When cloth costs too much to waste and buttons haven’t been invented yet.
I was trying to turn my battered and moth-eaten t-shirt into a skirt last night (don’t ask,) and this got me thinking about a time when even queens had their dresses rehemmed and patched because you wanted your clothes to last a lifetime.
I refer to any time before the mid-1800’s, mostly, but my era is 1200 through 1550. Queen Catherine of Aragon famously mended King Henry VIII’s shirts, and there were millions of wills where people give their coats and mantles to surviving spouses and younger siblings.
How Was This Achieved?
Cloth before the industrial revolution was insanely expensive, and fashion reflected this. You tied on loosely fitted clothes that could be adjusted when you gained weight or lost weight, and garments had to be made of simple shapes. This meant that looking fancy meant concentrating on the few places where a difference could be made on a budget.
In the 1100’s, the trendy thing was tight sleeves that had to be sewn on each morning.
In the 1400’s, the cool people wore layers of sleeves, with the outer sleeve slashed to reveal the colorful underlayer. This is why you’ll see pictures of refined ladies from the period sporting striped sleeves.
And, of course, there are the famous dagged and ankle-length sleeves of the high Middle Ages. Women in particular would have sleeves where the back of them went down to their waist. They had to be tied up to avoid catching on doors and cutlery, and there are paintings of women tying the sleeve ends together as they sat.
Guys had the herigaut, where the back of the sleeves were long. There is a rather adorable painting of a Prince Charles (one of the million or so that are recorded) with a long, flowy harigaut-type shirt that reached his calves and sleeve bottoms that dangle down at his waist as he puts his hands together in prayer at his chest.
Guys often had the puffy shoulders connected to tight-fitting ends too, often accompanied by incredibly short shirts designed to showcase their thighs and calves.
Anyway, think about that next time you are trying to upcycle your shirt and are struggling with those darn sleeves.