Home » History » Peasant dress through the ages – Part One 

Peasant dress through the ages – Part One 

I was researching working class clothing for my HSM Challenge, and it struck me that there is no real outline as to what the poor wore in every age. 

Well, I thought, I had better change that. So, we start in the Medieval times…

So what did the female worker wear everyday? 

 The basic garment worn by both men and women alike was a tunic. 


This image is probably much later than the other two below as the style of clothing is more complex. For women, the skirt and bodice are different colours,ms igniting that the bodice colour would be the Kirklees colour and the skirt an additional layer. The aprons worn are also different colours – White for the lady in the left and green for the one bending over. Usually, the apron was a simple square or rectangular piece of cloth, often linen and sometimes hemp, which the wearer would tie around his waist by its corners. These ones seem to somehow be fastened to the skirts at the back. Most chores that occupied the peasant housewife’s time were potentially messy; cooking, cleaning, gardening, drawing water from the well. Thus, women typically wore aprons throughout the day. A woman’s apron often fell to her feet and sometimes covered her torso as well as her skirt. So common was the apron that it eventually became a standard part of the peasant woman’s costume. Through much of the Middle Ages, aprons were undyed hemp or linen, but in the later medieval period they began to be dyed a variety of colors, which is why I believe this painting to be late Medieval. 

From this image, we can see that on her head she wore a coif (lady on the left) and then I imagine that most would have worn some form of straw hat for working out in the fields (lady in the right, sitting, back to us).

Women wore their tunics long, usually to mid-calf, which made them, essentially, dresses. Some were even longer, with trailing trains that could be used in a variety of ways. If any of her chores required her to shorten her dress, the average peasant woman could tuck the ends of it up in her belt. Clever methods of tucking and folding could turn the excess fabric into a pouch for carrying picked fruit, chicken feed, etc. or she could wrap the train over her head to protect herself from the rain.


In this case, a long sleeved shift, most likely hemp, would have been the under outer most layer (stays would most likely not have been worn for working in the fields) and a one-piece dress over the top, tied with a belt. From this picture we can ascertain that blue was popular, and the lady on the right has her gown laced at the front, for ease of dressing. 

The blue colour was a dye called woad. Other colours were less common, but not unknown; pale yellow, brown, light red and orange could all also be achieved. These colours would fade over time, as long lasting dye was too expensive. The gowns are not long, as that would be impractical, and both ladies have a head covering, the left lady has her hair tied back, but on the right it seems to just be a veil. Women usually wore veils — a simple square, rectangle, or oval of linen kept in place by tying a ribbon or cord around the forehead. Some women also wore wimples, which attached to the veil and covered the throat and any exposed flesh above the tunic’s neckline. A barbette might be used to keep the veil and wimple in place, but for most working class women, this extra piece of fabric may have seemed like an unnecessary expense. Headgear was very important for the respectable woman; only unmarried girls and prostitutes went without something covering their hair. 

In summer, shoes would not always have been worn, to save wear and tear. In winter and when the weather was worse, as well as working in stony fields, a simple style of leather shoe would have been worn, with a wooden or many-layered leather sole. 


We can tell that this lady is most likely not wearing petticoats under her dress, as the outline of her legs are clearly seen and the fabric is quite tight around her legs. Petticoats would largely not have been worn by the very poor, as the extra fabric would cost. 

Most women worked indoors and didn’t often have need of a protective outer garment. When they went out in cold weather, they might wear a simple shawl, or cape.

So, on to men


Here we see the humble tunic. Men generally wore tunics that fell past their knees. If they needed them shorter, they could tuck the ends in their belts, as seen in the image, or they could hike up the garment and fold fabric from the middle of the tunic over their belts. Some men, particularly those engaged in heavy labor, might wear sleeveless tunics to help them deal with the heat. Most men’s tunics were made of wool, but they were often coarser and not as brightly coloured as women’s wear. Men’s tunics could be made from “beige” (undyed wool) or “frieze” (coarse wool with heavy nap) as well as more finely woven wool. Undyed wool was sometimes brown or grey, from brown and grey sheep.


These men wear straw hats and head coverings, such as hoods. Some hoods had a length of fabric at the back that the wearer could wrap around his head or his neck. Men were know to wear hoods that were attached to a short cape that covered the shoulders. The colours often contrasted with the tunics, and red and blue became popular colours.   


 Here this man uses his apron to hold seeds. he wears leather boots and blue hose, and his red tunic come to his knees, with possibly a front opening and fastened by a belt. His hood is a contrasting blue. I must say, he does look as if he has the Monday morning blues….


We saw the women in this picture above, but in the background are three men using scythes. They wear no hose and two have straw hats, one a coif. Their tunics are short and two have their sleeves rolled up. All are bare feet, so we can assume that this is late summer and they are harvesting.


For men who worked outdoors, an additional protective garment would usually be worn in cold or rainy weather. This could be a simple sleeveless cape or a coat with sleeves. In the earlier Middle Ages, men wore fur capes and cloaks, but there was a general view among medieval people that fur was worn only by savages, and its use went out of fashion for all but garment linings for quite time.

Men usually didn’t wear their aprons until it was necessary, and removed them when their messy tasks were done.



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