The Normans were among the widely-traveled inhabitants of Europe by the 11th century. They had descended from the Vikings, initially they inhabited Normandy in northern France and eventually spread to Sicily, Italy, England and other parts of British Isles as well as to the kingdoms that came into being during early Christian Crusades.
Their exposure to various culture enabled Normans to bring together elements from different cultures and this reflected in their clothing as well.
Until the middle of the 10th century, Normans relied mainly on their battlefield prowess to thrive since they had few other means of earning sufficient subsistence. Consequently, Norman men dressed conservatively and in a way which reflected their martial interests.
The dresses of this period were both plain and practical. At the time of Norman Conquest of England in 1066, for instance, Normans wore woollen tunics made in a close-fitting style, sometimes together with a waistband to keep the tunic in place.
On top of the tunic, the men wore a cloak. Woollen drawers were worn on the legs together with woollen socks and leather shoes. Following the 1066 Conquest and settlement in England, men’s clothing evolved to include longer tunics with cuts on both sides as well as the use of ankle garters and embroidered cuffs.
Exposure of Norman society to many different cultures was better reflected in the dressing of Norman women. The typical dress of a Norman noblewoman included a chemise, a gown and a cloak. The chemise was the primary layer of dress worn by the women and was unusually long in length. On top of it, the women wore a gown which was loose in fitting and was knee-length.
Finally, a cloak was worn on top of the gown. The gown’s neck-opening usually carried elaborate embroidery while precious brooches were used to clasp a cloak in place. Towards the late 11th and 12th centuries, cloaks evolved to include bands used together with the brooches which ran around the shoulders of the wearer, giving the cloak a tighter look.
Women’s clothing also began to utilise elaborate lacing by the 12th century. Head-coverings such as wimples were also used by the Norman women, a feature probably borrowed from the Saracens whom the Normans fought in the Holy Land.
When the Normans arrived on the British Isles in 1066 and conquered England, they were plain-dressed, primarily warrior-like people. Once they settled in England, they began to absorb cultural influences of the local Anglo-Saxon populations.
This was most prominently reflected in the fact that Anglo-Saxons typically wore their hair long and this habit soon passed into Norman culture towards the end of the 11th century. Similarly, embroidery, lacework and similar arts were very familiar to Anglo-Saxons who extensively used them in making their clothes.
Normans also began to utilise these aspects in their clothing. Wearing hoods was another aspect of dressing which passed from the dressing of Anglo-Saxon women to that of the Norman women.