tunic costs

How Much Did a Garment Cost in the Bronze Age?

a colour photo of the stone remains of the temple of Dendur in a glass-roofed space at the Metropolitan museum of art.  The temple consists of a stone gateway, the stone foundation of the front wall, and a one-chamber sanctuary with a two-column porch
Egypt gave the US a temple from the reign of Augustus and it is glorious https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547802 There is now a video about the Temple of Dendur (have not seen it) https://smarthistory.org/temple-of-dendur/

I have posted about the cost of a shirt in fifteenth-century England, and the price of a tunic in the time of emperor Constantine. That is not the earliest date which we can explore! Writing on scraps of stone from Egypt and clay tablets from Ugarit tell us how much a garment cost in the Late Bronze Age around 1500 to 1100 BCE.

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How Much did a Tunic Cost in the Roman Empire?

If this isn’t the famous robbery scene, from Arsenal MS. 5070 Boccaccio Decameron its as close as I can bother to get for a short blog post! The victim on the left is stripping off his clothes while the three robbers look on.

Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.

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Two Dresses a Year

Three women in dressnding on bicycles with straight handlebars
Vivie Warren was more of a hiker and target shooter than a cyclist but this photo will do! Female cyclists from the end of the 19th century c/o the Victoria and Albert Museum http://media.vam.ac.uk/feature/lightbox/v1/album_images/59473-large.jpg

For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:

There’s a pawn shop on the corner
Where I usually keep my overcoat.

Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.

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How Much Did a Shirt Really Cost in the Middle Ages?

A painting of peasants eating and napping under a tree while others harvest grain
Peter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565: now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 19.164). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your modern education. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?

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