For Medieval women, fashion did not play as much of a part in hairstyles as what was dictated by the cultural norms, and hairstyles served functions other than merely making a fashion statement. Styles were more about the headdress than the actual hairstyles beneath them. In all the cultures throughout the Medieval period, women's hair was considered attractive and sexual, as well as a mark of their status in society. For this reason, many cultures required women, especially married women, to cover their hair completely.
Styles of the Times
Throughout the Middle Ages, marital status was shown by whether a woman's hair was covered. Unmarried women and young girls wore their hair loose and uncovered. Sometimes they would wear braids or plaits. Married women and widows, however, were held to a greater degree of modesty and required to keep all hair covered in public. Their social status and financial status was shown by their headdresses and accents, such as silk or gold thread or ribbon. Loose hair on a married woman would lead to accusations of low morals or even witchcraft.
Early Middle Ages
During early Medieval times, about 400 - 1100 AD, women wore their hair loose but covered. With the coming of Christianity, married women were expected to cover all their hair under a veil, wimple, loose shoulder cape or kerchief when out in public. This style held true of all classes of women.
The Viking Age - 8th Through 11th Centuries
The Vikings inhabited the area now known as Scandinavia - Norway, Greenland, Iceland, and Sweden - from 793-1066 AD. Unmarried women and young girls wore their hair loose with a circlet, or braided. Blonde hair was prized and brunettes would often bleach their hair to red-gold.
Married women wore their hair either in two braids on the sides of the head that hung down beside their cheeks, or in a long ponytail knotted into a bun at the back or top of the head and allowed to fall freely down the back. Their headdress would have been a veil or hood-like cap. However, there is no evidence at archaeological sites of this until around the 10th century near Dublin and Jorvik (modern-day Yorkshire) which were Christianized locations in the United Kingdom inhabited by the Vikings. Thrall women or servants wore their hair cropped as a sign of servitude.
12th Century - France, England and Germany
During this time, hair was not always completely covered. Women of royalty or aristocracy would wear two long lengths of hair that were braided with ribbon, or loose lengths that were bound throughout the hair with ribbon. Sometimes they extended the braids to the ground by weaving in false hair. The headdress would typically be a circlet over a veil or a crown with or without a veil. Young girls during the 12th century would also wear loose, flowing hair accompanied by a wreath or chaplet of flowers.
Hair was also worn loose and flowing by queens for state occasions during this time. The queen's headdress would be her crown with or without a light veil.
Near the end of the 12th century women ceased to wear long braids. They adopted the fashion of hiding hair once again by wearing a wimple. The wimple hid all hair and covered the neck completely and was often worn with a circlet.
The barbette, worn in the later part of the century, was a band of linen that encircled the face and pinned on top of the head. It was worn with a light veil by noble women and worn alone by all classes, with hair braided at the back of the head. Young girls would often wear the barbette with a fillet, which was a stiffened band of linen or silk similar to a circlet, but could be as wide as four inches and resembled a hat.
13th Century - France, England and Germany
At the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, the wimple became a veil with a broad piece of cloth underneath the chin. This style was mostly worn by noble women and royalty.
The beginning of the 13th century also brought hair nets called crespines that were worn by noble women at first but soon caught on with all classes. These hair nets held rolls of hair and braids in place and were themselves held in place by a barbette and fillet. The crespine was an important part of women's hairstyles and headdresses until the late 15th century.
During the last decade of the 13th century, the popular hairstyle became arranging braided or plaited hair in coils over the ears. The crespine was adapted to cover and hold these braided coils in place on both sides of the head.
14th Century Through the Early 15th Century - France, England and Germany
At the beginning of the 14th century, the wimple was often worn without the veil and was pinned over the braids at the ears. Worn this way, the wimple was referred to as a gorget.
Towards the middle of the 14th century, women began wearing their braids vertically on both sides of the face. These braids, uncovered by the wimple, resembled loops over the ears. Young women still did not cover their hair and often wore a fillet to support these braids.
In the late 14th century, fashionable women no longer covered their necks and chins, preferring to wear a veil with a narrow fillet. Married women still wore their hair plaited and wound closely around their head covered by a veil or wimple when in public.
This time period brought about the debut of elaborate headdresses. Crespines evolved into cylindrical cauls formed by flexible, reticulated metal wire mesh which encased the hair in front of the ears and attached to the fillet or coronet. Jewels were typically inserted at the intersections of the mesh, and short veils were worn to cover the back of the head and neck. This style then became a larger face-framing headdress.
The 15th century brought the reticulated, horned, heart-shaped, steeple and butterfly headdresses. These were typically large and elaborate headdresses adorned with jewels. Hair was braided and closely wound around the head and was completely hidden under the attached veil.
In France, women often plucked or shaved their hairline back to meet the line of the headdress. This was especially true with the steeple headdress, also known as a hennin. High foreheads were a sign of intelligence and beauty. Unmarried young women wore their hair loose and flowing, wearing a hennin without a veil.
14th -15th Century Spain
Women in Spain did not wear elaborate headdresses until the end of the 14th century. They wore moderate sized kerchiefs, and hair was worn loose. They also wore a string of pearls, a wreath, or a roll of material around loose, flowing hair.
From Practical to Elaborate
Hairstyles throughout the world in Medieval times were those of neatness and function, and reflective of social status. For example, braids were practical for the working class to keep hair out of the way. Upper class women also relied on braids for practicality to keep their hair secure under elaborate headdresses and other coverings. Accessories played the starring role in most hairstyles throughout this period.
Resources and Bibliography
- De Courtais, Georgine. Women's Headdresses and Hairstyles in England from AD 600 to the present day. Batsford Ltd., 1973.
- Salisbury, Joyce E. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life: The Medieval World. Greenwood, 2004.
- Kohler, Carl. A History of Costume. Dover Publications, 1963.
- Pendergast, Sarah. Fashion, Costume, and Culture - Volume 2: Early Cultures Across the Globe. UXL, 2003.
- Medieval James
- Viking Answer Lady
- Rosalie's Medieval Woman