A knight would not want to wear their heavy armor for any longer than was necessary. You could look on armor as their work clothes, switching to everyday clothing when not on the battlefield. However, images of the medieval knight tend to always depict them in armor. Therefore, what did a knight wear when not in battle?
A knight wore a linen undershirt and linen undergarments, along with woolen hose or leggings in everyday settings. They would also wear a tunic over the shirt and leather shoes or boots. A more expensive fabric like silk might be worn to make an impression of their status and wealth when at court.
A knight was after a balance between practicality, the fashion of the day, and the style to match their status as a knight. In this article, I shall look at the clothing knights wore when not in battle and the materials from which their clothes were made.
Everyday Clothing for a Knights When Not In Battle
Medieval clothing had something in common with today. The types of clothing garments worn were pretty much the same regardless of your position in society (source).
Medieval life was very hierarchical, but the types of garments worn by a knight were largely the same as that worn by other classes.
Again like today, the difference came in the quality of the garment. The wealthier you were, and the further up the pecking order of society, the better the quality of the fabric used to make your medieval clothing.
While a knight would still have clothes made from wool, they would be better quality woolen garments. The knight would also have garments made from more expensive fabrics like silk and velvet to wear on special occasions.
These helped make an impression and illustrate their important status as a knight.
Color was also the privilege of the medieval elite. Where lower-ranked members of society may have drab-colored clothing, a knight’s clothes could be expected to contain vibrant colors.
Dye cost money and added to the expense, a luxury only the wealthier class could afford.
The following table lists the natural plants that were used to create dye colors.
|Red||Madder (Rubia tinctoria)|
|Blue||Woad (Isatis tinctoria)|
|Yellow||Weld (Reseda Luteola), Lady’s Bedstraw, Fustic|
|Green||Weld mixed with woad, Buckthorn berries, Weld and logwood|
|Black||Madder, Woad, Weld mixed with alum|
Indeed, up to the 14th century, the fabric and the dye cost more than the clothesmaker’s time. Clothing could then be adorned with accessories to further accentuate a garment and emphasize the knight’s status.
Using additional fabric was also a popular ruse, for example, making shirts and coats with larger sleeves.
Away from the battlefield and ceremonial duties, a knight’s dress code was fairly informal. The following were the principal garments worn by a knight when not in armor.
The Main 6 Items Of Clothing Worn By Knight When Not In Battle
1. Linen Undergarments
The garments that sat against the skin needed to be comfortable in the middle ages as much as they do today. Linen was the preferred fabric for a knight’s undergarments.
Linen was kinder on the skin than wool, absorbed less fluid, and durable fabric.
Linen is made from the flax plant and would have been readily available to all classes of medieval society.
The wealthier the knight the finer the linen garment bought.
Flax can be labor-intensive to grow, but linen became a key textile industry. In France, King Charlemagne ordered farmers to grow more flax in an attempt to become the major player in the linen trade.
There were two main undergarments worn by off-duty knights. The first was a linen undershirt or inner tunic. There was nothing fancy about this garment as it would not be on display.
Its function was to be practical and comfortable and usually had long, tight sleeves. The length of the undershirt usually took it below the waist.
A knight also wore linen underpants or braies. These were fairly loose garments that might extend down as far as just beneath the knee. Medieval underpants usually had drawstrings that were tied to hold them up and save potential embarrassment.
2. Woolen Hose
Woolen hose or stockings were worn to cover the legs. These stockings may stop above the ankles or cover the whole foot and were often tied around the waist. This natural fiber helped keep legs cool in the summer, but warm in the winter. It is also more resistant to wrinkles, and therefore a better look in public.
The stockings were made from at least two pieces of loosely woven fabric that were cut along the bias. This means they were cut on the diagonal to help provide stretch and to make the hose a more snug fit on the legs.
For a subtle show of wealth and importance, knights in the early middle ages may have chosen to have hose dyed in brighter colors.
Tunics had long been a choice of garment, a preferred item of dress as far back as Roman times. It is basic in design, as it is just pulled on over the knight’s head. A belt would be used to tie the tunic at the waist and provide some shape.
The tunic was the outer garment on display. Its style changed with the fashion of the day. Therefore, the length of the tunic could vary, as could whether sleeves would be present or not. If a knight chose to wear more than one tunic, the one underneath would likely have no sleeves and act as the undershirt.
A knight’s everyday tunic was made from quality wool. This fabric was durable and designed for warmth. However, thinner tunics were made from linen, while a knight may opt for a plush and expensive silk tunic when in a more public setting.
Tunics could be adorned with jewels or embroidered with gold threading to further emphasize status and wealth. A surcoat may be worn over the tunic bearing the knight’s coat of arms for an important court function.
A tunic for a knight was also likely dyed for a more vibrant color, rather than the more drab-colored tunics worn by those of a lower class.
A cloak was a handy garment for cold or wet medieval days. It was a garment that became increasingly fashionable toward the latter end of the middle ages. They were worn over the tunic and would usually run the full length of the body and sweep along the ground.
Cloaks tended to be fastened at the neck and had an opening at the front. They were traditionally made from wool or linen. However, a knight may have a cloak made from silk or even velvet for a garment befitting their status.
A cloak may be lined with fur on the inside to provide additional warmth to the wearer. As with tunics, a cloak could be dyed in a brighter, more vibrant color to signal the wearer as someone of superior status who could afford such luxuries.
Footwear could again delineate status. Leather was the main fabric used to make shoes in medieval times. However, while someone poorer may have their shoes made from thin leather with a wooden sole, a knight would have their footwear made from good quality leather.
Footwear could vary from leather shoes that sit below the ankle to knee-length leather boots. Medieval leather originated from cows, sheep, or goats, with the soles and uppers tacked or threaded together. Extra touches such as jewels could be added to embellish a knight’s footwear.
Hats and hoods were popular in Medieval times. As you may have already guessed, headwear was not to be left out when it came to a chance to show off social status in such a hierarchical society.
Tailors were employed to make hats for their wealthier clients, offering materials such as linen, silk, cotton, and leather.
The style of headwear changed with the fashion of the time. What did not change was the better off you were, the better the quality of fabric you could use to make your hat, cap, or hood.
The chaperon was derived from a hood. It was a popular item of headwear that could be worn fully wrapped around the head or with a tail of fabric running down the back of the neck.
Smaller, round hats became popular too, as did the floppy muffin hat.
Want to see some of these pieces of clothing in action? I found the following brilliant Youtube video all about exactly what a knight would wear when not in battle:
A knight’s clothing was akin to that worn by the land-owning gentry of the time. They wore their everyday civil clothes in most situations away from the battlefield and away from tournaments.
However, another part of a knight’s life involved ceremonial duties and this required some additional effort in sprucing yourself up for the occasion.
Medieval ceremonies were high in symbolism. In the case of a knighthood ceremony, a knight would be expected to don a white garment. Over this, the knight would wear a red robe.
The colors were the key element. White symbolized the knight’s purity and red their nobility.
Fabrics for the Wealthier Classes
While wool and linen were worn by the elite of Medieval society, they were also worn by ordinary folk.
The wool and linen worn by peasants were of less quality, but still essentially the same fabric as worn by their supposed betters.
A knight may dye their wool and linen to distinguish themselves as being of a higher rank. However, they could also have their clothes made from fabrics that were out of the price range for the average person.
This is where silk, cotton, and velvet came into their own.
Silk was imported from China and the Byzantine Empire, making it a luxury fabric out of the reach of all but the wealthy. However, its luxurious feel and appearance made it popular.
Wearing silk was a surefire way of being recognized as a person high up the hierarchy chain.
Silk production techniques were also brought back to southern Europe. A successful silk industry developed within areas of Italy, including Venice. This did not necessarily reduce the cost of the fabric, and it remained the preserve of the rich for a time.
Cotton was another fabric whose use was limited to a select few. Cotton does not grow well in cooler climes and therefore needed to be imported into northern European countries.
Egypt was a prime supplier of cotton as was northern Italy. Similar to silk, this made cotton a luxury item of dress wear.
The attraction of cotton is in its comfort and breathability. Soft on the skin, cotton is a good all-weather material, one that cools in the summer and can offer a degree of insulation in the colder months. A knight may choose to have their garments tailored with cotton lining.
Velvet offered a smooth, luxurious garment for the discerning knight. As silk was the main ingredient to make velvet it automatically made an expensive Medieval garment. The production techniques and the loom required to make velvet also ensured the price was beyond the reach of the average man on the street.
Flamboyance Becomes More Fashionable
For much of the Medieval period, the quality of cloth and the vibrancy of color in fashion choice was enough to show off a knight’s status. Only the truly wealthy could afford such luxuries. However, a horrific pandemic changed this.
The Black Death swept across Europe, wiping out vast swathes of the population. Suddenly the available labor force was significantly reduced and the survivors were in high demand.
This saw a rise in wages being paid, resulting in more buying power for the regular classes.
The lower classes now had the money to buy better items, including clothing. They could afford better quality fabrics and more colorful garments. This had previously been the domain of the wealthier classes.
As you might expect, the higher ranks of society such as knights were none too happy about this fact.
In response, knights looked for more flamboyant fashions and colors to continue to distinguish their status compared to the lower classes (source).
Governments even tried to bring in laws to dictate the quality of cloth different levels of society could buy. The upper echelons of society were none too happy about the perceived foray by the lower classes into their world of luxury fashion.