When we watch movies set in “medieval times,” the fashions we see can be authentic or a muddle of the medieval period, which spanned more than 400 years.
Many costume research sources delineate periods of fashion development by decades or centuries. I prefer to use each king’s reign (John Peacock’s approach in Costume 1066-1990s). Eighteen kings ruled England from 1066-1485. Two never married (William II and the boy king Edward V). The other kings and their 21 medieval queens, many from foreign lands, influenced national fashion just as presidents and their wives do now. Other influences included the Crusades and improved technology, which enabled the introduction of new fabrics and designs. Sumptuary laws decreeing which classes could wear which fabrics Following is a brief summary of some of the major changes in medieval English headdresses.
Women almost always wore headdresses because it was considered unseemly for them to show their hair. In William the Conqueror’s time, women simply wore a piece of plain cloth (often linen) draped over their heads, held by a narrow band. Some women wore their hair in two long braids around the turn of the 12th century, some with no veils. By Stephen’s reign, headbands were coming into vogue. These were worn with a veil.
As time passed, women also added a barbette, a strip of white fabric that went under the chin. Others wore wimples, similar to the white cloths some nuns still wear around their faces. Some form of the wimple or barbette with a circlet or hat continued through Edward II. A crispinette, or hair net, became a popular hair accessory of the time.
By Edward III, hair was braided and worn over the ears, not unlike Star Wars’ Princess Leia, except that often a crispinette covered the round braids, and was often worn with a hat or band (called a fillet). Padded roll headdresses emerged in the reign of Richard II, and were often jeweled or embroidered and were often worn with a short veil by Henry IV and the late 14th century.
By Henry V and into the beginning of Henry VI (1422-1461), rolls were worn over other headdresses or crispinettes, some with veils, some not. Transparent veils came into vogue during the latter part of Henry VI. Tall, conical headdresses called hennins (popular in the court of Burgandy, which influenced fashion) with veils appeared during the early years Edward IV but were replaced by fairly boring hats and caps with folded back brims by the end of his reign.