What is a Coif?

G. Wiesen

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

A coif was a head garment worn throughout England and the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages consisting of a piece of cloth that covers the sides, top, and back of the head. Usually tied below the neck, it covers the head completely, except for the face. Though it had almost completely gone out of use in mainstream fashion by the end of the 17th century, it still finds use in some areas of the world and among certain religions.

Coifs were typically worn by members of all classes and stations of life. Lower class citizens would usually wear plain caps of white. A higher class citizen or nobility, however, would often wear a far more elaborate and adorned coif. Such caps were usually embroidered or decorated with lace, and sometimes worn over a plain white cap for texture and contrast.

Many nuns of the Roman Catholic Church continue to wear a white coif over their heads with a larger white wimple worn over the cap. This is sometimes covered by a thin layer of black material over the other pieces to make the complete habit. The nun coif is one of the few surviving examples of the garment being used in the modern world.

The coif also continued to see some use during the 20th and 21st centuries by members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) who use costume dress of different periods and with varying levels of accuracy for performances. Most commonly seen at Renaissance fairs and similar events, members of the SCA can sometimes be seen wearing coifs to make their period garments appear more authentic. At these types of events, however, female participants dressed like commoners are more likely to be seen wearing a coif than men or women dressing like nobility who tend to prefer more romantic or extravagant modes of dress.

A coif can also refer to a piece of head armor sometimes worn by warriors and soldiers during the Middle Ages. The armored coif was a piece of gear similar to the cloth version, and typically consisted of chains or chain mail that covered all of a person’s head other than the face. Such an armored piece would usually go over a similar piece made of cloth or soft leather to prevent hair pulling or other similar injury. Though such pieces were usually less protective than heavier helmets, they typically provided greater freedom in movement and vision for the wearer.

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Discussion Comments


I saw an art show recently that was focused on medieval clothing. They had all authentic pieces that ranged from the clothes of the nobles to the clothes of the peasants.

It was really incredible to see because even though the style was so different than our own there were a lot of similarities. Some of the clothes of the nobility were incredibly ornate and finely made.

I remember that there was one medieval coif that was this incredible scarlet color. It had a very intricate pattern and mas made of what was probably the finest cloth at the time. It was beautiful. I would like to have something like that even now.


My grandmother was in the habit of wearing a coif. She was both British and pretty eccentric so it made a certain kind of sense.

There were actually few times when I saw her without one. It is my understanding that most people were them only when they go outside but my grandmother wore them indoors even on very warm days. It was kind of strange but in the end totally harmless. She was a really sweet woman and full of a kind of old fashioned British charm.

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