We think about the twelfth century as being captured by elegance, mystery and creative design.  This was definitely shown by their costumes.  The twelfth century was a time of intense religious worship, and when they performed on stage, the costumes were a release from their everyday restraints. 

The costumes of this century brought out the flair and individuality of the people wearing them.  This had a great impact on theatre because even today, actors and actresses come alive when they get changed for performance.

To show the evolution and slow, steady development of costume, it is necessary to go back to structural beginnings: the trunk-hose, the flat wool caps, and numerous other equally interesting details of dress in the twelfth century.

The twelfth century was a magnificent pageantry of exotic and fantastic costumes, and after the disappearance of classical drama came the age of the liturgical or church drama of Western Europe. (Hartnoll 36)

Not only was more attention paid to dress, but cosmetics were introduced from the Indies.  Cosmetics were a way of hiding or disfiguring one’s face to be anyone at all.  Those in the twelfth century adored the fact that they could break away from their pale faces and dive into vivid colours and fancy make-up.

England at this period was the sole manufacturer of woolen stuffs; therefore wool, frieze, rugge, broadcloth, kersey, and similar materials were worn extensively in most productions.  Only the wealthy actors/actresses could afford such fabrics as cloth of gold or silver, velvet, satin, tissue, tinsel and fine damask, which were all imported at fabulous prices from France, Spain and Italy. (Brooke 71)

Velvet and satin were adored by all because they gave everyone a feeling of relaxation because of their touch and smooth texture.  Actors and actresses loved wearing velvet and satin more than any other fabric. 

Women were the most popular purchasers of them, and most were quite remorseful when they had to remove their garments after their performance. 

Some of the actors/actresses liked to take home the velvet and satin to wear around their homes…but if anyone caught them, they would have “committed a terrible sin.”  Since the religious element was so strong back then, most awaited the chance to break free from the grips of everyday life. (Hartnoll 74)

It is exceedingly difficult to find contemporary examples of the costumes of serving men and women of this period.  The women’s dress is particularly interesting because it is so much more diverse from their daily dressing routine. 

Elizabethan Era Daily Life: Food, Education, Marriage, Family, Fashion

Pleated petticoats were in general use on stage, and the idea of fastening the skirt to the belt was probably to protect the skirt from getting unnecessarily spotted fronts.  Peasant women wore simple woolen garments, their shifts were frequently made of linsey-woolsey.

Gowns were usually laced up in the front of the dress, and had fairly close-fitting sleeves and waistlines. 

Women adored and fitted costumes because they could finally wear things that didn’t cover the entire body, not to mention with drab color schemes. 

Twelfth-century religion forbade such exotic clothing such as those fitted ensembles, but every woman felt free and much more feminine in them. (Willett 16)

Women’s hose were of cloth and reached just above the knee, where they were tied; shoes were of cloth and reached just above the knee, where they were tied; shoes were of loose slippery variety with a flat sole and the toes were open. 

Open toes were another special plus for those in the twelfth-century theatre.  Open-toed shoes were a sign of creativity and mystery.  Women loved to wear open-toed shoes on stage.  They had to wear black boot-type shoes every other day which covered up most of their leg and their toes. (Willett 24)

Near the end of the century, the “split-sleeve” came into vogue for the ladies of fashion.  The sides were caught together with gold clasps instead of the more usual clasps.  A large apron of Hollard or some coarser fabric was always worn on stage, and the belt or girdle served to carry any small articles that women may need from time to time. 

Girdles and belts are still widely used today in theatre.  This shows how twelfth century theatre has carried on through generations and is still used to costume and clothe stage performers today.

Precious stones, gold and silver chains and clasps, and numerous rings were worn extensively.  Gloves, when worn, were cut at the knuckles to show the rings beneath.  Gloves, and expensive fine gems are still popular today and are still a vital touch for that finishing piece of a costume. (Hartnoll 52)

Cathedrals of the 12th Century: Medieval Gothic

The men wore simply a shirt and tights, the latter of cloth reaching from waist to toe, covered by a belted doublet of some rough wooden material that finished an inch or two above the knee and had long sleeves.  Their boots or shoes were usually made of leather and covered the ankle. 

Sometimes a cloak or gown was worn for extra warmth on stage because some of the plays were held outdoors.  The costumes of the men have carried on through the years as well.  Men are still quite simple in their dress and they liked to wear comfortable costumes.

No itchy wool or cold satin for the men of the stage.  Cloaks were most fashionable, short, barely reaching the hips, and sometimes worn swathed round in the Venetian style.  Shoulder padding was general, and “wings” were added to accentuate the width of the doublet. 

Venetians were a series of knee-breaches, bombasted, quilted, and padded.  These usually reached just to the knee and were either tied with a wide garter or finished with a small frill or bond. (Brooke 14)

Probably the reason for so many changes in fashion and costume about the twelfth century was that they were so elaborate, and had splendid embroidery. The religious content of the theater broke free when the actors/actresses took to the stage. 

They felt like a new person.  It is so significant because performers feel that same way today.  So, we draw to a close, the most interesting century in our history, a century shaken by the discovery of a crazed enthusiasm, wild frenzies, and frantic expenditures.

It was a period in time for people to let themselves loose when religion was so predominant in their lives.  The twelfth century will also be significant in theatre history because their era was the building block to the future costumes that dazzle everyone.


Brooke, Iris.  Costumes In The Twelfth Century.  London:  Adam and Charles Black, 1967.

Hartnoll, Phyllis.  The Theatre: A Course In History.  New York: Thames and Hudson Incorporated, 1985.

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