What did the early Anglo Saxons wear?
Certainly not animal skins wrapped around their torsos, the popular image of ancient Britons, nor togas left over from the Roman occupation of Britain! From the 5th to the 7th century clothing was perhaps surprisingly well refined and often richly dyed and decorated, especially for the higher classes of society. Of course, it depended on your social class, and the lower classes wore simpler garb of rougher cloth (working class serfs, peasants and even geburs who kept small parcels of land, and ceorls who were freedmen). But even so, the garb was not unlike our clothes today. For the higher ceorls and the thegns and their ladies, clothes were highly decorated and accessorised by brooches of gold and jewels.
Upper class ladies often wore several layers, as heating even in the richest houses was rudimentary: a chemise or shift in linen or wool, then on top of this, a long sleeved full-length under-dress, or kirtle, again of linen or wool or maybe a soft cotton fabric from lime tree fibres. On top was an over-gown dyed with more expensive dyes such as deep reds, purples and blues and lavishly trimmed with braid or fur. It would be fixed around the waist with a leather belt from which hung a pouch for keys and other valuables, a cross between a modern-day pocket and a purse or bag. On top would be an embroidered mantle or cloak fixed with a gold brooch at the shoulder, often jewelled or metalworked. Later in the period, kirtles would be fashioned with gores lined with silk or brocade to match the over-gown or trim.
Ladies’ hair would be twisted and bound or braided. Unmarried girls wore their hair more loosely. Headwear for ladies was a head rail often decorated with silver-work or jewels which fixed the veil beneath. Later, ladies tended to wear a type of wimple and veil reminiscent of nuns or a coif or crespine.
What of the men? As you might expect, theirs were simpler than the ladies. Men of lower class would wear simple tunics, often rough-spun with hose beneath, with higher class thegns and above sporting woollen or linen undergarments and woollen hose beneath their tunics topped with heavy fur-lined cloaks, fixed with gold brooches. Heavy leather belts held daggers and knives not just for fighting but for cutting food in the mead hall feasts.
For more about Anglo-Saxon life, why not read my novel, A Shape on th Air, a time-slip from the present day to 499 AD