Medieval rural clothing
Peasants probably wore underclothes like other people (a smock or shift for a woman and a shirt and braies for men) possibly made of thin rough wool or a coarse hemp fabric, long-sleeved woollen tunics (calf- or ankle-length for women and knee-length for men) and sometimes an outer garment of woollen cloth called an over- or super-tunic. Woollen leg coverings (hose) were sometimes worn, but illustrations also suggest that men went bare-legged. Both men and women covered their hair with head cloths or caps over which they wore a variety of hats and hoods. Men and women also wore leather shoes, gloves and mittens, belts (or girdles) and pockets or purses – the latter attached to the belt which could also be used to hang short knives (in leather scabbards) and tools. Woollen clothing was often ‘white’ (i.e. undyed, so varying shades from brown to grey to white, depending on the natural colour of the wool) or ‘russet’, which was again undyed, and a shade of grey. Wealthier peasants are more likely to have worn brightly-coloured clothes (dyed with madder, woad and weld) if they could afford to.
Fashions changed in second half of the fourteenth century with the introduction of more body-hugging styles and a better-fitting sleeve. The male tunic became shorter and closer fitting and hose were more regularly worn. Women’s clothes also became tighter, with tighter sleeves and bodices, that were laced. Men and women wore loose outer garments, often consisting of cloaks with hoods. The greater wealth (a very relative term), of the peasantry in the late medieval period meant that men and women were able to dress more colourfully.
Most peasants grew flax and hemp in their gardens and wealthier peasants owned sheep. However, even at this date textile and garment production was highly specialised. Women and girls would have spun woollen thread at home using a drop spindle. They may also have sewn their clothing and bedding. Other parts of the process such as weaving and tailoring were undertaken by men, as in the ‘tailors of woollen cloth’ and ‘weavers of woollen cloth’ who appear in the 1379 poll tax returns for Sussex.