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My heroine (accidentally) travels through time and finds herself in a medieval setting (a forest in e.g. 1100). The only things that time traveled with her, are her clothes. At first she gets lost in these woods but then she encounters a medieval merchant. They both speak the same language/understand each other and she can explain that she's doesn't know where she is and that she's lost. The merchant decides to help her and so their journey starts.

The heroine wears a simple blue cotton dress with a pattern of (white) daisies on it. Would a medieval merchant (who has no knowledge on how clothes are made) notice that this machine made dress with a detailed pattern is made by a technology that doesn't exist in that time period?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. You are asking too many questions in a single post, and all of them are quite opinion based. If you give a read at the help center you will learn what we consider a good question here. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 5 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ The question has been edited so I'm voting to reopen. $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ Bright colours were virtually unknown in those days and detail was provided by embroidery. Blue was a common dye but the clearly delineated daisies would look very distinctive. The most likely outcome would be that the merchant would think she was a fay being. They would be very cautious because such creatures are known to waylay travellers and lure them to their deaths or to some other dreadful fate. $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ A woman wearing a modern dress (form-fitting, thin material, low neckline, arms bare, hem at the knee showing her calves) would be considered extremely immodestly dressed just about anywhere in Eurasia in the 11th or 12th century. More immodestly dressed than the most impudent prostitute. From the point of view of the merchant she is half naked; he whould naturally believe than she has been robbed and left in her undergarments. In those days, women wore multiple layers of clothing, never ever showing their legs or bare arms. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 5 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ KjVdB - Could you provide a sketch of the costume (or a photo of a similar one)? That way we can compare it with medieval garb. $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 13:00
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He Would Know, but Not Understand

Your heroine would instantly be assumed to be some type of foreigner, just from her speech. Even if they both spoke Russian or French or what have you, the linguistic drift of 900 years would, at best, give her weird word-usage and a crazy accent.

Her dress wouldn't be something the merchant would look at and go "oh that's for-sure made by machines" because there simply wasn't anything that COULD "artificially" make that dress in 1100. However you can get some pretty bright blues and whites using medieval/ancient dyes. (despite what HBO would have you believe pre-industrial life was very-much-not all drab colors) Color FIXING was something of a problem, so your merchant would either assume that A: The dress was new (as repeated washing would fade most colors) or B: her far-away land had a blue dye which could be fixed to the fabric. A is probably more likely, and on top of that he would assume based on the color that she/her family was either involved in the dye-making process or wealthy enough to afford a "first dip" cloth. (ancient/medieval dyers would make a vat of clothing dye, and dip bolts of fabric in it. As this dye becomes less intense after each bolt, the "first dip" bolts were more expensive and had the most vibrant color.)

The pattern of the cloth would be wild as far as the guy's concerned. I don't know off-hand of a culture that could make patterns like it. Weave individual colored threads into patterned cloth? Yes. Dye bolts with simple stripes/geometric patters? Yes. Dye specific identical repeating complex patters onto a single pre-made bolt? No. You might find "painted" cloth, but that's not really the same thing and your merchant is going to know the difference right-off. Doubly so if he's from an area where cotton is common. What he'd make of THAT is anyone's guess, apart from assuming your heroine was both from crazily far away and rich. Maybe supernatural. Maybe both.

As to the fabric itself... depends. In some places cotton would be rare and expensive, other places it would be the common cloth of the peasantry. Either way though the detail work (regularity of stitching, the cloth itself) would likely be better than anything this merchant has ever seen. Also (though your question specifies he doesn't) he'll almost certainly know at least something about making fabric. Even if he doesn't sell cloth himself, weaving cloth is something more-or-less every woman on the planet whose society HAD cloth did, unless she was ridiculously high up the social ladder. This guy's wife probably makes/knows how to make fabric. Or his sister, or mother, or whoever brought him up as a child. ("she weaved cloth" was a common epithet on Roman womens' tombstones from peasant-equivalent to Senator's wife, for instance, and it was a high honor because fabric was important and REALLY time-consuming to make.) So through cultural osmosis he'd have a good idea that our heroine's dress is something far out of the common way, even if cotton was the standard fabric of his region. (by cultural osmosis I mean he'll know something about cloth the way that, say, an American millennial knows something about how microsoft word works. Even if they're a musician who never used Word in their life, they'd be able to write a document and tell you it's a program that shows the keystrokes you make and can change colors and font type etc. because its such a common thing in their world.)

The cut of the dress would be a puzzlement to your merchant. Your heroine would be wearing one layer, probably exposing arms/lower legs/collarbone and potentially much more. She'd also be alone. I cannot think of a single culture where that combination wouldn't be seen as a Very Bad Thing. Strangely-dressed-woman wandering alone is bad enough, but most places would also think she was, charitably, dressed like a hooker. That is.... unlikely to end well. Or maybe fleeing an attack if she's been wandering around for a while. But that's story-driven so I won't comment further!

All this together would be a shock to any merchant on the face of the planet in 1100. Would he notice it was made with abilities beyond the known capabilities of his immediate area? Almost certainly. If he's some petty born-and-lives-in-the-boondocks type of merchant he might think that Royals could get something similar. (For example, some merchant from middle-of-nowhere Armenia might assume they could make a dress like this in Constantinople.) A merchant from a major city might think that some OTHER major civilization might be able to do it. (Nothing like this can be made in the Byzantine Empire, but I heard that far-away-in-the-east they have amazing silks so perhaps they can also do crazy things with cotton.) But given her appearance (alone, randomly, with a weird barely-comprehensible accent)the merchant might think she's some kind of supernatural being.

TL/DR: He would know the dress was wildly out of the common way, would not assume it was machine-made, and believe it was outrageously expensive. However he might not automatically assume it was supernatural/beyond the capabilities of his civilization/anyone on the planet at the time.

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    $\begingroup$ "I cannot think of a single culture where that would be a bad thing". Your right in general, but there are exceptions. Some cultures in this time period weren't so modest. Shed be considered embarisingly overdressed in 1200ad Australia and Pacific islands, and about right in much of 1200ad north America - dresses exposing necks and shins occupy a lot of the Google image searches for native American fashion pre settlers, especially down south. Much of south or western africa and south America also wouldnt be shocked by forarms and shins on a woman. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Mar 5 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ by "a bad thing" I mean both in combination. You're right to point out there are regions where showing professional-amout-of-21st-century-skin or more wouldn't be bad. But those cultures (as well as most of the others) WOULD think it wasn't great/wouldn't be great for the heroine for her to be wandering around alone. So it's the combination that makes it all-bad, rather than just the one thing. $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ Very well thought out. I'd also add that the cut of the dress would speak of immense wealth, because in those times, dresses were normally cut so that they needed as little stitching as possible. The balance between the cost of stitching and the cost of not using the bolt of cloth to the fullest would tell a lot about a dress' worth. Accessories such as buttons or, Lord forbid, a zip would also indicate a dress fit for a Queen. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Mar 5 at 21:46
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He will say: "Oh you're obviously from far away we don't have clothing that nice"

There will be a lot of variation in the response depending on exact time period and location, which hasnt been given exactly. Appearing in 1200ad in Rome, China, Australia, America, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, etc will all have wildly different outcomes. Even the precise year could radically change things.

However in general, the concept of "someone from far away" was known throughout much of human history, and your heroine will be classed as such - especially as she talks funny to their ears. As a general concept; "Far away some things are different" was also common knowledge at the time even for the lowest educated.

Textile printing and weaving patterns date back several centuries, so it really depends on exactly when and where. Techniques for stamping or stenciling paint onto fabric were done in medieval times, and hand-painted dresses did exist for royalty going back to antiquity. I don't think someone in medieval times will class the dress as proof of time travel simply because that's so unlikely - "some craftsman put a lot of effort into this using a technique I don't understand" is a much more likely explanation.

They will think its weird she's out in the the forest in her sunday best.


Your first version of the question asked about the response shell get. I'm including these as a postscript because depending on exact time and place you could get some crazily different responses. The kind of responses would include:

  • "Cover up you immoral such-and-such". Basically Slut-shaming. If the dress shows some cleavage it could be offensive to some eyes. Length could also be an issue. Depends on exact location and time for how modestly woman were expected to dress.

  • Alternatively, a revealing (by the days standards) dress may gather unwanted advances or even forceful advances, which she will then be victim-blamed for. This is an awkward topic to write to a modern audience so you may want to brush over it.

  • Some cultures in this time period weren't so modest:

    • If she went back to 1200ad central Australia she'd be so overdressed she'd be laughed at.
    • Mid African and Oceania in this time period would also think shes overdressed or about right.
    • After googling native American female clothing pre white settlers, I reckon she'd do fine in America too. Theres lots of visible shins and necks and forearms.
  • She'd be interrogated on how her outfit was made. She wont know ("Some sweatshop in bangladesh I think?" - She can't say that!) Her apparent lack of pride in incredible outfit will be jaw dropping.

  • If she appeared lower class to their judgement (eg certain skin colours had certain classifications in some societies), she'd be asked where she stole her outfit from.

  • A lone woman wearing the dress of royalty? In some areas there's a risk she'd be kidnapped, raped, and claimed as a bride.

  • She could be accused of being a spy from some distant enemy they know of but have never personally met. Without TV or print those on the home front know little of the details of the conflict. "We're at war with the... spanish... and I don't know what they look like, but you look different and were sneaking around spying... you must be spanish!"

  • She has a very real chance of having the clothing stolen off her due to its value.

    • See Coat of many colours for a biblical story in which multi-coloured fabric was considered so valuable that its gifting to one child basically broke up a family. Those values are still applicable in some medieval societies.
    • In which case the reaction to a woman in the woods who has had her dress stolen and is sneaking around in only a modern bra and undies will be much more interesting, those innovations are more notable including elastics, plastic tensioners on straps, underwire, gusseting, metal clasps, padding, and depending on bra choice maybe even velcro, lace, and zips. People will want to study her undergarments, (which she probably won't understand until its too late as her default response will be "oh these aren't even my best, they were just from Kmart".)
    • Undies in some medieval societies is classified as "pants" as it goes between the legs, and thus its "men's clothing". Women wore petticoats. So theoretically it could go full Joan of arc but that's unlikely to actually happen unless she angers powerful people.
    • but "What happens to a woman wearing only modern underwear in medieval society" is another question so I'm assuming her dress is the only thing visible.
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Ash. The question has been edited. I've voted to reopen and you might like to too. :-) $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ "Someone put a lot of effort into this" is exactly my thought also. Considering what we can do with airbrushing, it's not inconceivable someone from that time period could believe just about any pattern is possible, but they'll likely assume the effort put into it was enormous. The quality and consistency of the stitching is also likely to make the garment seem fabulously expensive. As you note, the big issue for our hapless heroine is going to be how much she stands out. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 5 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ If they go so far as to steal her dress, they probably won't stop there, but you probably don't want to go down that route. Hopefully her first priority will be to find some period-appropriate dress before being spotted by anyone with that kind of attitude. $\endgroup$ Mar 5 at 20:13
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The 1100's are one of the easiest Historical periods not to stand out

The cuts of many modern dresses, and those of 1100 are actually quite similar. You are far enough back that you don't have all the big embellishments you see in the late medieval period, but not so far back that a well fitted dress would seem abnormal. 1100 also saw similar to modern levels of modesty where woman could expose a certain amount of skin without it being seen as offensive.

The floral patterns themselves, would not be at all out of place. By 1100, pattern embroidery and painting were already becoming a popular fashion choices in much of Europe; so, to see it done in a new way might be "neat" but not surprising to the merchant.

The Thread count would probably be the most impressive thing here. Medieval cloth was very rarely as finely woven as modern clothing, and any merchant would know that such a high thread count was a sign of a material that took a long time to make.

1100 VS Today

enter image description here enter image description here

Ultimately, it all comes down to what kind of blue we are talking about

Dark blue came from one of the cheapest dyes available and was common among peasants whereas bright blue was one of the most expensive dyes and would have only been worn by the very wealthy.

For a dark blue dress: There is an old saying that time can be traded for quality. By this I mean that a peasant who finds the time to make herself a high quality dress certainly could. Seeing the high quality of waving and patterning, but use of a cheap dye, the merchant would probably assume she was a talented seamstress or perhaps a childless housewife with too much time on her hands. This scenario would also fit a modern cut dress much better, since peasant dresses were typically only about knee length and lacked ornate trims.

For a bright blue dress: There would be no doubt that this woman was nobility (probably lower nobility though since the dress still lacks certain high-status features). In the medieval period, rich people would have had many nice things that a poorer merchant would rarely actually see up close. So unless he was specifically a luxury goods merchant, it would probably be his first time seeing "fine clothing" up close. Having maybe seem noble women in similar styles from far away, his mind would just fill in the gaps and determine that this is just what nobility clothing looks like when you actually get up close enough to see it well.

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    $\begingroup$ note: that blue dress? Velvet with real gold embroidery and real hermine trim. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Mar 5 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Trish So she would be seen as lower nobility at best. The perception would be that the woman is clearly doing her best to be fashionable whether she is of any status or not, but did not pull out all the stops when it comes to material choices. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 6 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ no, she'd be seen as an imposter with that dress, a working girl at worst: It's way too thin of a fabric, the material is just too light to be anything which is worth something. Material thickness was half of the value of the dress. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Mar 6 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Trish Soft flowing textiles like taffeta require a lot more processing than the stiffer, thicker fabrics you most often see in the 1100s so they were quite valued. Peasants typically wore loose woven cloths similar too cheese cloth which modern dresses are certainly not. As for being seen as an impostor, the Sumptuary laws that dictated how classes of ppl could dress did not appear until the late 1200s. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 7 at 21:11
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The merchant will protect her and profit from it.

They speak the same language. This is not trivial. Otherwise what are his motives? I picture the merchant as a Jew and your protagonist is too. On sight he has no idea what she is but she can see he is Jewish and so addresses him in Yiddish. That is why he is immediately motivated to help her. You need to look out for your own.

He will consider the dress unbelievably fancy but he is good at keeping cards close to the vest. When she speaks Yiddish he will know she is not a lost noble which was his first guess. He will address her as a daughter or niece and tell her "that is an amazing cloth for the dirty road. Let me give you some clothes that can get dirty.". Which he does, and folds up the dress and puts it away. Later he asks permission and then sells the dress to a rich family for a lot of money which he shares with your protagonist.

I could imagine this might come back to haunt him when a social rival sees the noble girl in the daisy dress and has her father's people track down the merchant to get another one. Maybe he sees this coming and immediately sets about commissioning similar dresses based on a scrap he took from an inside hem of the daisy dress. It would be fun to have the men on horseback catch them and have the merchant unexpectedly produce several additional dresses for sale.


The Jewish angle would be interesting for a time travel scenario and if it has been done I have not read or seen it. The gentile populace at large might not look too closely at your protagonist. The Jewish subculture she falls in with will look very closely at her, but before she is anything else she is a Jew, and the scrutiny will come from that context.

A fiction like this would be a wonderful exploration of the world of the medieval Jews; not just anyone could write such a thing. You would need to know a lot or have a lot of resources to make it good.

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    $\begingroup$ Because Yiddish is of course the one language on Earth which remained unchanged since the end of the 11th century. (Did Yiddish even exist at that time? I would love to see a reference. AFAIK the oldest text which is clearly in a form of High German at least slightly different from ordinary Gentile High German is much later, 14th century or so. And I am not sure that before the 19th century anybody seriously considered that what the German Jews spoke was a different language and not simply a specific form of High German.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 5 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - yes, yes, you are right again. So they can speak Hebrew. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 5 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ ... Hebrew? In the 11th century Hebrew had been a dead language for some 1,400 years. The thing is, unlike Latin, Hebrew was not used in real life at all. Only the few men who did religious studies learned Hebrew. Definitely not merchants. (The chances of a young 21st century woman speaking Biblical Hebrew are, well, small. Yes, if she is from Israel she speaks Ivrit, which is related to Biblical Hebrew a bit closer than Modern Greek is to Ancient Greek -- different pronunciation, lots of different vocabulary, but basically intelligible.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 5 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ Could also work for Hanseatic league low-german. Its close enough for modern northern german dialect speakers to clearly understand and speak with only slight accents. 1100 would be a little early for that. $\endgroup$
    – schlenk
    Mar 5 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP - I read that during his lifetime, Maimonides works were translated into Hebrew for a general Jewish audience; I think he wrote some in Hebrew in the first place. Maimonides wrote about a lot of different things, not just religious matters. A merchant could be an educated man. Maimonides himself would have been a religious scholar but became a doctor because his family needed money. I am no authority but finding a medieval Jew who could speak Hebrew does not seem like such a stretch. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 6 at 0:37
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In a comment, you mention:

The fact that it is blue and has white daisies is more important for my story. So I don't want it to attract more attention than: "Oh you're obviously from far away we don't have clothing that nice" (Thank you Ash for the quote). But I also don't want the heroin to be (coincidentally) in a medieval play just before the time travel (explaining an outfit that doesn't attract attention).

Since you don't want to attract a lot of attention, you'll want the dress to be very conservative by modern standards. High neckline, long skirts, definitely not open in back and slit practically to the hips.

Just being "blue" is possibly going to attract some attention; although woad dye might not have been unknown, other dies, if known at all, would be known to be very expensive. There's a reason it's called "royal blue". (Worse, some colors might even be illegal for non-royalty. If your heroine runs into a merchant first, however, she probably has a decent chance that the merchant won't be inclined to hand her over to the local lord, and may give her more appropriate clothing.)

I totally understand why you "don't want the heroin to be (coincidentally) in a medieval play"; you'd need to do some hand-waving to make that plausible.

However, if you're willing to tip the scales in your heroine's favor in a way that's less implausible, you might have her wear a cyanotype-printed dress. Cyanotype can be used on fabric (and cotton, specifically) to produce white patterns on a rich azure fabric, which can satisfy your requirement that the dress is blue with white daisies, and unlike modern, full-color prints which would be quite amazing to medieval people, cyanotype is much more approachable to your target time period. (The necessary alchemy may not be known, but the physical process is well within reach of the peasants of the day and not unlike wax printing, which your merchant may know about.) Moreover, if your heroine happens to have made the dress herself, she might even know enough to reproduce the process, which would probably be valuable to the merchant. (She'd have to have some pretty solid knowledge of chemistry for this, though.)

Being foreign is probably sufficient for your audience to accept the style of the dress. If your heroine knows about cyanotype, she can probably explain away the printing as being "special dyes from my homeland". Her garb, just from the quality and the blue dye, is clearly expensive, but perhaps not (literal) "king's ransom" expensive. Another plus is that cyanotype may not be as stable as more traditional modern dyes, which would make such a garment less "magical".

As for reaction, the merchant will probably assume she is someone important and/or wealthy, and her general state of health (and lack of calluses) will tend to support this, as will any evidence of education, especially if she happens to be able to read any of the period scripts (but this is unlikely unless she knows Latin). On the other hand, her knowledge of basic mathematics, and Arabic numbers (which started spreading through Europe right around the time you specify), may be valuable to a merchant.

Of course, as others have noted, you're going to have a whole other problem when someone sees what she's wearing under the dress.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the first answer that gets anything right. Your heroine will be considered either royalty or very, very rich. And when she is found out her life will be in (additional) danger. Modesty/lack of is very time and location dependent. A normal summer dress will not be considered offensive at any time in history. $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Mar 6 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Dúthomhas only if she claims to be nobility. In 1100s, there were no such thing as "royal" colors. These kind of laws were an outdated Roman thing, and did not come back until the late 1200s $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 7 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree with both of you. If she claims to be rich/royalty and is later found out, that could end very badly. If, OTOH, she's up front with the merchant that she isn't, well, then it's up to the merchant. If said merchant is feeling charitable, he (making a history-based assumption here; apologies if it's wrong) can probably arrange for more "appropriate" clothing and to otherwise help her blend in, and she'll probably be fine. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 8 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ Someone shows up at the door wearing Armani and Prada and claims they're a lowly peon like yourself... i wouldn't believe 'em... $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Mar 8 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Dúthomhas, if she claims they're actually knock-offs that are cheap where she's from? Or, even if the merchant doesn't believe her, if he agrees to help, at least she's only in (potential) danger from one person. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 8 at 12:19
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Maybe you should look up the story "Hypocaust & Bathysphere" by Rebecca Ore for ideas about how medieval people might react to time travelers and their clothing.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?40457[1]

https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/228230/science-fiction-short-story-where-medieval-villagers-were-used-to-time-travelers[2]

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