Lower class clothing can be an absolute pain to research - for starters, there are comparatively few manuscript illustrations depicting the lower classes, particularly the more impoverished members of the merchant classes, tradespeople and peasants.
Often, it's tempting to make lower class clothing based on contemporaneous upper class clothing - by either subtracting the most expensive aspects, or simplifying things. Another idea is to assume that, due to the second hand clothing trade and a (supposed) trickle-down of fashion, lower class clothing might mimic clothing of wealthier individuals of a decade or a few decades earlier. However, both of these methods are based on potentially flawed assumptions.
So, what can one do?
Luckily, there is a wonderful resource that can help you find original manuscript images of lower class (and upper class) clothing, as well as give you a better idea of how fashion for both poor and rich progressed from the 13th-16th Centuries: The Roman de la Rose Digital Library.
So, without further ado, a tutorial for getting the most out of this resource:
La Roman de la Rose is a love poem full of symbolism in which a the narrator, L'Amans, encounters various allegorical figures who represent different virtues and vices. The same parts of the story are illustrated in nearly every manuscript, of which there are over 130 that are both still extant and present in the Digital Library.
Handily for us, the medieval mind seems to have been a very classist one - consistently, all the negative allegories are depicted as poor and/or old people, whilst all the positive allegories are depicted as young, beautiful, rich, noble people. As there are so many surviving Roman de la Rose manuscripts, spanning the 13th-18th Centuries, this enables comparisons to be made of similarly-classed individuals across many centuries of fashion.
This is how to do it:
1) Find an illustration:
Go to The Roman de la Rose Digital Library page and select the "Illustration Titles" page from the list on the left-hand side. This will bring up a list of all illustrations:
You want to chose a few illustration titles that have a high frequency (i.e. many manuscripts with that particular illustration) and which contain an allegorical figure who matches the sort of person you want information on.
E.g., if you're looking for the fashion of lower class people, try negative allegories like Haine (Hate), Vilanie, Avarice, etc. If you're looking for the fashion of older people, try the allegory of Vielleice (Old Age / Senility). For nuns, try the allegory of Papelardie (Religious Hypocrisy), whilst for rich, fashionable women try the positive allegories like Biautez (Beauty), Richece (Wealth), Largesce (Largess), etc. If you're having trouble with the allegory names due to the medieval French, you can click on the Character List, on the left-hand side of the page, to help you out.
2) View the illustrations:
Click on one of the underlined illustration titles. This will take you to a page which lists all of the individual manuscripts in the Digital Library that have that illustration. E.g. for the illustration "Portrait of Haine":
From here, you can click on the underlined manuscript names to get to a full, zoomable facsimile of the manuscript with page-turning capabilities. It will automatically open on the correct page. E.g. for the first entry, 001v: Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1566:
Sometimes it is unclear which illustration in the page is the one you wanted. Also, sometimes there are multiple people in the illustration. You may also want to confirm which folio (page number) you are on. To do this, click on the drop-down menu above the manuscript facsimile, where it says "Show" and select "Illustration Description":
This brings up an additional window to the right of the manuscript facsimile. You can toggle between the two pages (in this case, 1v and 2r) and get information on the illustration title(s) for that page and descriptions of the image which will help you identify allegorical figures when there are more than one per image. (Bear in mind that these descriptions are not written by costume historians and are sometimes a bit strange in their interpretations...)
So, now you've found a whole load of images matching your allegory (and thus the social class or age of person you are studying). However, these are fairly useless without information on the date and geographic location of production.
3) Find information about the manuscript:
Each manuscript facsimile page has the full, official name of the manuscript written across the top (e.g. on mine it is Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1566 - yes, all of that is the name, and all of it (plus the folio number) is necessary if you want to reference your image properly in a way that will enable anyone and everyone to find it again). To find information about your manuscript, click on "Select Book by: Common Name" from the list on the left-hand side. This will give you an alphabetical, clickable list of all the manuscripts in the Digital Library. Click on the one whose illustration you liked:
(Notice that mine was "fr. 1566", which is short for "Français 1566" - the name of the collection within the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France) that the book is in.)
If you click on the manuscript name under "Book", you will get a page with full information about that manuscript, including date and geographical location of creation:
For some manuscripts, there will be more detailed information available too. Français 1566 was not one of those manuscripts...
If the information on the Roman de la Rose Digital Library is fairly vague (e.g. giving only a 100 year time span, as for Français 1566) you may be able to find more information by Googling the manuscript's full, official name.
4) Repeat for multiple manuscripts/illustrations.
Have fun! Hope this has been helpful!