Accommodating and enclosing the human form, body armor has a direct connection with costume. Over the centuries, and in cultures worldwide, armor has been made from virtually all natural and many man-made media. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, armor was an effective defense and became one of the most elaborate and complex bodily adornments. It both identified and concealed its wearer and made a definitive statement about personal fashion.
The Earliest Armor
Humans’ earliest supplemental protection was probably skins and hides. However, the earliest purpose-built defense, found in Europe and western Asia, was a type of belly plate made originally of organic material and later in bronze or metal-reinforced fabric. The Sumerians employed metal helmets and a metal-reinforced cloak. In about 2000 B.C.E. textile coverings appeared with applied, overlapping metal scales, which continued in occasional use until the eighteenth century.
A rather similar defense was lamellar armor. This probably first appeared in eighth century B.C.E. Assyria, composed of interconnected plaques or hoops, all worn over an undergarment. The Roman legionary’s metal lorica segmentata is an example, as is the lacquered leather armor of Japanese samurai. The remarkable terra-cotta tomb figures of emperor Qin Shih Huang (221-210 B.C.E.) demonstrate China’s use of lamellar armor for various troops identified by rank via color-coding and tassels. Mycenaean warriors during the Trojan War, and Greek hoplite infantry who fought the Persians wore body armor of layered linen. The Greeks and the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula also made use of bronze cuirasses (torso armor) embossed with musculature. All types were worn over an undergarment resembling period male ensembles.
Mail also appeared in classical times. Probably a Celtic innovation of the fifth or sixth century B.C.E., this network of riveted metal rings spread throughout Europe and into the East, and was widely used by the Romans and their allies. Mail’s use steadily increased in Europe, particularly after the collapse of the Roman military system in the fifth century C.E., and among those who experienced its use by invading Hunnish cavalry.
The Middle Ages
Leather and textile armor were used throughout the Middle Ages, and not surprisingly, their form and style conformed to prevailing civilian fashion. The most common metal armor in Europe until the thirteenth century was mail, the name derived from the French maille, or “mesh.” Mail shirts, worn over a heavily padded undergarment, or aketon, eventually covered the thighs, and developed long sleeves with mittens. Mail hoods (coifs), leggings, a conical helmet or a barrel-shaped helm that covered all but the eyes, completed the defense. As extra protection against powerful weapons, a long, wooden shield was carried. Such warriors were expensive to maintain, and of great wealth — deriving this from lands given to them in return for military service. These armored men thus became the horse-mounted knights of popular imagination, and in many European languages, the words “knight” and “horseman” are identical. Each warrior was identified by a system of symbolism called heraldry. A knight’s “coat of arms” appeared on his shield and, from the twelfth century, on a gownlike surcoat over his mail. The surcoat’s length followed civilian fashion; some could actually trip up a warrior in combat.
Those who wore armor recognized its importance and appreciated the expertise required in its manufacture. During a test-fitting of a new armor “his Majesty [Charles V] said that they [his armor parts] were more precious to him than a city . . . and they were so excellent that . . . if he [the armorer] had taken the measurement a thousand times they could not fit better” (Hayward, p.11).
However, better defenses were needed. By the early thirteenth century pieces of plate armor reappeared on a scale not seen since Classical Rome and became increasingly common on the torso and legs by mid to late century. Plate appeared in various forms — horn, bone, molded leather — but most often in iron. It offered rigidity and better resistance to weapons. It was shaped to the individual, thick where needed or thin to reduce weight, and its smooth, curving surfaces deflected weapons. It increasingly covered the body, although there seems to have been reluctance by some knights to be encased in rigid metal. Thus, there was a “transition” throughout the fourteenth century to mix mail and plate armor for the knight and his horse. This interim defense remained the primary form of protection in the armies of Islamic cultures and the Indian subcontinent until well into the nineteenth century.
Armor makers were divided into plate, mail, and textile (cloth armorers) specialists and tightly regulated. The transitional knight was a graceless, stout figure in layered textiles and iron, much of it cloth-covered. The plate edges had ribs to protect the armpits, elbows, and other vulnerable spots, with mail worn on the undergarment at these points.
During the seventeenth century, a militia officer was struck by an arrow in the chest. His only defense was a hard piece of cheese inside his shirt. Almost unbelievably, the arrow hit the cheese. Informed of his subordinate’s luck, his captain replied that this “may verify the old saying, A little Armour would serve if a Man knew where to place if (Mason, p. 22).
By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the transition was complete. An individual wanting the latest in armor could have full plate — often without the textile covering, and with surfaces polished gleaming bright— virtually head to toe. The status of knights saw their clothing needs increasingly influencing male fashion, and vice versa. The change to all plate gradually produced a wasp-waisted appearance. This slim, hard-body look increasingly mirrored elegant male attire at the end of the century, and each complemented the other. For example, tubular arm defenses required slim sleeves on the undergarment, while shoulders broadened to accommodate extra padding for the load of a cuirass. Some armor elements were fastened to the aketon with laces called points. These also appeared on male apparel, to attach sleeves and hose. The aketon assimilated the new forms and was worn alone as knightly clothing. The surcoat became the short, form-fitting jupon (overgarment).
The Renaissance and Armor’s Decline
The fifteenth through seventeenth centuries saw both armor’s acme and nadir. Plate armor remained paramount, changing with the demands of war, sport, and ceremony, and the continuing influence of civilian fashion. Centers in Italy (the term “milliner” originally meant a Milanese armor vendor) and Germany grew wealthy from the production and sale of armor. Master armorers throughout Europe crafted spectacular suits through the tailorlike handwork of specialists, including locksmiths (for hinges and fasteners), artists (Holbein and Dürer provided themes for armor decoration), and cloth armorers (the cloth tabs of internal linings were called pickadils, inspiring the name of the London district where makers were centered). The slim, angular, and rippled form of fifteenth-century German “Gothic” armor is regarded as the peak moment, in which pure form blended perfectly with function. However, in the early part of the sixteenth century, this gave way in some areas to the rounded, “Maximilian” style whose fluted cuirass imitated a globose doublet cinched by a waistbelt. The average weight was about forty to sixty well-distributed, balanced pounds in which a trained individual could do the same as in everyday clothing, especially mounting a horse unaided. Aketons became arming doublets and hose, an affair of durable material, padded with grasses, wool waste, or cotton especially at the load-bearing shoulders and hips, with points and garters to secure components. Some clothing, such as the kiltlike “base” skirt, gave texture and color to plain metal. Fashions again changed with the times, as once-pointed foot defenses (that imitated the poulaine shoe) became broadly rounded, then narrower and more contemporary. Breastplates followed doublet changes, also placing acid-etched decorative bands to imitate embroidery, and by the end of the century developing the grotesquely dipped “peascod” shape. Mail continued as a secondary defense, or primary for the less wealthy. Textiles and plate combined in the vestlike brigandine used by all classes, differing only in the quality of materials and finish. The jack was similar, but generally of cruder stuff, and both defenses mimicked the doublet lines. A wide range of helmets was worn, from visored types that enclosed the head, to hatlike open forms. Foot soldiers favored the latter, and wore pieces of munitions-grade armor, sometimes little more than helmet and breastplate, or as much as a half armor to the hips.
Armor was also made for jousts and tournaments. Formerly training for war, these equestrian events became pure sport during the fifteenth century and required highly protective equipment that could reach 100 pounds. These suits have fueled the erroneous stereotype of the heavy, awkward knight, unable to mount without aid, and helpless if unhorsed.
From about the 1530s into the second half of the century, “Roman” and “antique” style armor became popular for festivals and spectacles. Other types of ceremonial armors flourished, even for children, as armorers experimented in fantastic creations, using a range of precious or fragile media to embellish the products of wealthy clients. Some were so extravagant as to be moving examples of decorative art or metal costume and were built by goldsmiths rather than armorers. Most armor was embellished to some degree. The entire decorative arts vocabulary was employed, including plating, enameling, encrusting with gems, but most often acid-etching.
The armorer’s craft culminated in the garniture, a set of various components together with a basic armor and creating a versatile ensemble for war, sport, and ceremony. While each element had a designated function, it had to harmonize structurally and artistically with dozens of others. Such sets were extremely expensive and available only to very wealthy individuals.
Armor was also used by bodyguards, representing the patron’s importance, good taste, and artistic refinement. Guard armor was sometimes limited to helmets, but embellished body armor was worn by those like the Vatican’s papal guard.
Throughout much of the sixteenth century developments in firearms and changing battlefield tactics had an impact on armor’s use. Powerful handguns required bulletproof armor that could weigh some eighty pounds, but retained its fashion relevance of its form. The lines of certain armor elements, such as the form of breastplates, tended to follow those of male civilian fashion. Complete head-to-toe armor became rare, with protection concentrated on the head and torso. By the seventeenth century, half or three-quarter armor (to the knees) became typical for horsemen, who now carried firearms themselves. Some troops wore “buff” leather coats, or padded textiles, and by the end of the century it was rare to see armor in war.
The Enlightenment to the Present
Although most troops ceased wearing armor by the eighteenth century, military engineers (sappers) wore bulletproof helmets during sieges, and some horsemen wore breastplates and helmets against sword cuts and firearms. The knight’s neck defense, or gorget, became a symbol of officer’s rank, and many armors became theatrical props. The Napoleonic wars briefly revived the use of some cavalry armor, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, its military use was again largely ceremonial. There were some exceptions, such as the breastplates privately acquired by both sides in the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), and Australian outlaw Ned Kelly’s crude 100-pound body armor worn during a shootout. World Wars I and II revived interest in protective armor on a large scale. Allied and Axis physicians and scientists worked with curators to develop helmets and body defenses for ground troops and “flak jackets” for aircrew, but they used media and technologies little different from those of centuries earlier. Armor developments late in World War II and the Korean Conflict benefited from new plastic polymers. Soldiers’ needs in Vietnam led to better armor, but it remained rather heavy and hot. The invention of Kevlar in the 1980s provided a material five times stronger than steel. Produced in fabriclike sheets, then laminated and encased in textiles, this has produced a new range of highly protective and light armor and helmets for the military, sport, law enforcement, and individuals. However, even more remarkable systems are under development in commercial and governmental laboratories, striving to produce another breakthrough technology, one just as dramatic as the suit of knightly plate armor that continues to fascinate us.
Blair, Claude. European Armour. New York: Crane, Russak, and Company, 1972; also published in 1958 by B. T. Batsford, Ltd., London. Remains the standard work.
Blair, Claude, and Leonid Tarassuk, eds. The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. Best one-volume source of information on a range of arms and armor terms.
Dean, Bashford. Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare. Reprint of the 1920 edition, including the World War II Supplement. Tuckahoe, N.Y.: Carl J. Pugliese, 1977. Fascinating study of the development and use of personal armor in both World Wars.
Edge, David, and John Paddock. Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight. Greenwich Conn.: Crescent Books, 1988. Well-illustrated and accessible to a general audience.
Ffoulkes, Charles. The Armourer and His Craft. Several printings available, the most recent by Dover Publications. Somewhat dated, but remains an important work on the topic.
Hayward, J. F. “Filippo Orsoni, Designer, and Caremolo Mo-drone, Armourer, of Mantua.” Waffen und Kostümkunde, 3rd ser., 24, no.1 (1982): 11.
Mason, John. A Brief History of the Pequot War. Boston, 1736.
Pfaffenbichler, Matthias. The Armourers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Well-illustrated and excellent resource.
Pyhrr, Stuart W., and José-A. Godoy. Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998. Beautifully illustrated, premier study of Italian Renaissance parade armor.
Robinson, H. Russell. The Armour of Imperial Rome. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Excellent, and accessible to the general reader.
Snodgrass, A. M. Arms and Armour of the Greeks. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. Scholarly and thorough.