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The Surviving Garments Project

This page last modified

February 21, 2009

Table of Contents

A searchable catalog of surviving garments from Europe and the Mediterranean from the dawn of time up through approximately 1500.

Bug Fix (2/21/09) the bracketing problem in searching on time periods, regions, and countries had been fixed. Sorry it took me so long!

Many thanks to Sharon Krossa of MedievalScotland.org for help on the programming!


Introduction

This site is only the first step in a larger project. That larger project is to catalog all known surviving garments from the dawn of time to roughly 1500, from Europe and the general Mediterranean region. Rather than focusing on archaeological textiles in general, I'm concentrating on those garments surviving in complete enough form that their cut and construction can be determined. This site currently focuses on the bibliographic angle, listing the published sources for the garments but only brief descriptions. The project's ideal form would not only summarize the published material, but would include pictures, diagrams, and text. Copyright considerations make this ideal form impractical in the on-line version, but I will eventually be adding at least simple line-drawings of the garments to aid with identification.

My original plan -- 30 years ago -- was to turn this research into a hard-copy book. Fortunately, the web was invented in time to save me from this impossible goal. Instead, the project has evolved into this interactive database which satisfies two very practical purposes: to make my research accessible to a wider range of people than I can accommodate in personal requests; and to make it easier for people to help me expand the catalog, both by making it easy for you to discover if I already know about a publication or garment, and by providing an input form for additions.

At the moment, I have given a higher priority to setting up the database for use than to cleaning up its content. It doesn't yet include every publication I know about, and in some cases I haven't filled in all the known details for each garment. Expect fairly regular updating. I'm also aware that the format of the interface is rather clunky and awkward at the moment. I love projects that require me to learn something new, and at the moment I'm enjoying learning PHP programming. I'm looking forward to picking up new techniques that will make the site more elegant and user-friendly.

About the Project

Back when I was a sophmore at U.C. Davis, nearly 30 years ago, I leavened my hard-bioscience program with a class on the history of costume design. I've always enjoyed costuming, and at that time I had recently become active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and was costuming up a storm. The class itself was a trifle disappointing -- more about pillaging history for inspirations for modern fashion design -- but one of the textbooks was Blanche Payne's A History of Costume, the edition with the patterns at the back taken from surviving garments.

This was a bit of a religious experience for me. Of course I knew that there were plenty of garments from the last few centuries hanging around in museums and whatnot, but it had never really hit me that we had actual clothing from the Middle Ages still available to study and re-create. And when I looked around me at even the most serious-minded historic costumers, there seemed to be a general lack of knowledge about this type of resource. People were using logic and imagination to create historic clothing that "looked like the pictures", but when you look at the surviving garments, you often learn things about construction and technique that you would never arrive at by the most extensive art-based study. The cut of migration-era trousers like the ones from Thorsbjerg. The intricate sleeve design of Charles of Blois' pourpoint. These are things that logic, imagination, and artwork would be hard put to supply.

When I first conceived this project -- back when I first began encountering descriptions and diagrams of surviving medieval garments -- I imagined it would be a short and easy task to put together an exhaustive catalog. Clearly, since most of the standard books on historic costuming used this type of evidence so little, I imagined that there must be extremely few surviving garments -- perhaps no more than a dozen or so from the entirety of medieval Europe. As I began collecting materials, I was delightfully surprised to discover how wrong I was. Today, after nearly three decades of work, I'm still discovering new garments at an increasing rate and am badly behind in tracking down all the leads that I've found. But the abundance of material only reinforces my opinion that this is a badly overlooked resource for students of historic costume. It's overlooked for many reasons, but most commonly I think because the materials are scattered, obscure, and often published in entirely different venues than works focussing on clothing itself.

My own interest began as a costumer -- I wanted this information in order to create historic costumes that more closely matched their originals. But the project as it stands is intended to benefit researchers of all types and backgrounds and I am particularly intereted in feedback from academic researchers on how it can better suit their needs.

Parameters and Criteria

In gathering materials for this database, I've organized my efforts around a particular prototype: cut-and-sewn cloth garments that survive in (nearly) whole state from Europe and those cultures closely interacting with it from a period up through approximately 1500. All of these parameters have been violated for at least one entry in the database, but they have provided a focus that has kept the project from becoming completely unmanageable.

My focus is on the actual cut and construction -- not on some modern researcher's preconceptions of cut and construction. So one guiding principle in selecting items to include is that they had to be complete enough to show the structure of the garment without conjectural reconstruction. A focus on cut and construction also means that I have primarily included garments made of woven cloth (as opposed to those shaped via some technique such as knitting or sprang) or leather. I have, however, included items that were woven to shape (such as the Coptic tunics) rather than "cut" and have included non-woven garments either when they seemed likely to be following cloth-based styles or when I had some personal interest in the item. I have also focussed primarily on "clothing" as opposed to "accessories" (e.g., belts, pouches, jewelry). There would be a good argument for including shoes in a work such as this, but shoes are such a large, extensive, and specialized topic that it seemed better to leave them for someone else to do in a separate project. I have included shoes and accessory-type items (such as gloves) primarily only when they are made of cloth. The exception to this exclusion of shoes and accessories has been a few cases where a whole "set" of clothes have been found together and it has seemed worthwhile to describe all the items.

The restriction to pre-16th century items is largely pragmatic. The amount of surviving clothing increases dramatically from the 16th century on, so setting ca. 1500 as a cut-off made a more manageable project. In addition, the complexity of design and construction of 16th century clothing is significantly greater than what came before and requires both a more specialized background and a more detailed study than what came before. And, finally, studies of clothing from the 16th century (and later) tend to be more widely available and familiar. I have interpreted the cut-off somewhat loosely for the early part of the 16th century, particularly for regions (such as Turkey) where garments from that period might shed light on slightly earlier styles that have not survived. The time-limit was more important when I was thinking in terms of a published book. Now that the project is settling into an evolving on-line form, there is less reason to exclude later garments, and I have already shifted somewhat on this point.

The geographic restriction to Europe and the Mediterranean is based solely on my own interests and has been interpreted somewhat idiosyncratically around the edges. There are some current gaps in the coverage based on the languages I'm most comfortable struggling through. This is an area where opening up the database to other contributors can benefit greatly.

This database cannot be used as a comprehensive history of clothing. It makes no attempts to "fill in the gaps" with conjectural reconstructions. It also does not touch on the social and historic context of the clothing included. Even in the case of the most complete garment-sets, the variable survival of different types of fabric (and the variability in the deliberate preservation of particular types of garments) means that additional information may be necessary for understanding what a "full set of clothes" would entail at any particular date.

This last point is worth expanding. Historic clothing has survived only in particular, highly-specific circumstances. Woolen clothing may survive in acidic, damp, anaerobic conditions such as peat bogs -- but linen normally will not. Both linen and wool may survive in extremely arid conditions such as are found in Egyptian burials -- but wool may be more susceptible to insect damage in these conditions. Finds that have been frozen and not exposed to the air (such as the Neolithic "Ice Man") will preserve almost anything in good condition, but are extremely rare. Cultures that bury the dead intact and with grave goods are more likely to produce surviving clothing than those that practice cremation. Fabrics and garments that have been deliberately preserved because they are associated with prominent religious or secular figures tend to represent only the highest strata of society and their preservation is dependent on the stability and continuity of the society that venerates them. And, finally, the survival and usefulness of archaeological clothing finds has been highly dependent on when they had the (mis)fortune to be discovered, the relative value that archaeologists (or non-scholarly discoverers) gave to textile remains, and the treatment accorded to them both in excavation and conservation. Descriptions of the treatment accorded to textile finds -- even in this century -- can curdle your blood.

Current Status of the Project and Future Goals

The current database is incomplete in many ways. Garment descriptions are incomplete or sketchy. Some publications are known only from footnotes in other works and have yet to be tracked down and fleshed out. My current priority has been to get the project on-line, but the next step will be to review all the publications I currently have on file and fleshing out that information. After that, it will be time to do another round of hunting down new garments and publications to add.

I also plan to add simple line-drawings of the garments to aid in identification and explanation. What I will not do is include copyrighted material (photographs, diagrams, or text) in the on-line database. A possible future addition would be links to other people's web sites or articles discussing specific garments, but the fugitive nature of web sites adds a certain burden of upkeep that isn't present with hard-copy publications. (I've included a very small number of web sites as references for some garments that I haven't found other publications on.)

Use Me! Help Me!

Search the database. Use my information. There are currently two ways to search. You can do a garment parameter search, where you select among certain characteristics (date, location, type of garment, etc.) and retrieve records that match those characteristics. This will result in a report that lists the descriptive information about the garment and then supplies a list of publications that mention that garment. The second method is a publication search where you select from the list of publications whose contents are currently included in the database. From this search you can choose either a report that gives basic information about the publication, or a list of all included garments mentioned in that publication.

I have only a few simple requirements for the user:

You can contribute data. I've supplied a handy form that will guide you through the most important information. I need to hand-process and format the information before adding it to the database, so there will be at least a little delay before it appears there. (In some cases, I may need to track down additional information before adding it.) If you choose, there will be space in the database for acknowleding contributors, but my default is to respect privacy and not include peoples names unless I have explicit permission. (If you correspond with me on the project, your e-mail address will never be given to any third party or used for any purpose not related to the surviving garments database itself.)

Frequently Asked Questions

No questions yet. This section will be built as I find out what the frequently asked questions are going to be.

Communication

E-mail me for questions about the project other than additions of data. I will answer as I can.

I am contemplating setting up a blog for the project, for progress reports and discussion. I'm not sure that the usefulness would be worth the effort, so this is still at the "under consideration" stage.


This site belongs to Heather Rose Jones. Contact me regarding anything beyond personal, individual use of this material.

Unless otherwise noted, all contents are copyright by Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved.