Commentary: Clothing the Past

9789004352162

Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale Owen-Crocker, Clothing the Past:  Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. Leiden (Brill), 2018. ISBN 978-90-04-28870-6 (hardcover); 978-90-04-35216-2 (e-book).

Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale Owen-Crocker are two of the preeminent scholars of medieval clothing and textiles of the current generation.  Their work has helped take the study of medieval clothing from a topic studied mostly in the context of theatrical costume with a little dosing of archaeology to one that seeks to fully appreciate its complete context.  In this volume, they examine 100 extant pieces of clothing, from small accessories all the way up to near-complete sets of clothing.  In the preface, they state their approach:  “We thought it would be interesting to write a book presenting a hundred of them–in ten groups of ten–with high resolution colour photographs of each.” The result is the volume under consideration.  The high production values of this book make it an expensive purchase, with a list price of $250 USD (although it can now be found on Amazon.com for $209.16 USD).  The question most of my friends with an interest in the topic have asked is “is it worth it?”  The answer, in my opinion, is a qualified “yes.”

The work begins with a general introduction that provides the scope of the study, including a timeline of all of the garments presented in the book and their origins mapped in both table and cartographic form. Also discussed in survey form are how the garments came to be preserved, general construction techniques, iconography, everyday wear, and the topic of the evolution fashion.  This excellent survey sets the reader up for what is to come.  As mentioned above,  the garments selected are broken down into ten sets of ten:

  1. Headgear: Hat, Cap, Hood, Mitre
  2. Outer garments: Copes, Cloaks, and Mantles
  3. The Priestly Outer Garment: Chasuble
  4. Body Garments of Wool and Linen: Tunic, Shirt, Alb
  5. Rich Body Garments: Tunic, Gown, Overgown, Dalmatic, and Tunicle
  6. Upper Body and Front Fastening Garments: Undergarment, Padded Garment, Coat-Like Garment
  7. Loin and Leg Covering: Underpants, Hose, Sock, Buskin
  8. Minor Vestments: Maniple, Amice, Pallium, Ecclesiastical Gircle, Humeral Veil
  9. Footwear: Shoe, Boot, Slipper, Patten
  10. Accessories: Mitten, Glove, Secular Belt, Possible Headdress Decoration or Cloak Tie

In most of these chapters (with the exceptions of 3 and 8), ecclesiastical and secular garments are treated together, which makes a great deal of sense when the focus is the function of these garments in a general sense.

Within each section, each individual item in turn is the focus of detailed description.  There is at least one, often two or three high-resolution colour photographs of the item, sometimes with closeups on details of particular interest (such as ornamentation or finishing).  The entry begins with the date and the provenance of the item, followed by a narrative history and description of its construction and/or ornamentation, including reference to the scholars who have studied it and copious footnotes.  Materials, technique, and dimensions are all provided.  The final section details further reading–a pointer to the definitive scholarly research on the item.  There is also an outstanding illustrated glossary at the end of the book.

What this book really is is an encyclopedia, and I mean that in the best way.  The book does not contain every single extant garment, but rather representative samples allowing a big-picture view of close to 1000 years of clothing history.  Each item has a fascinating story to tell, one that helps the researcher understand the circumstances that allowed it to survive where so many others did not.  The work is not a history of fashion during the period, or of the evolution of cut, cloth production, or decorative techniques–although the critical reader will certainly learn much about each in reading through its pages.    Many, if not all, of these items have been the focus of very detailed studies; while some of these studies are easily accessible (e.g. the Greenland finds, as published in Else Østergård’s Woven into the Earth), many are not.  I particularly was happy to see such garments as the 13th century Spanish garments from royal tombs and the (in)famous Lengberg “bra.”  Another unexpected bonus was the number of garments that used heraldic elements, helping to confirm how heraldry was used in clothing in period. The very detailed measurements and description of materials and techniques are a boon to those looking to reproduce these items or to create verisimilitude.

And now my qualification of the work’s worth:  While the hardcover version is absolutely lovely,  for most of the people who will read this, I would recommend the e-book.  The reason is simple:  The book contains high-resolution photographs, but in a hardcover book, the researcher cannot enlarge them to see detail.  This is one case where the e-book might prove to be a much more useful tool to recreators than the old-school hardcover. You are not going to save any money with the e-book (it’s the same price) and you’ll have to order it from the publisher, but were I to do it again, I might have taken this route.

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