Between Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones, America and the rest of the world seems to have a continued love affair with the Middle Ages. King Arthur, his court, and that time in history have long been an allure in literature, movies, and television. It’s something fans never seem to tire of. Such is the intrigue that we flock to Renaissance Faires every year, and not only do we dress the part when we go, but we add it to our fashion in daily wear.
Armor in History
History reveals armor dating back to the Celtic period, before Christ, as well as ancient Rome during the same time. Armor and the maille, or mail, that went with it was a necessity of the 12th century. Knights went to battle for their kings with swords, and other pointed and shear-edged weapons. To protect their vital organs, the armor was worn surrounding the torso. Mesh textiles, or mail, was worn as a shirt and covering other places which armored metal didn’t cover.
By the 13th century different individual armor designers were required to create each mail, plates (or armored suits) and textiles such as leggings, although armor was beginning to extend down to cover the legs, as well. More fashionable armor was also designed for knights and their horses involved in jousting tournaments.
Ladies and dames wore little armor although chastity belts were something being dictated by noble-class fathers to protect their young daughters, and husbands to limit their sexual activity. Women had no say in the matter and the keys were managed by their men.
Of course, it wasn’t just European soldiers who were protected in armor. The men of the Rashidun army in the Middle East of the 7th century wore their own style of armor, mostly made of mail mesh. Chinese soldiers from the late BC era wore lamellar armor, made of iron, leather, and bronze squares laced together.
Armor was cumbersome, not to mention heavy. Full armored suits weighed up to 110 pounds, just the body plate weighed between 33 – 55 pounds. A modern-day study of men posing as knights in full garb used 2.1 to 2.3 more energy walking around than without the protection.
Armor was also expensive. Leaders began increasing the numbers in their armies, and decreasing their protection in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For many, only helmets and, perhaps, some mail, remained.
Armor as Fashion Rather Than a Wartime Necessity
“Armor was a development of dress,” wrote Stephen V. Granscay, former curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Armor and costume were always worn together, and it was inevitable that their forms and ornamentation should influence each other.”
And certainly, men higher in the ranks had more style to their armor, than the rank-and-file soldier.
Granscay further pointed out that it was men during these early times who were the fashion trendsetters, not women.
The cuirass bodice worn by women in the late 19th century had a look of armor. The definition of cuirass is a piece of armor made up of one or multiple pieces to cover the torso. Rather than for protection from weapons, the look as a bodice was to show off a woman’s figure as dictated by a corset.
As written in Nineteenth-Century Fashion by Penelope Byrde, “Its tight fit was achieved by cutting it with five seams at the back, from the top of the shoulder and slanting towards the waist, while the darts in front were short and close together.”
Today’s Armor Fashion
Heavy Metal bands and Harley Davidson riders in the ’60s and ’70s are partly responsible for modern-day armor popularity. At the least, they reintroduced leather and metal into fashion. And while the leather jacket wasn’t particularly reminiscent of armor, the thick leather, silver-studded bracelets and chokers, certainly were.
Today, armor is a fashion statement mostly worn by women. In the simplest of terms, the choker, which makes a resurgence every few decades, is back, including the human-dog collar, which leans toward dark Gothic and Punk. And, that cuirass bodice has returned, too.
In Donna Dickens Buzzfeed article, she shares what she feels are 12 “compelling reasons” for the comeback of armor fashion. Number 4 reads, “Because we are queens and should dress accordingly.” And Number 12, “Basically, faux armor can be used to accessorize anything and needs to become a staple much like black slacks and a white button-down shirt.”
Celebs in Armor and Armor-Fashion Designers
Okay, we know that J-Lo looks magnificent in anything she wears. So, when she and five other female celebs took to this year’s Red Carpet at the Academy Awards in armor-inspired gowns, we took notice. Lisa Bonnet, Brie Larson, Molly Sims, Amy Adams, and Emma Stone each nailed it in their own unique dress. J-Lo’s mirrored gown was designed by Tom Ford. It took Louis Viton 712 hours to make Stone’s burgundy gown layered with pearls, sequins, and beads. Brie Larson’s high neck, silver mesh halter gown was created by the designers at Céline Vipiana.
But, perhaps the most recent warrior-like look prize winner is Zendaya, who last year appeared on the Met Gala Red Carpet, “wearing a suit of armor and literally dripping in silver chains.” The American model and actress, now 22, dabbles in fashion design herself. But, her show-stopping silver armor gown was designed by Law Roach to channel the “bad-ass” Joan-of-Arch.
And while Gareth Pugh takes it a bit further on the runway than translates to ordinary people fashion, some armor-look designers and stores are more in step with the affordability needed by the everyday women for any day and special occasions. Look for Lorica, Tory Burch, the Shield Maiden collection by Armstreet, and Dark Knight Armoury to name a few.
While fashion armor will likely continue to come in and go out of style, it is sure to remain, at least on the fringe, for decades if not centuries to come. As long as Medieval Times remains popular, and the film industry continues to portray the fantasy works of JRR Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Pat Rothfuss, and JK Rowling, as well as forward thinkers such as George Lucas and Eugene Roddenberry, the public will demand their costume designers’ work to translate into everyday fashion.