Book Review: Dress in Anglo-Saxon England

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This is a brief review of the revised edition of Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England (2004).

I’m certainly no expert on books about early medieval dress (I don’t know what else has been published). Nevertheless, I would confidently wager that Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England is a must read for anyone with an interest in the subject.

It contains lots of useful information about the evidence for textiles, garments, jewellery, shoes, hair styles and facial hair. Owen-Crocker is clear about what can’t be known, given that so much organic material has rotted away. Yet she has gathered an amazing amount of information about what is known.

From this distance the Anglo-Saxon period can look like a single block of time. Of course it was six centuries of constantly changing and developing culture. Impressively, Owen-Crocker has charted how dress developed from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. Chapters cover male and female dress in the fifth and sixth centuries, the seventh to the ninth centuries, and the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The book has taught me a lot that I didn’t know. Here are just a few examples.

Anglo-Saxon women might have worn trousers.

Brooches had a functional purpose, as clothes fasteners. The position of brooches found in a burial is informative of the clothes that the deceased was buried in. For example, brooches on a woman’s shoulders show that she wore a dress fastened in that area.

Across Germanic Europe, hairstyles and facial hair could denote which culture a man came from. Some styles included a knot of hair on the side of the head, having the back of the head shaved, and wearing a thin moustache with no beard.

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England is a very accessible book. It begins with a general introduction to the history of the period; so you don’t need to be an historian to orient yourself. The following pages are written in a survey style with plentiful black and white illustrations, going into detail about garments such as belts, tunics, headdresses and cloaks. There are also some coloured illustrations.

If you know anyone who is interested in the history of fashion or jewellery, historical illustration, making English historical costumes or traditional textiles, do tell them about Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. I think they will thank you for it.

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