What, this old thing? Fashion unearthed at the Archaeological Archive.

By jackie keily on 3 Jun 2014

A leather jerkin

In June the tours of the Archaeological Archive will be called: ‘What, this old thing?’ and will be investigating shoes and dress accessories through the ages. In this blog we’ll be looking in more detail at three of the wonderful objects that the Archaeological Archive’s volunteers will be showing in the tours.

Nice water-logged conditions survive in certain areas of the City of London (along the banks of the Thames, etc) and these conditions preserve organic materials (such as wood, leather, textiles) and metals in very good condition. The Museum of London has an amazing collection of artefacts of all periods that are preserved in this way and in particular artefacts that tell us about what people wore in the past – their textiles, shoes, belts, buckles, etc. We can see how fashions changed and both what the very rich were wearing and the very poor, from Roman times onwards.

A Romans child's shoe

The Roman’s brought a whole new way of life and of dressing to Britain. They also brought new technologies and amongst these was the vegetable tanning of animal skins and hides to make leather. So it is only from the Roman period on that we have true leather items surviving. Various types of footwear are known from delicate in-door slippers (some even decorated with gold leaf) to heavy-duty military boots with heavily nailed soles. This little shoe is a child’s shoe and imitates a type of shoe that was popular for adults too in the 3rd century AD (although similar shoes were also fashionable in the 1st century AD too). It is made from one piece of leather and wraps around the foot with a single stitched seam up the heel. The shoe was kept on the foot with leather thongs or laces which were threaded through the loops over the front of the foot. On the sole we can see wear at both the toe and heel ends, showing that the shoe was worn and run about in by a child in Roman London!

The Archaeological Archive contains a lot of medieval objects associated with clothing and accessories; these together with manuscript and other images show us how fashionable many Londoners were. If you were very wealthy you could afford jewellery and accessories made from precious metals and fine textiles imported from abroad. The less wealthy were no less fashionable but their buckles and belt mounts were made from base metals, such as copper and lead alloys. Similarly shoe fashions for the wealthy were copied by the less wealthy too, but using less expensive materials. We see fashions changing in footwear throughout the medieval period, from simple slip-on shoes and ankle boots to decorated shoes with pointed toes. However, some of the most remarkable survivals from medieval London must be the fragments of textiles. On the tour a number of these, all silks discarded around the second quarter of the 14th century, will be on display – all very small pieces but all with fascinating stories to tell. At this time most silk was imported from Islamic southern Spain, although some also came from Italy, Byzantium, Iran and further east.

Fragment of twill damask

One of the most amazing pieces is a small and rather unassuming fragment of twill damask. It is now a dark brown colour but analysis shows signs of red (a dye called madder) and yellow (identification unknown), indicating it was originally of an orange-red colour. Although now difficult to see, it is decorated with a woven pattern of peonies and must have looked very striking. It was produced in China and is evidence of the re-opening of trade routes to the Far East during the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. In addition, we know that Mongol ambassadors visited the English court in the early 14th century and there must have been quite a fascination for eastern things: in 1431 King Edward III and his courtiers are recorded as dressing in the style of Tartars (meaning people from Central Asia and the east) for a tournament on Cheapside in the City of London! So perhaps our fragments of textile came from bales of cloth brought by Mongol ambassadors to London, perhaps they were made up into robes for a king and perhaps they ended as small scraps from discarded second- or third-hand clothes.

The object below is part of an Elizabethan leather jerkin, a sleeveless garment worn over a doublet. It was found at the site of Fastolf Place in Southwark and dates to the late 16th century to early 17th century. Only one front panel survives with the remains of fourteen buttonholes. The front is decorated with pinked (small decorative cuts) and slashed designs, a form of decoration commonly found in the 16th century. The cuts in the leather may have shown off a colourful lining or garment worn underneath. It appears that this jerkin was worn with the flesh or suede side outwards. The lower part of the jerkin curves to a point reminiscent of the ‘peascod belly’ of the late 16th century, a fashion that added padding to the stomach area to give it a distended look, although no sign of padding survives. This jerkin is quite small in size and may have been worn by a teenage boy, although leather jerkins also became popular for women in the 1570s – Queen Elizabeth had a number of examples, including some in leather.

A leather jerkin


I hope that this has given you a taste of some of the fabulous finds that you will be able to see on the next two tours of the Archaeological Archive, so sign up and prepare to be amazed!

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