In terms of the technical development of European armor, the fourteenth century is often referred to as the “age of experimentation.” Mail armor was being reinforced with a range of additional defenses of varying shapes and construction for different parts of the body, ultimately leading to the development of the complete suit of plate armor in the following century. An equal variety is witnessed in the use of materials, such as quilted fabrics, hardened leather (cuir bouilli), and metal plates. The fourteenth century also witnessed some remarkable changes in civilian fashion. During the first quarter of the century, the waist as an individual feature of human anatomy began to be emphasized by the cut of the upper garment, and not by girdle or belt alone as before. From around 1340 onward, the upper part of the garment became increasingly tighter, while the waistline was continuously lowered until it reached a line with the crotch, and the skirt (of male garments) became constantly shorter. Contemporary chroniclers in late medieval Europe bewailed these “indecent” developments, for which some blamed a Spanish influence, while others saw France, especially the royal court at Paris, as the source of this new and “sinful” fashion. With sometimes as much as a decade delay, these same new fashions took hold in the appearance of contemporary armor, perhaps with some exceptions. Many chroniclers describe the new garments as being so tight that they severely restricted upper-body movement, while at the same time becoming so short that the breeches (a form of underwear), even genitals and buttocks themselves, could become exposed. But although the nobility certainly held fashion in high esteem, in armor such restriction in mobility and lack of protection would have been tolerated only to the point at which it began to impede its functional and protective qualities.
A particular fashion in armor, which appears to have been confined almost exclusively to the British Isles around 1325–40, was the custom of shortening the surcoat (a garment worn over the actual armor) in the front to about the level of the knees or mid-thigh, while leaving it longer in the back. This brief fashion is very much appreciated today among scholars of armor as it neatly reveals the different layers of protection worn underneath the surcoat.
Dirk H. Breiding
Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art