In medieval times the residents of Outremer -- the land beyond the seas or what was also known as the Holy Land -- had a reputation for "scandalous" clothes. The expressed shock of some visitors to the crusader states has misled subsequent generations into fantasizing about oriental dress and Hollywood naturally adopted this exotic, but unfounded, image. The reality looked different.
The transient nature of clothing inhibits our ability to know precisely what the residents of Outremer wore. Textile and garment fragments, illustrations, and descriptions in contemporary chronicles are our only primary sources to reconstruct Frankish fashion. Broadly speaking, church and military dress was widely standardised. Although military dress underwent significant changes in the 200 years between 1099 and 1291, this evolution of arms, armour and tack was not unique to the Latin East. Despite minor local variations, major innovations that provided substantial advantages in offense or defence were rapidly adopted across Western Christendom by the ruling military elite that proved remarkably mobile and cosmopolitan.
However, one of the innovations in the military dress widely adopted throughout Europe originated in the East. This was the ‘surcoat’, a cloth garment worn over armour. Because the intense sun of the Middle East made chainmail dangerously hot, the early crusaders rapidly learned to keep it comparatively cool by covering it with a thin, loose and flowing cloth, as the Arabs did. With the surcoat came the opportunity to wear bright colours and distinguishing devices or ‘arms’. Hence, the evolution of heraldry goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the surcoat as an integral part of a knight’s battle dress.
Off the battlefield, the Franks may have been tempted to adopt some of the clothing customs of native inhabitants. However, there is little evidence to support this as depictions of barons and knights in manuscripts, sculptures, and on seals consistently show men of the military elite in military regalia, while bishops and priests look just like their counterparts in the West. The one exception is the rulers of the Latin East, who are frequently portrayed in Byzantine attire. Certainly, the Latin emperors of Constantinople affected ‘Eastern’ dress (meaning Byzantine, not Arab) in the early part of the thirteenth century.
Nevertheless, we have some tantalizing documentary evidence that, off the battlefield, Outremer’s feudal elite developed some distinctive fashions. For example, during the Third Crusade, a commentator from the West noted:
The sleeves of their garments were fastened with gold chains, and they wantonly exposed their waists, which were confined with embroidered belts, and they kept back with their arms their cloaks, which were fastened so that not a wrinkle should be seen in their garments … and round their necks were collars glittering with jewels.[i]
In short, the Franks of Outremer had adopted or developed some fashions that looked strange — even wanton — to visitors from Western Europe. Based on their practice in other fields from architecture to miniatures, the Frankish knights and nobles probably developed their own hybrid style.
The women of Outremer are represented less frequently in art and when shown are always in conventional Western garb. Contrary to popular fiction and film, we know that they did not adopt the Muslim custom of going about veiled. James of Vitry (Bishop of Acre 1216-1228) describes with disgust the fact that Syrian Christians still ‘obliged’ their daughters (though notably not their wives) to go completely veiled, so they were unrecognizable. Other Christian women, most especially Vitry’s flock of Latin Christians, clearly did not hide under veils.
In addition, Muslim sources rave about (or condemn) the Frankish women for their seductiveness — something not possible if they were hidden behind the same, opaque black garments as their Muslim counterparts, which obscured face and figure. The poet Ibn al-Qaysarani, for example, was so enraptured by Frankish women that he wrote ‘effusive poems’ praising their — very visible — beauty.[ii] Ibn Jubayr likewise gives evidence that Frankish women went unveiled in his detailed description of a bride and her maids-in-waiting, concluding with the remark: ‘God protect us from the seduction of the sight’.[iii]
That said, it would not be surprising if Frankish women did not adopt some means of protecting their skin from the ravages of the Middle Eastern sun. One of the illuminated copies of William of Tyre’s ‘Deeds Done Beyond the Seas’, includes a picture of Queen Melisende wearing a broad-brimmed sun hat — not standard attire in Paris or London. It is also conceivable that transparent veils might have been worn when outdoors.
While the style of clothing worn by Frankish women may not have differed much from the latest fashion in London, Paris and Pisa, the materials used could have made a significant difference to the effect of those clothes. The same cut of a chemise or tunic, the same style of mantle or cloak will fall, fold, billow and sway differently, depending on its fabric. Many of the textiles of Outremer were sheer, translucent or semi-transparent. Depending on how such materials were used, they could have created enticing (or in the eye of clerics and conservatives, vulgar and immodest) garments, all without deviating from Western fashion.
Likewise, a gown that is simple in cut and form can be transformed by silk brocade or a weft of gold into something — depending on your ideology — stunning and luxurious or self-indulgent and extravagant. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of fabric fragments dating to the crusader era. They include silk, cotton, linen, felt, wool, and cloth woven from goat and camel hair. There were also several hybrid fabrics composed of a warp from one kind of yarn and weft from another, such as silk woven with wool, linen or cotton.
Certainly, some of the finest cloth known to the medieval world originated in the Near East. Familiar words, like damask, gauze and muslin, derive their names from the cities that first produced them in export quantities, namely Damascus, Gaza and Mosul, respectively. Cloth of gold was known in this period as siqlatin, a term that derives from silk-Latin or Latin silk, an indication that this extravagantly expensive and beautiful material was particularly popular with Outremer’s Latin elites.
Almost as important as the cloth from which clothes were made were the dyes used to colour them. Here again, the crusader states sat near the source of many materials coveted for dying. Saffron, turmeric and indigo ― not to mention the murex snails needed for vivid scarlet and rich purple dye ― were more readily available and cheaper in the crusader states than Western Europe. This makes it probable they were used more widely and generously in Outremer, producing much brighter hues than were common in the West.
Finally, decoration contributes to fashion. In the crusader era, weaving with different coloured threads, block printing and embroidery were all popular forms of decoration. Silk brocade and stitching with spun gold were particularly expensive and coveted forms of textile ornamentation known to have been exported from, if not produced in, the crusader states. The late nineteenth-century historian Claude Reigner Conder claims the Latin ladies wore ‘long-trained dresses with long, wide sleeves’ (no different from the ladies of the French or Angevin courts in this period), but (perhaps more unusual) they were ‘decked in samite and cloth of gold, with pearls and precious stones’ — something that sounds distinctly Byzantine.
It was probably the combination of fine fabric and vivid shades of dye with decorations of gold and bejeweled embroidery that made the clothing of Outremer’s Latin elites seem exotic to visitors from the West. Crusaders often commented that the lords of Outremer were wealthy and luxury-loving. Part of that reputation undoubtedly originated in the apparent extravagance of dress that came from being able to afford for everyday use textiles that were saved for special occasions in the West. In conclusion, while fashion in crusader states was set more in Paris and Constantinople than Damascus and Cairo. Yet the use of sheer fabrics, bright colors, and expensive and elaborate decoration made it seem more exotic — not to say scandalous — to many a Western observer.
[i] Jeoffrey de Vinsauf quoted in Claude Reignier Conder, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099 – 1291 (London: Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, reproduced by Elibront Classics, 2005), 178.
[ii] Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, from The Islamic Sources (London: Routledge, 2014), 83.
[iii] Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R.J.C. Broadhurst (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), reprinted in S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt, The Crusades: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 106-107.
Helena P. Schrader, ‘The Scandalous Frankish Fashions: Outfitting Outremer’, The Medieval Magazine, Issue 124: 83-89.
It is also integrated into Dr Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.