British dress


further reading:

websites of interest
Useful information on trousers
The mummified leg (with leg wrap) from Holland
Darwin Country (shrewsbury Museums service)
Celtic Coin Collection

Want to read a good story?
Pauline Gedge - The Eagle and the Raven.

Clothing from antiquity is not always put together the same way as our modern clothing. For a start, our stuff is generally far more tailored with loads more extra pieces and seams. This may mean that properly made period clothing may not feel comfortable or hang 'right' for your modern tastes.

The most important thign to remember about the ancient Britons is that they are not Iron age Bag People. They do not dress like tramps in badly made clothing or just a pair of trousers that look like they have come from Oxfam. The fact that you have joined probably means that already have an appreciation of the kind of items that are have been recovered from this period and they are hardly the work of tramps !
Also remember, that warriors were usually noblemen and their freemen and this would be reflected in the quality of their clothing and equipment.

Aulus Plautius did not face a bunch of half naked new age travellers armed with poorly made double hand spears across the Medway in AD42. He faced a well equipped, organised and determined enemy that gave his legions a bit a mauling.

Unfortunately, there are only very fragmentary textile finds in this country from the iron age/early roman age. In addition, the only art is to be found on Roman monuments which usually shows the Britons as naked savages cowering under the hooves of noble roman cavalry !. There are a few lines in contemporary roman literature but they allude only to the infamous use of woad and brightly coloured clothing.

The clothing of the Gauls (France) has a bit more evidence and there are also some slightly later period finds of complete garments from the Danish bogs. There is also more post-Roman sculpture in Europe, but invariably it shows more Roman dress.

It would be pretty safe to assume that the standard dress in northern Europe, for a man, is a tunic, trousers and cloak. However, now the questions arise as to what are the garments made of (linen, wool, nettles, cotton, silk etc. etc.) and how are they put together, were they woven in patterns (checks, stripes, herringbone) and with what colours. Are the tunics knee length; longer or shorter? Are the trousers knee, calf , ankle or have integral socks' ??
I guess you can now see the problem. We have already had to make an assumption on the basics but it is the detail that we need in order to construct a garment !

<right> is the Gundestrup cauldron, which is supposed to be Danish but it is claimed to be of more eastern/southern derivation dated to the 1st/2nd century BC. Look at the clothes these guys are wearing !!!!!
It's interesting to note that these calf length trousers become very popular in the roman army in the later 1st century and onwards .. must have got the idea somewhere ?

So what exactly should we aim for ???

<left> Here is an impression drawn by Ralph which is about right, although there is quite a lot of variation.
Smile if you think this looks like Ralph with a moustache and hair 8-)

Avoid any 'modern' fibres like polyester, rayon, nylon or even stuff like brocade and satin. Avoid materials with raised pattern shapes woven in as well
The main staple fabrics were really only linen and wool which are fairly well available nowadays. Cotton did exist but it's pretty rare as is silk.

People two thousand years ago were as sensible as us. They wouldn't wear a thick, long sleeved tunic on a really hot day anymore than we would. The same goes for wearing a short sleeved linen tunic in midwinter - Buy your material for it's purpose !

It is possible to wear two tunics but usually the addition of a cloak makes this unnecessary.

Finally, cloth is expensive in the ancient world. It is a very labour intensive activity with many stages. Clothing would be hemmed when the weaving would not allow a woven edge to be utilised. It would also be patched.

Colours and Patterns

<right> images from Volubilis, Morocco which is assume to be that of a 'Celt' ?

According to Diodorus:

'The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours'

This has unfortunately meant in some quarters that anyone portraying a 'Celt' should ensure that _every_ item of clothing is checked or striped in some way. While it's certainly possible, it more likely that clothing was as often of a single colour.

Get away from the idea of mucky greens, yellows and browns as the only colours available. Very bright colours can be achieved using ancient dysestuffs that are 'fast' (i.e. they don't fade), although it is true to say that some colours are not easily attained or fade quickly.
Also, you can use natural coloured linen (unbleached) as well as wool that has it's natural brown or grey colours (white wool is usually dyed).
Please ask someone in the group before buying material of an unknown colour.

In a similar way, you will need to ensure that patterned cloth is actually achievable using ancient techniques. Anything that looks like a modern 'clan' tartan is usually best avoided !

The Tunic.
This pattern set is roman in inspiration but it gives some idea as to the way that tunics were constructed. As cloth was woven on an upright loom then often as not the entire garment would be woven as closely as possible to avoid wasted material (i.e. if you weave a huge rectangle then invariably you have to cut bits off to tailor your clothes - this is why many roman tunics are a basic square)

Rather than make everyone stick to the same tunic pattern, then you are free to vary it. Long sleeved, short sleeves, shorter or longer.


There certainly seems to be some evidence for trousers in Britain. .............

While the Romans assume that all barbarians wear 'trousers' there is another oblique reference:

"veteres braccae Britonis pauperis"
( loose as the old breeches of a British pauper)
Mart. xi. 22"

Additionally, there are a number of Trinovantes/Catuvellauni coins that may show warriors wearing trousers which appear to stop at the knee and are quite baggy (see website in header for more coin images)

There is a first century gravestone in Shreswbury museum, from Wroexeter, that shows the typical barbarian being trampled but this one clearly wears trousers that are fitted around the calves and waist. This corresponds well with the images on the gundestrup couldron (above)

<Right> trousers found at Thorsberg from a context a few hundred years later, which I think are the earliest complete pair found. Note that they have the feet attached !

In addition, it is possible that britons wore leg wraps that are simply attached to the lower legs. There is a lower leg found in the dutch bogs dated to late bronze age /early iron age that shows this.

It is hard to say exactly what the trousers of the period would look like as there is simply not enough evidence to be specific. Certainly something knee length or calf length (as the picture on the Gundrestrup cauldron above and from a myriad of roman images) would be a the best approach given the additional evidence from Britain. It is interesting to note that knee length garments are still being worn in Ireland into the Viking Age and appear on carved stones.

We know the Romans were using socks as there is a mention within a letter from Hadrians Wall and also a simple textile sock found there. Evidence for knitted socks, using single needle knitting, is from later egyptian finds and also a leg from a razor in Darlington see auxillia dress


Cloaks are the coat of the period. If the weather is cold or wet then you would usually not put on an extra tunic but take your cloak. As a much worn garment which is on display, it would as likely be as impressive as you can make it. Cloaks are usually thicker wool and a simple rectangle.

Cloaks are held on the shoulder with a brooch. Brooches can be made from bronze, silver and gold (and occasionally Iron). Most are decorated to an extent. They are available from a number of traders - ask for recommendations.