Yellow dresses.

There is one subject that keeps on getting my attention in medieval history. The colour yellow. The current view on the colour yellow in medieval times is that it is a colour used for heathens and many other negative subjects as can be read in Van karmijn purper en blauw, by Herman Pleij[1]. But to be honest I have some doubts about this. The more I read about the subject the more I find that in the medieval period there is a conflict between the spiritual ideas and the real world when it comes to colour. 

 So here is part 1 of my research into medieval yellow where I look at one of my “favourite” reënactorisms. 

As long as I am doing living history people are telling me that yellow is the colour of prostitutes. If you wear a yellow dress, you are a prostitute. But weirdly enough nobody could tell me where this came from, until recently! I was researching the rules about wearing headcoverings for women in the high middle ages and found a snippet of information about the colour yellow for prostitutes. Spoiler: it is far more nuanced. 

Look at Maria and Jesus shining in yellow, one of the illuminations that got me thinking about the ideas about the colour yellow. MS M 44Fol 4v

First we need to talk about medieval cities and sumptuary laws. These are laws about what you should and shouldn’t wear. They are about regulating expressions of wealth and status. The medieval society was a class society with a wide range of wealth and status distribution amongst those classes. In medieval cities arose the need to be able to see in an instance with whom you were dealing. It was for example considered not done to be conversing with certain figures in society, such as prostitutes. In a medieval city they often also had specific places where they could work. Prostitution was often seen as a necesarry evil and had it’s place in society.

When you look at the sumptuary laws about prostitution it is very interesting that every region has its own laws. There is not one type of recognition mark that all the prostitutes wear across Europe. The book marginalen in de geschiedenis by Vanhemelreyck mentions that in 1265 the first law dictating the appearance of prostitutes can be found in Marseille[2]. Prostitutes were obliged to wear a striped cape. Later more cities or counties made their own laws, and they are quite diverse. I will give a few examples to show that there is not just one clothing restriction for prostitutes. 

-In 1265 Margaretha of Constantinopel ordered that all prostitutes in Vlanders and Henegouwen should wear a ribbon on their shoulder. 

-In 1388 the magistrate of Strasbourg decided that prostitutes had to wear a black and white hood resembling a sugar loaf on top of their veil. 

-The city counsil of Keulen decided in 1389 that prostitutes had to wear a red veil. 

-In Dijon in 1425 prostitutes were obliged to wear a piece of white cloth around their arms. 

-In 1389 Maastricht a prostitute had to wear a yellow piece of cloth on her veil.[3]And there are many more examples of these kind of laws. I find it peculiar that many cities ordered that something should be worn on a veil. This shows once again that these laws were a way of discriminating honorable women from prostitutes. Something that was probably hard without these markings. That is a second re-enactorism about prostitutes down the drain. They often looked a lot like normal women, including a veil 😉 Note that this could also differ from region to region and period.

But where does the myth of the yellow dress come from? Vanhemelreyck also mentions the 13th century preacher called Berthold von Regensburg, who was highly influential in the german lands. He preached that prostitutes had lost their female values. They took many souls away from god and delivered them to the devil. He was against their behaviour and fancy looks and proposed they should only wear yellow! 

When we look at the laws concerning prostitutes we can safely say that the “rule”of the yellow dress for prostitutes is simply not true. It is clear though that prostitutes where not full citizens and where looked at with contempt. Mingling with them as an honourable person was something not done. Therefore medieval cities made laws to recognize them. But it was not with a yellow dress. That was an idea planted by a preacher. Maybe Berthold influenced his flock in such a way that he can be seen as the father of the sumptuary laws concerning prostitutes we know now, but that is something I could not find. 


[1] Herman Pleij, Van Karmijn Purper en blauw Prometheus

[2] F Vanhemelreyck. Marginalen in de geschiedenis, Davidsfonds/Leuven

[3] J. Haemers, A Bardyn, C Delameillieure, Wijvenwereld, Uitgeverij vrijdag

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