Clothed Seemly and Proper: The Saxons

by Jehanne de Huguenin

This is the first in a series of garb articles first run in Storm Tidings. These articles are arranged by time period, and show something of a bias to the English, for which I apologise. I have attempted to give a broad, general overview of the styles of the time, which means that I have had to sacrifice detail and complexity to some extent. I will be delighted to assist anyone who wishes to look further into any particular time-period.

Saxon clothing is ideal for basic starter garb, as it is simple and easy to wear. (Most of the Gold Key garb would count as Saxon). The basis for the effect is a simple T-tunic, usually two of them worn in layers; men may wear trews with bound legs.

The Saxon culture developed in Britain after the Roman departure in the early 5th century. Once the invading Saxons had established themselves in Britain (by the end of the 6th century), their culture endured until the Norman invasion in 1066. The Saxon tribes invaded from the coast of Denmark and Germany, and thus have point in common with Germanic and Frankish tribes in terms of costume and culture.

Being perpetually harried by invaders, the Saxons developed a form of dress which stressed simplicity and durability. Fabric was often thick, coarse and warm, mainly linen and wool. Lighter, gauzy linens could be used for veils and chemises. Colours were natural - browns and golds, greys, greens and pale blues. Nobles could afford stronger colours such as purple, scarlet and deep blue. Saxon clothing often includes broad embroidered borders - some haberdashery shops stock wide figured lace ribbon which gives a very similar effect for much less effort.


11th century mens' short tunics, from a manuscript in the British Museum. These appear to be worn without the trews.

Image from the Nonantola Gospels, around the time of the Norman Conquest; note the cross-gartered trews and the band of trim on the upper arm, disguising the join in the fabric.

Generally, Saxon men seem to have worn a knee-length tunic, slit from the hips downwards for freedom of movement; the sleeves were long, not too full, often longer than the arm and worn pushed up into folds for warmth (you can see the wrinkles in the picture above). A belt was worn around the waist. Trousers were long, loose and full, cross-gartered (i.e. bound - see diagram) to the knee. The cloak (mantle) was a half-circle, worn fastened on the shoulder with a brooch. Hair was usually long and worn loose.

Saxon man's outfit, from Truman


Woman's outfit, from an 11th century illustrated manuscript in the British Museum.

For Saxon women, the effect was layered, a full-length tunic with long sleeves (the kirtle) worn under a shorter tunic (just over knee-length) with shorter sleeves (identified by Truman as the gunna, or by other sources simply as the super-tunic). A girdle or belt was worn. Hair was braided or worn loose, but was covered by the headrail, a square of linen held in place by a circlet. A semi-circular cloak or mantle similar to that of the men was also worn; alternatively, the trailing headrail could be brought around over one shoulder, across the chest and back over the other shoulder to give an effect similar to a mantle.

Shoes for both sexes were leather, often coloured or embroidered, fastened at the side or front for men and at the ankle for women. Leather boots were also worn.

Basic tunic shape

A tunic is very easy to sew. Make sure, when you cut it, that you leave plenty of space across the chest and that the hole for the head is large enough, but not too large: an over-wide neckline can wreck an outfit irretrievably... A baggy shirt placed on the folded cloth is useful for marking the right size. Rather go too baggy than too tight; Saxon clothing is fairly voluminous anyway. For the women's tunics, make sure you cut the sleeves for the kirtle less full than those of the gunna (see diagrams: the under-tunic has fairly narrow sleeves, although don't make them too narrow or you won't be able to move). Saxon clothing is very simply, but can be easily jazzed up with the addition of braid or embroidery around the neck and hem (very effective for the women if you put the braid on the slightly shorter overdress - see manuscript illumination, above).


These diagrams are designed to give you some idea of basic shape; men's and women's tunics are cut very similarly, except that the man's tunic is just below knee length, whereas the woman's should be floor length.

1. Basic tuinc shape, showing decorated neckline.

2. A slightly different tunic shape: the pattern also includes the neck facing (match A-B on neckline and facing).

3. Basic mens' trousers; the diagram shows the pieces laid out on a double layer of cloth. Cut them very baggy or you won't be able to move! A cord in a waist casing works very well and is far more authentic than elastic.

4. Another tunic pattern, again laid out on a double layer of cloth; the layout suggests how you may fit in sleeves if your fabric is not wide enough. (Cover the sleeve joins with bands of embroidered or woven trim; the Saxons often did!)

Diagram sources:

1. From Medieval Costume in England and France, by Mary Houston.

2. From the SCA-based basic costume manual by Helen McCarthy.

3 and 4. From "The Five-Hour Viking" costume article by Lord Friedrich Augustus von der Schwanensehe in the Known World Handbook.


Phyllis Cunnington, Costume in Pictures, 1964, London: Studio Vista

Mary G. Houston, Medieval Costume in England and France, 1939, London: Adam and Charles Black.

Nevil Truman, Historic Costuming, 1936, London: Pitman

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