with a yo-yo.

You'd also need linen production for community use - stands of linen, retting ponds, combing (not carding) and a distaff for spinning it. (Don't think that linen could be spun on wheels, not sure, you'd need to check.) Retting - as in rotting - plants to get the long fibres out of the stems is another stinky job.

Have you read Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael? They ring true on details to the best of my knowledge - though said knowledge doesn't go back to Medieval period.

Did a search for how to achieve a deep blue in the Medieval period. This blog looks interesting

Also - all sheep are not equal in terms of wool. The higher altitude/wetter climate a sheep lives the coarse and thicker the wool tends to be - so Herdwick wool makes great long wearing carpets and blankets but scratchy jumpers. Upland sheep tend to be tougher and more independent minded than lowland sheep - who tend to have softer wool. I'd do some reading about rare breed sheep if I were you, for background authenticity of the community. Basically wild sheep were selectively bred to be easy to handle, chunky in meat production and to have soft wool - but sheep like that can only live in the lowlands and away from predators, or with high quality shepherding.
Anything needing to live in harsher climes or around predators need more nouse - but will be harder to handle because they try to outthink people (and some can).
Depending on your setting, look up guardian dogs and current sheepherding practice in places like Norway and especially Romania - and look up transhumance - effectively still going on today even with settled community - following the seasonal grass.
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Thanks @Montero and @hitmouse , I have already done some research into transumance. This is a mountain area so I guess they are likely buying in wool to make fine things, though having someone trying to rear sheep that are more delicate would make an interesting plot element, as dragon predation is a big part of the story. They have ways of protection, but the sheep would need to be not too daft. I have done minimal research into guardian dogs too - interesting to learn that whilst shepherds had dogs back then, a herding sheepdog as we have now probably didn't exist. I really hadn't thought about different types of sheep, I don't know why, I will have to look into it. I have read all or most of the cadfaels, I'll have to reread them.
Small thought on fancy trim.
Pedlars and chapmen.
It occurred to me that finding formerly fancy clothes at a second hand trader might be more a city and town thing - as the wearers of fancy clothes would tend to wear more country clothes on their country estates. However pedlars and chapman with backpacks and a pack animal if more prosperous, definitely tromped across the country selling small, light, higher value items not necessarily available locally - ribbons, needles, whatever the market wanted.
So the pedlar or chapman might turn up with the salvagable bits from second hand clothes - and news and gossip.

Locally they could be working with a lucette to make braids and cords - which could be anything from workaday for tying round bundles of kindling, to done in fancy colours as trim. Though you are then back to the dyeing in brighter colours.

Mountain area sheep - or wearing the scratchy wool...... It would be good as a more water repellent outer layer - cloak, hat, jacket just need to keep it away from your skin.
I once got to feel a jumper knitted from Herdwick fleece - it was coarse and a bit scratchy but if you kept it off your skin with a linen lining/shirt it would be OK. So while there is an ideal wool for clothes, they'd probably use their own wool for most of their clothes, and buy in softer for under layers and specials if they can afford it.
It is stunning what people with very little will put up with - nettle fibres used to be used in place of linen and a civil war recruitment incentive was being given a linen shirt.

It's worth reading about big horn sheep - they are not domesticated - but will give you an idea of sheep capability. I read a book by someone who liked walking in big horn sheep country and she recounted coming across a bloke and his dog that were trying to harass a big horn ram into jumping off a cliff. The ram dodged at the last moment and the dog went over instead.
Rare breed rams can be very variable - from hyped testosterone bundles to quite timid.

And goats are stunning. Goats can climb incredible slopes - like the front of a dam or a slightly sloping tree trunk to get up and get vegetation.

If you can get it, see if you can watch Kate Humble's Wild Shepherdess series - especially the one set in Afghanistan. Different breed of sheep to anything in UK.

I read an account online from a hobby farmer in the US about hearing a frightful racket in their goat pen in the middle of the night. There were feral dogs and other predators. They ran out with guns thinking they were too late and they were - the billy goat with his long straight horns had kebabed a large dog that had got into his pen and the racket was him trying to scrape the dog off his horns.
Rams with curly horns generally bludgeon rather than skewer, though that can break skin and draw blood from grazes.
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