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Gender MarkersDuring the early Middle Ages, the difference in masculine and feminine profile was not very pronounced: both sexes wore a long tunic called a "bliaut," belted at the waist, and perhaps a cloak. This is not to say men and women looked alike -- men wore beards and their hemlines sometimes crept up to the knee -- but rather that both sexes were still in skirts. It was only later, corresponding to the development of armor, that a strong differentiation began to manifest itself.
The bliaut, while compatible with chain mail, did not wear well under the more sophisticated plate armor that developed. The bliaut was too long, and its T-shape meant that its sleeves bunched up under the arms, which was uncomfortable under armor. The pourpoint or joupon, a shorter garment with a more tailored contour, was developed to replace the tunic and was worn with hose. The joupon eventually evolved into the more familiar doublet, a long sleeved, jacket-like garment, often quilted, which tapered at the waist and flared at the hips. This "skirt" didn't provide any coverage whatsoever, meaning that hose (which began life as thigh high stockings held up by straps) had to be lengthened and joined together at the top. Hose were not knit: what little stretch they had came from cutting the material on the bias (diagonally). They had to be tied to the bottom of the doublet because they didn't stay up well. They did, however, show off the legs admirably. The result is that men ended up with a different profile than women -- they now wore a form-fitting outfit with articulated limbs, while the women were still in skirts.
With this differentiation came the systematic exaggeration of other masculine characteristics. Doublets were padded for a pigeon-breasted, manly-man effect. Codpieces, one of the most comical fashions ever, grew to prominence. From their humble beginnings as the mere defenders of masculine modesty, codpieces were eventually padded, embroidered, bejeweled, and obvious. Some could be used for storage like a pocket or a purse. Shoulder padding and short capes added to a man's breadth, and even beards made a comeback after the crusades. To see all these innovations put to good use, almost any portrait of Henry VIII will do.
In 21st century America the stereotype of women being more caught up in fashion than men is still pretty common, but in the Middle Ages people considered the opposite to be true. Men, especially in the upper classes, were highly concerned with clothing and very fond of finery. It's likely that women were too, but the usual troubles with documentation occur -- men did most of the recording, and they seem to have had a lot more interest in their own clothing than in whatever the women may have been wearing. It is not uncommon to find a detailed record of what a duke was wearing on his wedding day that makes no mention whatsoever of his bride's clothing. Cautionary exempla tales decry women's predilection for fancy dress more than men's, but then, they decry all the vices in women more than in men.
The most remarkable developments in women's fashion during the Middle Ages occurred not in their clothing but in their headgear. Clothing itself changed superficially: waistlines and necklines moved up and down, sleeves alternated between voluminous and tight-fitting. Women generally dressed in two layers, an overdress (cote-hardie) and an underdress (the aforementioned bliaut). Sometimes a linen shift -- as close as a Medieval woman got to underwear -- was worn under the bliaut, but this was chiefly an affectation of the wealthy. The houppelande, a voluminous robe also worn by men (with slightly different styling), was popular until the fourteenth century and was worn on top of everything else. Headgear, however, is where Medieval women's clothing had its true distinctiveness.
Head coverings were not optional, first of all. Only young girls were permitted to go around with their heads uncovered. Hair was emblematic of feminine seductiveness -- Eve, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene, and other biblical temptresses commonly appear with their hair down. In addition, a quirk of Medieval theology encouraged women to keep their ears hidden. Some theologians believed Mary had conceived through her ear, thereby retaining her virginity, but creating an odd and, frankly, creepy sexualization of the feminine ear. Pulling off anyone's hat was considered a crime, but forcibly removing a woman's headdress, in particular, was tantamount to accusing her of being a whore.
In late antiquity and the early Medieval period, women's headdresses consisted mostly of a "couvre-chef," a large square of cloth (generally linen) draped over the head and held in place by a strip of fabric or a circlet. Hair was worn Frankish style: two long plaits entwined with ribbons or leather strips, and sporting pointy metal tips at the ends. That much sexy hair couldn't be left out where everyone could see it for long -- the braids were soon being wrapped around the ears or the back of the head, carefully tucked under where no one could see it. The coverchief turned into the wimple, which covered the head, hair, ears, neck, and sometimes even the cheeks and forehead. A variety of hats and turbans could be worn over a wimple. The wimple drifted in and out of popularity, until only nuns and widows were still wearing them. A vestige remained in the form of the barbette, a linen strap under the chin, but by and large women's throats were out in the open during the later Middle Ages.
That's when the really strange hats started appearing. It has been hypothesized that women's hats during the gothic period were intended to emulate architecture, and that makes sense in the case of the steeple-like hennin. Some headdresses, however, resembled horns more than churches. Fine linen veils became popular, supported in various winged shapes by wires. Ears eventually became visible again, but women began plucking their hairlines to give themselves what Chaucer called a "high forheed," tucking any hint of hair away under their hats.
As with men's codpieces, women's clothing engaged in the systematic exaggeration of feminine features. Padding was worn under clothing to make bellies bulge, and the bum-bolster (a late development) did exactly what its name suggests. Cosmetics, some of them highly toxic, whitened the skin and teeth. Weaves and wigs lengthened and thickened hair.
The notion of pink as feminine and blue as masculine would have been reversed in the Middle Ages. While specific colors were not assigned to gender, blue was considered a weaker color than pink (which derives from red, after all). Blue also connoted gentleness and was associated with Mary. Red stood for power, passion, wealth, and blood. Green was more ambiguous -- it could stand for envy, but also was associated with spring and youth. Yellow was generally in disfavor and associated with various vices, among them avarice and cowardice. Black was not used as a color for mourning until nearly the Renaissance, and then only by the wealthy. White stood for purity, but was not worn by brides -- whatever their station, people were simply married in the very best clothing they owned.