Renaissance Fashion: The Birth of Power Dressing
Ulinka Rublack, 21 December 2010
History TodayCulturalSocialRenaissanceEuropeVolume: 61 Issue: 1
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At what point did it begin to matter what you wore? Ulinka Rublack
looks at why the Renaissance was a turning point in people’s attitudes
to clothes and their appearance.

I shall never forget, while staying in Paris, the day a friend’s
husband returned home from a business trip. She and I were having
coffee in a huge sunny living room overlooking the Seine. His key
turned in the door. Next, a pair of beautiful, shiny black shoes flew
down the corridor. Finally the man himself appeared. ‘My feet are
killing me!’ he exclaimed. The shoes were by Gucci.

We might think that these are the modern follies of fashion, which now
beset men as much as women. My friend certainly valued herself partly
in terms of the wardrobe she had assembled and her accessories of
bags, sunglasses, stilettoes and shoes. She had modest breast implants
and a slim, sportive body. They were moving to Dubai. In her spare
time when she was not looking after children, going shopping, walking
the dog, or jogging, she would write poems and cry.

Yet neither my friend nor her husband would be much out of place in
the middle of the 15th century. Remember men’s long pointed Gothic
shoes? In the Franconian village of Niklashausen at this time a
wandering preacher drew large crowds and got men to cut off their
shoulder-length hair and slash the long tips of their pointed shoes,
which were seen as wasteful of leather. Learning to walk down stairs
in them was a skill. Men and women in this period aspired to an
elongated, delicate, slim silhouette. Very small people were
considered deformed and were given the role of grotesque fools.
Italian doctors already wrote books about cosmetic surgery.

When, how and why did looks become deeply embedded in how people felt
about themselves and others? The Renaissance was a turning point. I
use the term in its widest sense to describe a long period, from
c.1300 to 1600. After 1300 a much greater variety and quantity of
goods was produced and consumed across the globe. Textiles,
furnishings and items of apparel formed a key part of this
unprecedented diffusion of objects and increased interaction with
overseas worlds. Tailoring was transformed by new materials and
innovative techniques in cutting and sewing, as well as the desire for
a tighter fit to emphasise bodily form, particularly of men’s
clothing. Merchants expanded markets in courts and cities by making
chic accessories such as hats, bags, gloves or hairpieces, ranging
from beards to long braids. At the same time, new media and the spread
of mirrors led to more people becoming interested in their self-image
and into trying to imagine how they appeared to others; artists were
depicting humans on an unprecedented scale, in the form of medals,
portraits, woodcuts and genre scenes, and print circulated more
information about dress across the world, as the genre of ‘costume
books’ was born.
Dressed to thrill

These expanding consumer and visual worlds conditioned new ways of
feeling. In July 1526 Matthäus Schwarz, a 29-year-old chief accountant
for the mighty Fugger family of merchants from Augsburg, commissioned
a naked image of himself as fashionably slim and precisely noted his
waist measurements. He worried about gaining weight, which to him
signalled ageing and diminished attractiveness. Over the course of his
life, from his twenties to his old age, Schwarz commissioned 135
watercolour paintings showing his dressed self, which he eventually
compiled into a remarkable album, the Klaidungsbüchlein (Book of
Clothes), which is housed today in a small museum in Brunswick. From
the many fascinating details the album reveals we know that, while he
was courting women, Schwarz carried heart-shaped leather bags in
green, the colour of hope. The new material expression of these
emotions, which were tied to appearances, heart-shaped bags for men,
artificial braids for women or red silk stockings for young boys, may
strike us as odd. Yet the messages they contained (of self-esteem,
erotic appeal or social advancement; and their effects, which ranged
from delight in wonderful craftsmanship to concern that a look had not
been achieved or that someone’s appearance was deceiving) remain
familiar to us today.

When cultures throw up new words, historians can be fairly sure that
they have struck on new developments. The word ‘fashion’ gained
currency in different languages during the Renaissance. Moda was
adapted from Latin into Italian to convey the idea of fashionable
dressing as opposed to costume, which denoted more stable customs
relating to dress. In 16th-century France, the word mode began to
supersede the Old French expression cointerie to mean ‘in style’. The
French term was adapted in 17th-century German as à la mode. The
English word ‘fashion’ came from the Latin word for ‘making’. It was
first used c.1550 to refer to a temporary mode of dress in the
physician Andrew Boorde’s Book of Knowledge. Boorde depicted an almost
naked Englishman on a woodcut, cheerily announcing: ‘Now I will wear I
cannot tell what, all fashions be pleasant to me.’ Boorde thought that
the English would never be role models for other nations if they
assimilated other fashions. His book was also the first in Europe to
include woodcut depictions of people in different dress from across
Europe. Yet the new preoccupation with fashion reached beyond the
continent. In 1570 the Chinese student Chen Yao wrote of how
hairstyles, accessories and styles in his region of China changed
‘without warning. It’s what they call fashion’ (the word he used was
shiyang, which literally translates as ‘the look of the moment’).

Many people reacted with shock to these cultural transformations.
Stability, or a return to old customs, signalled order, whereas
change, and especially constant change, seemed threatening and
corrupting. Moralists warned that there should be clear principles
concerning who should wear what in terms of their profession and
bodily needs in different climates. Once the right kind of clothing
had been identified there would be no need ever to change. Elites
naturally tried to preserve the signalling of high rank through fine
clothing. Sumptuary laws, dating from Roman times and so called after
the Latin word sumptus meaning expense, had multiplied during the
Renaissance. These sought to limit the amount of money wealthy people
could spend on apparel, so as to limit competitive spending. They also
typically set out what kinds of materials and sometimes even colours
each rank could wear. Like Andrew Boorde, many worried about the
introduction of foreign styles. Moralists across Europe really
believed that dress shaped people’s mentalities, so that fine foreign
clothing, for instance, would make a person more affected and
licentious. Such commentators were concerned about the money that
would be taken from one country to another and about people losing
their virtuous, ‘national’ customs of behaviour; the worst was when
people mixed fashions from different cultures and thus became
completely unidentifiable in any national, political or moral sense.

Alongside these reactions was the dawning realisation that clothing
made one historical. Matthäus Schwarz was in his early teens when he
started talking to old people about what they had worn in the past and
began to make drawings of his own apparel. People began to be aware
that future generations would look at them with a sense of historical
distance and incredulity, simply on account of what they looked like.
Rather than revering their ancestors, they might be laughing at their
funny shoes. This uncomfortable realisation raised the question which
underlies all cultural history: how were these changing customs to be

One answer suggested by contemporaries, such as the Strasbourg-born
poet and satirist Sebastian Brant (1457-1521), was that humans were
like apes because they imitated others. Such a view was neither
sophisticated nor uplifting. It presented two choices: either to join
the apes and take part in the folly of human life or to turn rigidly
moral and refuse the dance. The latter position was as ridiculous as
the former because those opting out of fashion appeared archaic,
particularly at a moment when beauty and inventions were highly
esteemed. Cities such as Florence were praised for the beauty of their
women and sumptuary laws were suspended, often for months, when
important foreign dignitaries visited. People stored finery for such
moments or forged links with those from whom they could borrow
garments. Consequently inventories that record the kind of clothing
people possessed when they married or died often provide an incomplete
account of the goods they had access to via networks of friends and
Colour and class

Lending and borrowing sustained much of early modern life, especially
among poorer sections of society. Women in particular relied on such
connections, because they were paid less than men or were engaged in
unsalaried labour. At the same time unmarried women were expected to
look attractive in their efforts to gain a partner, so sumptuary
legislation sometimes made allowances for accessories they might wear.
For example, a 1530 Imperial Police Ordinance permitted daughters and
unmarried peasant women to wear hairbands of silk.

There was general disdain of slovenly dress, a strong theme, for
example, in the writing of the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas
(1225-74), who thought that wives needed to look their best to keep
their husbands faithful. New colours excited people and since outfits
were usually composed of many individual elements, such as detachable
sleeves, those lower down the social scale might be able to afford one
section in a fashionable colour, perhaps purchasing it second hand.
Yellow, for example, became a fashionable colour at the beginning of
the 16th century. Inventories from the Swiss city of Basel at this
time show that the colour was first adopted by wealthy men and women,
but within a few years it became popular with prostitutes, journeymen,
apprentices and maidservants, as well as minor officials and artisans.
In 1512 the widow of the town piper in Basel is registered as owning a
yellow bodice and her husband’s yellow and green hose. By 1520 just
about everyone in the city wore yellow and the colour appeared in many
innovative combinations – yellow-brown, yellow-red, yellow-green,

Fashion gained favours for men and women alike. Matthäus Schwarz had
three expensive outfits tailored for himself to please Archduke
Ferdinand I of Austria, whom he met twice during the Imperial Diet of
Augsburg of 1530, presided over by the archduke and his brother, the
Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Members of the emperor’s entourage were
certain to write about how civilised or not a city appeared to be.
Such diaries and travelogues were frequently published. Visitors were
keen to see craft workshops and examples of urban ingenuity on
display; they would dance, dine, be waited upon and bestow gifts. Few
people wanted to seem ‘behind the times’, especially since Italians
had ingrained in European society the notion that a refined
civilisation was a superior one. But what bearing did Schwarz’s
appearance have on the imperial party in 1530? Schwarz, who had
slimmed in advance and had grown a beard like Ferdinand himself, used
fashion to produce an image of himself which made the archduke like
and trust him.  In 1541 Schwarz himself received a particularly
special reward from the emperor, whom he had also had a chance to
impress in person; he was ennobled. Of course he had been loyal to the
Catholic Habsburgs during the Reformation and had worked as head
accountant for the firm that did most to finance them. Schwarz
celebrated this achievement and had himself depicted in a coat lined
with marten skin, a fur which was restricted to the highest elites.
Such fur was homogenously coloured dark brown and came in rectangular
pieces measuring up to 60 centimetres. It materialised the rich man’s
garb in relation to that of the poor man, whose coat, in contrast, was
likely to have been made of scraps of different furs.

What was new in the Renaissance is the dynamic ability of fashion to
reach down the social scale. Schwarz was not an aristocrat, but a wine
merchant’s son. In the depictions he has left us (as well as the book
of clothes he also commissioned two surviving oil paintings of
himself) we see a burgher who knew how to create effective and lasting
self images. Real life was less glamorous. In April 1538, at the age
of 41, Schwarz married Barbara Mangolt, the not very exciting and not
very young daughter of a local manager in the Fugger firm. In the
picture of himself marking the occasion Schwarz is shown in his home
from behind wearing a dark coat trimmed with green half-silken
taffeta. The text accompanying the image reads simply: ‘20 February
1538 when I took a wife this coat ... was made’. After this he got
fat, had a stroke and afterwards looked his age. Politics, too, did
not work out the way he hoped because the Reformation made headway and
in the 1550s German trade entered a profound credit crisis. Schwarz
left long gaps in between images of himself in his album. It was
difficult to find a fitting end. When he had decided on his final
image in September 1560, he could not help but look back at the
paintings of himself in his prime to note, sardonically, that he
looked so different now from then. Social expectation did not permit
older people to be so playful with dress. Now his days in bright red
were over and he wore mostly black and white.

Schwarz’s extraordinary record of his clothes has wider meanings. It
shows why it is too simplistic to treat fashion, as the French
sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky does, as an engine of western modernity
since the Middle Ages, in his view because it broke with tradition,
encouraged self-determination, individual dignity and opinion-making.
It did this in part, and importantly so, but not in uniform ways and
not in the West alone. Clothes already formed an important part of
what we might call people’s ‘psychic landscapes’. Wardrobes could
become repositories of fantasies and insecurities, as well as
reflecting expectations of what a person might look like and behave.
These cultural arguments and tensions lie at the heart of our struggle
to understand the Renaissance. People’s interaction with material
goods and visual media added further complexities to their lives.
Images could sometimes be manipulated in highly controlled visual
displays designed to achieve a specific response from large public
audiences evoking, for example, divine magnificence at papal rituals.
But they could also be used to explore more openly what was local,
regional and foreign, to manage conflicting emotions, or to reflect
ways in which an individual tried to appear to others.
New ideas of luxury

When we study the Renaissance, therefore, we need to trace the process
by which increasing numbers of people outside courts became attached
to material possessions and tried to work out how virtue and decorum
might be maintained amid selfish, vain and competitive human
tendencies. In southern and northern Europe this process was crucial
to people’s attempts to give meaning to life. Even English Puritans
were able to acknowledge that possessions could be God’s temporal
blessings as ‘ornaments and delights’. Protestants, however, developed
a particular notion of new, ‘justifiable luxury’ as opposed to corrupt
‘old luxury’. According to this view, ‘old luxury’ was the preserve of
a narrow elite trapped in a vicious circle of self-congratulation and
greed, which cultivated extravagant, effeminate and over-sensuous
tastes. Protestants saw examples of papal, oriental and monarchical
splendour as excessive and guilty of creating a false world of
fantastic illusion which overwhelmed onlookers and engendered envy
even among elites. Furthermore such manifestations of conspicuous
consumption suggested an emotional style pertaining to uncontrollable
passions rather than manageable emotion. ‘Old luxury’ was perceived as
doomed and, as in ancient Rome, set to lead to a republic’s decline,
as well as evincing the misery of human nature after the Fall.

‘New luxury’ could, by contrast, be declared virtuous. Together with
the defence of new decencies, it could be identified with a republican
spirit, public gain, gentility and politeness. This notion enshrined
clear codes of honourable, often more frugal, consumption based on
self examination of whether one needed something or was being

In the 17th and 18th centuries bourgeois consumption qualified as
‘good’, if it did not encourage travesty – men as effeminate gallants,
for instance, or women in breeches. In a rare miniature exploring
sexual identities beyond the clear divisions of masculine and feminine
so rigorously upheld by society, the Dutch artist Adriaen van der
Venne depicts a vomiting cat next to an ordinary couple having fun by
cross dressing. The cat symbolises sexuality, the act of vomiting a
satire on the couple’s subversive act. Bourgeois consumption was meant
to establish men as respectable heterosexuals, who would marry and
take on public roles; women as distinctly feminine as well as destined
for fidelity in marriage. The appearance of small flower patterns and
pastel colours, meanwhile, created a softer, more delicate style,
which took its cues from Persian designs and was an alternative to the
hyper-masculinity of much of the 16th century, with its bold stripy
patterns, daring slashes and frequently loud colours. Meanwhile,
black, in its different shades, continued for some time as the
international shade indicating sumptuous restraint for both sexes. New
models of luxury consumption endorsed measured innovation and the
notion of aesthetic pleasure to reinforce cultural competence.
Sensations such as surprise and delight could be regarded as refined,
because they were not linked to simple utility or physical pleasure.
Necessity pointed to functional utility, whereas luxury suggested
honourable decorum and progressive, though ‘polite’, creativity. Such
evaluations were connected to the notion that consumers should obtain
a high degree of product information and an understanding of intricate
cuts and constructions of clothing from artisans, shops and tradesmen,
or books and magazines. Hence the cultivation of taste based on
knowledge and civil sociability rather than the kind that advertised
conspicuous wealth. Bourgeois classes could positively cherish fashion
as a forward-looking social tool. It could now be presented in a
positive light as fuelling the wealth of nations and engendering
emotional well-being.
French dressing

Molière’s 1661 comedy L’Ecole des Maris (The School for Husbands) is a
perfect example of the trend. This short, entertaining play was a
pan-European success. It was not just performed, but published with
plentiful captivating engravings. Its whole plot turns on two brothers
who had totally different ideas about dress; each had been promised
orphaned girls for marriage, if they looked after them. The younger
brother, Sganarelle, wants his girl to dress in brown and grey wool
and to remain indoors. Likewise, he himself only dresses functionally
and traditionally. His older and more relaxed brother, Aristide, by
contrast, considers social pleasures, such as the theatre and good
company, as the meaning of life. To him, fine clothes are a further
fount of pleasure that he acknowledges as a source of female
self-esteem. As Aristide sees it, women feel well treated by men who
provide money to clothe them nicely, making them feel honoured and
happy. Hence, in Molière’s play, commerce and sociability were
presented overtly as guaranteeing female civility and emotional

Molière was writing during the reign of Louis XIV and thus did not
advertise this life in any way as republican. Rather it was linked to
the notion of a good monarchy as opposed to a tyranny. Sganarelle
exemplified tyranny in the way the household was run, which
contemporaries thought of as a microcosm of the state. Tyranny was
presented as resulting from a deep fear of rebellion; in the household
this would be typified as adultery. For Sganarelle, the overly
restrictive nature of his domestic regime resulted in him losing his
woman to a fop. On the other hand, Molière gives Aristide’s girl,
Leonore, a voice to defend women’s rights to enjoy dress and how these
link to the values of a civilised society, which should encourage self
regard, in contrast to the treatment of women by barbarous Turks.
Leonore argues for women’s liberty and against their subjection to
men’s will and suspicions. She speaks of trust enabling women’s
natural virtue to manifest itself:

    Yes, all these stern precautions are inhuman.
    Are we in Turkey, where they lock up women?
    It’s said that females are slaves or worse,
    And that´s why Turks are under Heaven’s curse.
    Our honour, Sir, is truly very frail
    If we, to keep it, must be kept in jail ...

    All these constraints are vain and ludicrous:
    The best course, always, is to trust in us.
    It’s dangerous, Sir, to underrate our gender.
    Our honour likes to be its own defender.

The Renaissance watershed

Debates about fashion that started in the Renaissance did not end with
Molière. The idea that the defence of decorous fashion was compatible
with a good Christian existence evolved as did complex debates about
clothing, of the kind we are familiar with today. But the development
of fashion in this period marks a historical watershed. How one
dressed began to be seen as the right of an individual and this
conviction helped gradually to erode sumptuary legislation. Interest
in what one wore was increasingly informed by lure of what craftsmen
were able to produce. Different kinds of half-silks, beautiful dyes
and lovely patterned textiles seemed delightful to explore and
purchase. Yet these choices could also cause confusion and cultural
arguments. Women were worried about what colours would be considered
seemly and students angered their mothers by asking for money for
clothes. Family exchanges now included children bargaining with
parents over what they might wear, while parents desperately sought to
exercise control. Take the case of Paul Behaim, son of a Nuremberg
merchant, who in 1574 aged 17 travelled to Italy with two friends.
Having left unsettled debts in Leipzig, where he had been a student,
he knew that he now needed to display to his widowed mother a more
frugal attitude while simultaneously arguing his case. In his first
letter home, he wrote:

    Dear Mother ... I have used the money from the sale (of a horse)
to have the simplest coarse green clothing made for myself – a doublet
with modest trim, pleatless hose (like those Gienger [the tutor] wears
at home), and a hooded coat ... Lest you think things are cheap here,
all this has cost me approximately 17 or 18 crowns, even though it was
as plain and simple as it could be. I could not have been more amazed
when I saw (that bill) than you will be when I send it to you.

In all these ways, then, clothing has changed the ways in which we
feel and behave.

The Renaissance is in some ways a mirror which leads us back in time
to disturb the notion that the world we live in was made in a modern
age. Messages reflected in clothing about self-esteem, erotic appeal
or social advancement of the wearer are all familiar to us today.
Since they first surfaced we have had to deal more intensely with
clever marketing, as well as with questions about image and self-image
and whether clothes wear us or we wear them. In short, dress has
changed in history and it changes history.

Ulinka Rublack teaches early modern European history at Cambridge
University and is a Fellow of St John’s College. She is the author of
Dressing Up. Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford
University Press, 2010).
Further reading:

    * Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of Henry VIII (Maney, 2002)
    * Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fancy: Dress in the Art and
Literature of Stuart England (Yale University Press, 2005)
    * Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, ed. and trans.,
Habiti Antichi et Moderni: The Clothing of the Renaissance World
(Thames & Hudson, 2008)
    * Evelyn Welch, Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in
Italy 1400-1600 (Yale University Press, 2005)

    * ShareThis

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