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Thursday, 13 February 2014

What did Medieval and Early Modern Cooks 
Wear on the Job?

   Something we rarely discuss in medieval and early modern food history are the types of clothing and uniforms that cooks wore while on the job. Was it anything similar to our modern chef whites? Not a chance.  In fact, the English royal household's "Eltham Ordinance" of 1526 (under Henry VIII) noted that scullions and children of the kitchen "shall not go naked or in garments of such vileness as they now do, and have been accustomed to do". So yes, standards of uniformity in dress were far different from what they are today.

   In general, when household servants were given clothing by their employer, it was usually referred to as "livery". Livery could vary a great deal depending on the status of the servant and the status of the household itself. In the royal household many different varieties of livery existed for different grades of officer. Sometimes this simply consisted of a doublet, or waistcoat, with the servant supplying shirt, breeches, and stockings. Other times, the entire uniform would be given to the servant. Usually, cooks and senior kitchen servants would be given full attire to wear while working, but lower-status scullions and the children of the kitchen (used for scaling fish, plucking poultry, laying fires etc.) may have been given much simpler, cheaper livery. Standards from household to household, and also within individual households, varied depending on numerous considerations.

   One of my favourite things to examine when I see images of historic kitchens is the clothing that workers are wearing. In this post I have gathered a few images from various sources that show cooks working in kitchens. The images come from tapestries, books of psalms, and even a few of the paintings of David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690). They reveal that there was not a standard uniform for cooks, although the apron seems to be one of the first element of cooks' clothing that was nearly universal. Lets have a look at the images:

Duke William's cooks preparing a feast, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th Cent.

   Here we can see cooks preparing a meal for Duke William the Conqueror upon landing in England at Pevensey in 1066 (from the Bayeux Tapestry). Cooking outdoors, or in an extra-domiciliary kitchen, was normal for Norman lords (the reasons for which might be explored in a future post). The three cooks depicted here (two boiling; one grilling, note the flames under the grill) wear tunics gathered together at the waist, as well as stockings. Two wear tunics of similar colour while the cook at the grill is wearing a tunic of different colour. The two cooks working at the boiling station are beardless, while the grill cook has a beard and is closer to the room where the food is being served; it is possible that he was an overseer of some sort. The text above is partially obscured but reads Hic coquitur caro ("Here meat is cooked") and Et hic ministraverunt ministri  ("Here servers serve").
Cooks preparing pork and chicken while a butler pours drink, from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1340). If you look closely, you can see hair follicles in the bottom left corner of this image. During the fourteenth century, most manuscripts were written on specially-prepared animal skins, cleaned of fat and hair, stretched and dried (called "vellum"). Vellum is different from leather because it is not tanned, allowing the skins to receive and hold wet inks. Over the centuries, follicles trap oil and dust, becoming discoloured as we see here. Still, the pages are in remarkable condition; much better condition than many books published during the 1960's!
   Above and below we see two images from a book of psalms completed around 1340 known as the Luttrell Psalter. The source itself is not directly related to cooking, but the clerk who decorated it certainly took an interest in cooks. In this case, it seems that the cooks depicted were wearing some sort of formalized livery: the cook (chopping a surprised-looking pig) and butler (pouring drinks to the right) both wear yellow tunics. Since master cooks and butlers were usually given equal managerial status in their respective departments, it seems that they share the same style of livery. Additionally, the cook wears an apron and a hat. The two rotisseurs below both wear orange tunics, like the cook's assistant depicted above, while one also sports an apron.

Cooks roasting pork and hens, from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1340).

Illustration from an edition of The Decameron, Flanders, 1432.

   In this image from a fifteenth-century Flemish copy of the Decameron, we can see a cook holding a knife and a leg of poultry, with a female assistant-cook helping to turn the spit. Here the cook wears a heavy tunic, indicating that it is winter or he is working in a large, cold castle, or both, with a hat and apron. We can just glimpse a dark-coloured shirt protruding from underneath the arms of the tunic. The assistant-cook wears a long blue tunic, and a white headpiece.

A baker with his apprentice, reproduced from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, c. 1450.
   The image above, taken from an unknown (to me) manuscript in the possession of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, depicts two bakers removing loaves from an oven. As they do so, they are placing the loaves on a table we can see in the background to cool. Just like the cooks we have met already, bakers here wore short-sleeve tunics, stockings, hats, shirts, and aprons. The aprons seem to have been added last since they are semi transparent and we can see the bakers' tunics and stockings underneath. 

Marten van Cleve, Köksinteriör, 1565.

   In this lively scene, painted by Martin van Cleve, the artist depicted nine kitchen workers, none of whom seem to be wearing a formalized livery. Their clothing may still have been paid for by the employer but, it seems, that some choice in attire was left up to the workers themselves. All of the male workers wear the tunics, stockings, and aprons we are now familiar with, while women wore dresses, bodices, head pieces, and aprons.

David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) , The Kitchen, 1646.

   Finally, in our last two paintings, both by David Teniers the Younger, we again see the tunic, stocking, apron, and hat. In the image below, there seems not to be a uniform livery; in the painting above, The Kitchen, there seems to be some sort of uniform livery being worn. Two cooks that are directing operations - the workers wearing red tunics, one in the foreground and one near the hearth - are both wearing similar clothing. Again, this could be due to the fact that they were employed in a managerial role and were given more in the way of livery. Children of the kitchen seem to be wearing non-uniform liveries. One female is pictured, similarly to the other females depicted here, she wears a long dress, apron, and head covering. In the painting below, the two females assisting the cook also wear dresses, aprons, and head coverings.

David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Kitchen Interior, after 1650.
    The images we have examined stretch from between 1100AD-1650AD, and yet they show very little in the way of change and modification in kitchen workers' liveries. First and foremost, they were the working clothes of the day: labouring poor of all industries could be found wearing similar clothes to the kitchen workers depicted here. They were made from relatively cheap fabrics, unembellished, and seem to have made much allowance for ease of movement at leg level, and coolness where the short-sleeve, open-top tunics were concerned. It is also certain that chefs' whites of today have little relation to liveries of cooks from hundreds of years ago, except where the apron is concerned. I am not certain when the cooks' whites of the twentieth century began to appear (possibly during the eighteenth century), but it was not during the period we have examined here. 

 (Image credits: all images uploaded from Wikimedia Commons)
 By: Ryan Whibbs


  1. All the pictures are very nice specially medieval tunics and medieval clothing is very eye catchy.

  2. The images are very helpful, thank you. I am researching for a medieval novel and particularly need info on clothing, so thank you.