Adventures in historical sewing Part 2 – going medieval

After I reacquainted myself with my sewing machine, learned a bit more fundamental sewing skills, and finally understood how to work from a pattern, I spent about a year filling in my wardrobe with everything I’d been missing. I’m still in process with some things, including some everyday shirts, but once the process of making my own clothes got kind of mundane, I started making clothes for other people. And after making the same dress for the third time, I learned what I already knew about myself – I don’t like repetitive activities. So, armed with pretty good sewing skills at this point, a new project started to tug at me. A medieval outfit.

I’ve been thinking about making something medieval since I saw Bernadette Banner make a medieval gown about two years ago. When I was a teenager, most of what I sewed was costumes for the renfair, but I either did them by machine or very badly by hand, and I certainly never did any real research into what clothing in a specific period should look like. It honestly didn’t occur to me until watching so many medieval clothing making videos that the costumes I had been making were what I would now consider Early Modern – 16th, 17th century – and not medieval at all. So I started to think about what a medieval Sicilian woman might wear, and, because this is what I write about, i made her a medical practitioner why not.

So, how do you go about designing and constructing a twelfth century Sicilian medicine woman’s outfit? Costubers will tell you to do research, starting with contemporary depictions. The big problem with that approach for this particular project is the same problem that my dissertation is highlighting – there are basically no written sources from twelfth-century Sicily, and certainly none with illustrations of women. There are a couple of wall and ceiling paintings from this period, but the women in those are dancing girls, not medicine women – wrong social class, wrong profession. In modern terms, you can’t figure out what a doctor wears based on looking at pictures of a stripper. So, this project is an exercise in some creative conjecture – still based on evidence and using solid methods, but conjecture nonetheless.

Sicily during this period has a culture that is often described as a hybrid or melting pot of Norman, North African, and Byzantine styles. The culture of the monied classes also intentionally imitated the styles of Persia, because they considered it to be the height of cool. So, in the absence of actual evidence from Sicily, I’m drawing from the much more plentiful sources about these other places. Once I had a sense of the options, I could decide what components made sense to include in this costume.

Image of Trota of Salerno from Wellcome MS 544, early 14th C France

My one vaguely contemporary image of a Sicilian medicine woman is this manuscript illustration that is believed to depict Trota of Salerno, the author of a compendium of women’s medicine from the twelfth century. But this image is from France in the 14th century, so it more likely reflects clothing from that context. What I’m taking from this image is the components: a veil, a colorful and drapey outer garment, and a green dress with fitted sleeves that’s gathered at the waist.

If I were aiming for a European context, I would probably just go ahead an make a kirtle. But because Sicily is very much not Europe during the twelfth century (and I would argue not even now), I don’t think that actually makes sense. I think that as with other aspects of medieval Sicilian culture, the style of dress should have incorporated elements of European, North African, and Middle Eastern clothing into a regional style. Keeping the kirtle in mind, I looked into what people around Egypt or Syria (two places that middle-class Sicilians were trying to emulate) would have worn in this period. And I found that throughout the Islamic world, women wore the combination of garments that today in India is known as the salwar kameez. This is a pair of roomy pants paired with a long tunic or dress. Its appearance in modern India, especially in the north, is a direct result of the Islamicization of India under the Mughals, since the salwar kameez was typical Muslim dress in Central and Western Asia throughout the Middle Ages. I think it makes sense, then, that as a culturally Islamicate region, Sicily would also have worn a variation on this style. I wanted to bring in elements of the kirtle, though, so rather than the narrower cut of the kameez, I think it makes sense to go with basically a knee-length kirtle on top of a baggy pair of salwar.

I did a bit of pinterest research for this. I don’t think pinterest is a good source on its own, mostly because it’s hard to know exactly what an image is or where it came from. But what I really like about pinterest for clothing/costuming research is that its algorithm is incredible at identifying the features in an image and showing you similar things. This image is a twelfth-century Persian painting of a wealthy woman. I found it from saving this image:

This one is a 19th-century Orientalist depiction – that is, it’s an illustration by a European (likely French) of an Armenian woman. I can’t use this costume as a direct reference, because it’s 700 years late, but there are aspects of it that are reminiscent of what I’m going for. The 12th-century image above is more useful in showing me how the silhouette I’m interested in would have looked in the right period. What I’m getting from these images is that it would indeed have been accurate to have a wealthier woman wearing a full-skirted dress on top of another full layer, maybe pants or another skirt. I’m also seeing this interesting coat with short, wide sleeves. That rung a bell for another garment that kept popping up in my pinterest, this very fancy Albanian coat worn by brides in the 19th century.

Again, this exact garment doesn’t make sense for the time period I’m talking about, but it’s a good guide for how to make something like I see in the Persian image. This flowy, layered look echoes the illustration of Trota, but is more in line with what I think a Sicilian would actually have worn. The Albanian and Armenian garments are a good reference point because they were part of the Ottoman Empire, meaning they were culturally linked to the same Islamicate influences that were in Sicily during this time. More relevantly, they were part of the Byzantine Empire before that, also like Sicily. With all of these bits of conjecture floating around, here’s what I came up with for my outfit:

My final components are: an underlayer chemize with long fitted sleeves in white linen; a pair of salwar with gathered ankles in green cotton (I have trade records that attest to the availability of cotton in medieval Sicily); a short overdress with a fitted bodice and full skirt in green linen; a short coat with short wide sleeves in green silk (Sicily is a major silk producer in this period); and a simple linen veil with a blue stripe. I painted my inspiration image to look like Sicilian icons of healing saints from this period.

Stay tuned for how I’m going about constructing this costume, or follow me on Instagram to watch as I go @capricornfashions.