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Prehistoric-Society

In Association with

What did the Iron Age People Wear?

Shoes

Unlike modern shoes, Iron Age shoes didn’t have a raised heel and were not made to

last. In fact most people would probably have worn a form of ‘turn shoe’. Similar

shoes were still in use in parts of Scotland and Ireland until the early 20th century.

Some people by the coast we know had a tradition to use sealskin and soaked their

shoes in a pail of saltwater over night to keep them soft.

In Scotland, turn shoes were made from one piece of leather cut to cover the foot

with a tongue and flaps. The only stitching required was at the back to form a closed

heel. There were of course many different styles of Iron Age shoes, some intricately

decorated sandals, others resembling soft slippers. Whatever the style it is certain

that such shoes were probably only worn for one season and then thrown away and

new ones made. It is important to remember that tanning techniques used for Iron

Age leather produced only brown colours. Personally I believe that people only wore

shoes when they had reached adulthood and their feet had stopped growing. There

is archaeological evidence in UK to suggest children were barefoot. Though perhaps

only during the spring and summer months.

 

Trousers

The Romans and Greeks tell us that the Gauls and Britons were well known for

wearing trousers which they called ‘Braccae’. As we know the Iron Age people were

great horsemen and in cooler climates of North Western Europe and Britain trousers

make sense. Wearing trousers on horseback is definitely practical and in fact the

Roman cavalry wore knee length breeches.

Although Braccae were obviously very common to the Iron Age people,

Archaeologists have only found one pair of intact trousers from a peat bog in Angeln,

modern day Denmark. So we have to look at the few sculptures which the Romans

made of the Celts and also we have to look at the Celtic coins which depict warriors

wearing full length trousers. If making your own Iron Age costume, both drawstring

waists and belt loops are acceptable. Trousers gathered with leather drawstrings or

gaiters were in my opinion a personal choice based on your working day rather than

the norm.

 

Today when I visit schools and Museums I prefer to wear a pair of trousers based on

the original TEXEL design. Named after the place an original pair of later Iron Age

trousers were excavated. The reconstructions I wear are deliberately 1 ½ times too

wide for my waist. I put them on, fold the excess width around to my front, secure it

with a belt and then fold the high waist over the belt and outwards. It’s the only style I

had worn which are so comfortable you forget you are wearing them. They are

durable, afford easy movement and warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

 

Dresses, Skirts

We don’t know whether women wore trousers the same as men sometimes.

Generally archaeologists portray women in the Iron Age wearing a small variety of

dresses. One is the basic, ‘A’ shaped dress with or without sleeves which is stitched

along each edge. Another style is to wear a waist length tunic (with or without

sleeves) with an over dress stitched ¾ of the way up the sides, or up to just below

your arm and leave everything above it open. Pull it over the top of the tunic and hold

the two top edges together at each shoulder with brooches. All dresses should be

worn down to the ankles and drawn around the waist with a belt. The dresses should

not be too close fitting, however there is a theory that the nobility would have been

able to afford to have material cut and so their clothes and dresses may have been

tailored to a greater extent.

 

Cloaks

The Romans describe the Gauls of Europe wearing short, light wool summer cloaks.

In Ireland bodies have been found accompanied by thick, heavy wool cloaks

sometimes lined with a softer lighter wool. The cloaks found preserved in peat bogs

show atleast a couple of different patterns of cloak. It’s difficult to say whether there

was a definite ‘Celtic’ style cloak but its worth noting that the Romans seemed to

have preferred to use ‘Birrus Britannicus’ or the ‘British Cloak’ which seems to have

been a cloak with a fitted hood made from wool which has a high lanolin content (

natural oil from sheep’s wool). The lanolin would make the cloak waterproof and less

liable to be saturated with water and become heavy and uncomfortable. Whichever

style you wish to recreate, be advised to buy the largest 100% wool blanket you can

find. The minimum practical size will be at least 65 inches x 60 inches.

 

Pouches

We don’t know whether men and women had trouser pockets in the Iron Age, so

most re-enactors and Celtic enthusiasts wear simple leather drawstring pouches on

their belts. Others might wear leather shoulder bags with fringes. Perhaps children

whose job it was to keep birds away from the crops wore large leather bags full of

sling stones.

 

Jewellery

Both the Romans and Greeks tell us that the Celts were well known for their love of

Gold and Silver jewellery. But the enthusiasts who spent time living like the Iron Age

people have discovered that if you try to wear the same styles of jewellery as ancient

authors describe, many of the daily tasks carried out in the Iron Age mean that

bangles and neck torcs and rings more often than nit simply get in the way and are

impractical. This perhaps tells us that only the wealthy people wore Jewellery

because they didn’t have to work.

Both Penannular and fibula brooches were worn by both men and women in the Iron

Age. Penannular brooches can be made from silver and bronze, but many would

have been iron. The fibula brooches generally are bronze sometimes silver inlaid

with coral studs and very ornate.

 

Ladies of wealth certainly possessed elaborate bronze hand mirrors and wooden or

bone hair combs. We also know that women in the Iron Age may well have used

make up and pigments would have been created from wild berries. Their hair seems

to have been worn long and was more often than not braided or plaited elaborately.

Though it is accepted that People generally wore their hair longer than we do today, I

believe that the professional warriors would have had shorter hair. Its less of a

liability in battle and when lime washed or gelled back with spruce gum, it does

indeed resemble boars hackles as the Classical writers describe.

 

Tunics

The Iron Age men wore a style of top called a tunic. Don’t confuse this with the

Roman soldiers ‘Tunica’. The tunic would have been made from wool and measure

down to the mid thigh. It is generally accepted that these tunics would have had a

simple oval shaped head hole. Though atleast one coin depicts a three quarter

sleeve tunic with a V neck. It could be sleeveless or usually full length sleeves. The

statue from Vacheres, France thought to represent a Gaulish Nobleman even shows

turned back cuffs and scalloping.

 

Another form of tunic may have been the same as above but with an open front.

Such a wrap around tunic may have been held closed by a belt or even wooden

toggles.

 

The classical writers tell us that the Celtic people loved to wear brightly coloured

clothes of complicated chequered patterns, stripes and plaids such as tabby weave

and hounds tooth. This does not mean that the Iron Age people wore modern tartans.

But certainly, you would expect to see reds, blues, greens, yellows and a whole

variety of browns and earth tones.

 

So perhaps the lower status you were in Iron Age society, such as slaves captured in battle, the

fewer colours and less complicated the patterns you could afford to wear.

 

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