A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion in the Renaissance Cover Image

A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion in the Renaissance


Elizabeth Currie (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Visual Representations

Anna Reynolds

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/9781474206419.ch-008
Pages: 153–174


The explosion of visual imagery accompanying the widespread cultural changes we now associate with the Renaissance provides an unprecedented insight into how people attired themselves during the period. The relative scarcity of surviving Renaissance garments, accessories, and jewelry, tested by hundreds of years of changing tastes and damaging atmospheric conditions, makes the examination of visual representations a vital component in understanding and interpreting the clothing of this period. The wide range of visual material produced encompasses both flat and three-dimensional art. However, as this chapter will demonstrate, the kind of information about dress provided by each type of object is highly variable, and comes with its own particular limitations and caveats to interpretation of which the modern viewer must be aware.

Strictly speaking, to describe clothing of the period as Renaissance is in many ways inaccurate, as unlike other forms of visual material produced during this period (most notably paintings, sculpture, and architecture), the clothing forms themselves did not take inspiration from classical antiquity. The term is therefore instead used here to describe a broad and approximate date range rather than a consistent stylistic feature. The first part of this chapter will discuss the relevance of, and limitations to, Renaissance visual source material. After this, each of the main visual media will be described and its particular value examined. In other words, we will consider where images of dress appear; why the artists, makers, and patrons chose such depictions; and finally, what such representations can tell us about how the men and women of the Renaissance were actually clothed.

The Importance of Visual Sources

Partly due to important technological advances, we have far more visual material for the fifteenth century—most notably paintings and illuminated manuscripts—than for preceding ones. Alongside this, the growing secularization of art meant that the range of figures portrayed (and the clothing worn) broadened and increasingly tended to reflect the contemporary reality of the society in which the artists were working. Like clothing, the different survival rates for various types of visual media are affected by war, changing religious ideologies, taste, and fragility, giving us a biased view of their importance during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The young sitter in Figure 8.1 was one of the daughters of Joris Vekemans, a prominent Antwerp silk merchant, either Cornelia or her older sister Elisabeth.[1] This life-size, full-length portrait demonstrates a number of advantages that visual imagery holds over extant garments, which typically survive in isolation without the rest of an outfit. Images can reveal unexpected color combinations—here the sage green hanging sleeves and skirt open to reveal coral silk garments beneath, enlivened with blue ribbons. In general, the greater permanence of pigments used in painting compared with the dyes used for fabrics means that portraits can be useful indicators of the original colors of clothing, although later this chapter will also discuss how changes in the appearance of paint may also occur. The level of completion of a painting should also be considered—this portrait is unfinished, probably because the sitter’s father died in 1625, so consequently, the final intended appearance of the clothing may have been slightly different.

Figure 8.1. Elisabeth or Cornelia Vekemans, Cornelis de Vos, c. 1625, Museum Mayer van den Bergh. © Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerpen.

Elisabeth or Cornelia Vekemans, Cornelis de Vos, c. 1625, Museum Mayer van den Bergh. © Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerpen.

Through portraits of this type, the viewer is also able to understand how various garments were worn together and how they were accessorized. Here the young girl wears a standing collar of pleated translucent linen edged with lace, along with a matching tucker filling the square neckline of the bodice. Plain linen and lace cuffs decorate the wrists, blue ribbon rosettes feature on the bodice, the sitter carries a folding fan, and wears gold bracelets on each wrist. Portraits also show how different elements of clothing actually looked on a body, and can indicate how or where they were supported or padded. In this case, the play of light across the green fabric of the bodice clearly shows that it was stiffened—it does not crumple at the waist as the wearer sits—unlike the fabric of the matching skirt, which falls into natural pleats beneath her left arm.

As this example demonstrates, clothing in a Renaissance portrait usually occupies a significant proportion of the surface area and is frequently the most eye-catching and colorful part, standing out against a background that is often dark. When examined in conjunction with the biography of the sitter and the broader context of the commission, visual images can help us understand why something was worn, rather than simply allowing us to identify the component features of an outfit. Here for example, the particular attention with which the girl’s clothing has been chosen by her parents and then rendered in paint by the artist will surely have been a conscious decision and will have served as a reminder of her father’s silk trading business to anyone visiting the family home, demonstrating both the range of colors and high quality of the fabrics to which he had access, as well as his own personal wealth and social status.

The Limitation of Visual Sources

The documentary value of an image must always be considered in light of the artist’s original intentions, just as a literary source is prone to bias, so too is visual material. Portraits, for example, were often not a simple and literal representation of the clothing worn, but were intended to be “read” and interpreted according to complex visual codes that could provide information about the sitter’s social status, wealth, age, gender, marital status, reputation, personal history, nationality, religion and so on. It is important to recognize that such cultural interpretations can be highly sophisticated and multi-layered, and may radically differ from modern perceptions.

Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham of c. 1597 by Robert Peake (Figure 8.2) demonstrates the potential complexity of such visual messages. As First Lady of the Bedchamber and Mistress of the Robes, the sitter occupied a highly privileged position at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.[2] Her clothing is both highly fashionable and incredibly ornate, consisting of an embroidered bodice with a low pointed waistline, a skirt pinned into pleats over a wide wheel-shaped farthingale, an open ruff, and a long decorative veil attached to a tall headdress. Catherine Carey’s outfit will have indicated to the sixteenth-century viewer both her fashionability and her esteemed status, a status that meant she had servants to help her don such complicated attire. The bodice and skirt are embroidered with a huge variety of plants including roses, lilies, strawberries, pansies, vine leaves, grapes, sweet peas, honeysuckle, and hazelnuts, each of which will have held a particular symbolic meaning during the Renaissance, meanings that were laid out in contemporary botanical herbals and emblem books. Roses and pansies in particular were associated with Elizabeth I herself, and may have been intended here in homage to the sitter’s mistress. In addition to this botanical inspiration, the embroidery also includes obelisks (representing Protestantism), snakes (symbolic of prudence or wisdom), and the Fermesse, a stylized S, which represented fidelity. The dress may possibly have originally belonged to Queen Elizabeth I, and been given to Catherine Carey as a perquisite of her position. Regardless, her appearance wearing this dress in such a prestigious portrait will have held deliberate and multi-faceted meanings, linking her to the Elizabethan court.

Figure 8.2. Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, Robert Peake, c. 1597, private collection, courtesy of The Weiss Gallery.

Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, Robert Peake, c. 1597, private collection, courtesy of The Weiss Gallery.

An artist working during the Renaissance had to balance realism—producing a recognizable image—with idealization—to produce a beautiful work of art. Artists selected and emphasized those elements of dress that best suited their motivations. This idealization based on contemporary notions of beauty applies both to the clothing worn and to the body beneath—the attenuated, narrow-waisted figures seen in early Renaissance medieval manuscripts for example, whose draped clothing falls in perfect International Gothic curves, were a construction of the illustrator. In the same way that a portraitist may smooth over pock-marked skin in a painted portrayal, the clothing depicted often does not show signs of wear. Stains are ignored despite the fact that during the period the majority of outer layers of clothing were impossible to wash. Similarly, some artists give a misleading impression of how fabric reacts to the human body beneath, with creases effortlessly smoothed in a painted version.

Visual representations can also be misleading on construction, ignoring fastenings and seams altogether, or giving the impression of a fabric pattern continuing across a join which in reality was expensive (since it used more fabric) and complicated. Medieval illuminated manuscripts often include some figures wearing fashionable outfits, while others in the same scene wear invented fantastic or historical clothing. These differences were based on established conventions about what type of clothing different figures should wear, so that the story would be easy to interpret for the reader. So biblical and religious figures were shown in tunics and mantles, pagans in large jewels and turbans, while ordinary people wore contemporary clothing of the period.[3] Similarly, certain colors or shapes held particular meanings—the color green, associated with hope, might therefore be deliberately chosen for a young couple in love, while dagging (zig-zag edging to fabric) was used to indicate someone involved in inappropriate sexual activity. In portraits, too, clothing can be a creation of the artist, and the sitter did not necessarily own or wear the attire in which they are represented. Hiring clothing for a portrait was an option, as was drawing from an artist’s own inventory of props or designs.[4] A more likely explanation for the same distinctive cloth of gold fabric appearing in three portraits by Hans Holbein is that the artist used a pattern design rather than that the three different sitters owned clothing made from the same fabric.[5] As Emilie Gordenker has shown, some seventeenth-century Dutch artists (most notably Van Dyck) deliberately mixed fantasy and reality to create clothing for their sitters that was meant to appear classical, literary, or pastoral.[6]

Likewise, commissions sometimes took several years to complete and a date inscribed by the artist may refer to either the year of commencement or completion. New fashions were rarely portrayed as soon as they were invented—sometimes a documentary source can provide a more accurate dating of a new fashion. Round-toed shoes, for example, were remarked on as a fad in 1480, yet were first portrayed in illuminated manuscripts only three years later.[7] Fashions also took time to spread from an urban center to a provincial region, so a dated portrait of a member of the rural gentry can give an inaccurate representation of how long a fashion remained in style among the metropolitan elite. Similarly, older people tended to retain styles popular from their youth long after they had passed from the repertoire of the more fashionable members of society.

Portraits from this period overwhelmingly tend to portray the rich—the influential but restricted circle of people who could afford to commission an expensive work of art. They usually show people wearing their best clothing, perhaps even purchased specifically for the purpose of the portrait, rather than more usual everyday wear, which would generally be of a similar cut and style, but with less expensive fabrics and simpler trimmings. As a result, portraits can give a misleading sense of the richness of clothing, even for members of the aristocracy. Formal clothing, as chosen for a portrait, can also be more old-fashioned than more informal styles that change more frequently.


Until the modern period, the majority of western painting was figurative, with different hierarchies of subject matter: history painting (religious and mythological scenes), portraiture, genre painting (showing daily life), landscapes, animal painting, and still life. During the medieval period, religious imagery was most prevalent, while the sixteenth century saw the rising importance of secular history painting including mythological scenes, along with portraiture. During the seventeenth century, landscapes, everyday scenes, animals, and still life became increasingly popular subjects for artists, particularly in Protestant countries, where overtly religious subjects (such as portraits of the Virgin and Child) had largely fallen out of favor (although religious themes could instead be implied through symbolism). When looking at dress, portraiture is obviously of particular importance, although clues about clothing can be found in other genres too.

The depiction of dress in painting was also influenced by the materials used. In the Renaissance paints consisted of a colored pigment mixed with a binding medium. During the fourteenth and fifteenth century, pigments were combined with egg yolk to produce tempera paints. The introduction of oil as a carrier medium resulted in paints that were slower to dry, allowing artists more flexibility and also giving them the opportunity to blend smoothly from one color to the next, enabling them to model form, light, and shade. The earliest use of oil painting is recorded by artists working in Northern Europe, where the medium is associated with the ability to represent fabrics and jewelry with meticulous jewel-like accuracy. Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass point out how the final painting—and its price—depended on the pigments used, which in turn were graded and selected for the different elements in a composition, with the most expensive often reserved for fabrics and jewelry.[8] The pigments themselves, derived from colored mineral, earth, plant, and animal sources, can change significantly over time. This can, as we will see, give a misleading effect of the color of the clothing portrayed.


Portraits can be single, double, or group, and are most frequently found in bust-length, half-length, or full-length formats—the size affected the cost of the commission. The full-length life-size portrait of Gian Gerolamo Grumelli by Moroni (Figure 8.3), which was painted in Bergamo near Venice c. 1560 will have been an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.

The painting has become known as the “Man in Pink”, reflecting the distinctive nature of its dominant color and the unity of the sitter’s outfit, although a close look reveals how skillfully the artist has represented the subtle variations in texture and decoration across the different components. Grumelli’s sleeveless jerkin is constructed from pink silk velvet, embroidered with a delicate silver foliate design and worn over a matching long-sleeved doublet. The canions extending over his thighs from the bottom of the paned trunk hose are made from the same shimmering fabric. Grumelli’s hose, held up at the knee by pink garters decorated with white tassels, are of knitted silk while his shoes, decorated with long slashes, are apparently made from velvet. The only items of attire that are not pink are the black sword suspended from a black leather sword belt, a black hat accessorized with pink and white feathers, and a white linen shirt decorated with red embroidery at the collar and cuffs. The distinctive pink pigment presumably represents a real outfit, yet its use is also typical of artists working in the area around Venice, whose use of a broad variety of brilliant pigments reflects the region’s importance as a center of trade for exotic materials used in a variety of industries.

Portraitists were the first group of painters to become specialized in one particular genre. From the seventeenth century, the role of the specialist drapery painter also developed. In a busy studio working on a number of commissions simultaneously, the drapery painter was responsible for completing areas of fabric after the subject’s face had been completed by the signature artist. This meant that dress took on an even more focal role. The Renaissance also saw the development of specific rooms in palaces or country houses dedicated to displaying portraiture.

Figure 8.3. Man in Pink (Gian Gerolamo Grumelli), Giovanni Battista Moroni, c. 1560, Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Man in Pink (Gian Gerolamo Grumelli), Giovanni Battista Moroni, c. 1560, Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images.

The development of painted votive portraits, which feature the image of a patron kneeling in devotion within a religious image, was also new during the Renaissance. These usually show the donor in fashionable contemporary dress alongside religious figures attired in classical draperies or the robes of their orders. The Moreel Triptych, dated 1484 and painted by Hans Memling (Figure 8.4), is a fine example. This painting is also thought to be the first family group portrait produced in the Netherlands that still survives today. Intended for St. James’s Church in Bruges, the triptych was commissioned by Willem Moreel, a local merchant, businessman, and dignitary who held a number of official positions in the city. The central panel portrays St. Christopher carrying the Christ child, flanked by Sts Maurus and Giles (to whom the church was dedicated). The outer panels show, on the left, Willem Moreel with his five sons, and on the right his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch with eleven of their eventual thirteen daughters, six of whom were painted after the landscape had already been completed.[9] The matriarch and patriarch are guided by their name saints—St. Barbara, identifiable by the tower on her right arm, and St. William of Maleval, wearing a black Benedictine habit over his soldier’s armor.

Figure 8.4. Moreel Triptych, Hans Memling, 1484, Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Moreel Triptych, Hans Memling, 1484, Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Barbara van Vlaenderberch wears a black damask gown with a deep U-shaped collar over a black gorget with a rectangular neck, with a white partlet filling the décolletage. A wide red belt and truncated cone headdress over which a fine linen veil is suspended complete her outfit, which is overall relatively restrained.[10] Her eldest daughter, kneeling immediately behind, wears the habit of a Dominican nun, while the second eldest, on the right, wears an adult gown like that of her mother. The younger daughters wear simpler cotes with piped edges and gold frontlets on their heads. One daughter has her name, Maria, printed on her headband.[11] Willem Moreel wears a red tabard lined with fur, and his sons wear gowns lined with fur over high-necked black or red doublets. The donors are easily distinguished from the sacred figures by their dress, which is evidently expensive and fashionable, although not overly ostentatious—entirely appropriate for an altarpiece commissioned by a wealthy and important local family.

Genre Paintings

Although portraits provide a large amount of visual information about dress, they have a number of limitations, some of which can be supplemented with other sources. The standard composition of a portrait showing the figure from the front, often at a slight angle, hides the back of an outfit from view, while the popular bust-length format excludes anything worn below the chest. Genre scenes and topographical views can prove particularly useful in this respect, by showing figures from a variety of angles, as well as the clothing worn by people of a different status, many of whom would not have been able to afford a portrait commission. Genre scenes including figures from different social groups can highlight hierarchical differences in clothing. They also occasionally include figures in the process of dressing or undressing, or doing other activities requiring the removal of clothing, thus giving an insight into the layers worn beneath which are usually hidden in portraits. Moreover, genre scenes can also provide an insight into contemporary practices, social customs, and manners surrounding dress, such as what was worn to bed or how clothing was stored. A number of Dutch landscapes show how linens were laid out to be bleached in the sun, while other scenes show processes involved in textile manufacture, such as lacemaking. A series of paintings by the Leiden artist Isaac Claesz. Van Swanenburg shows the various stages in the wool making process in his home town, including Het ploten en kammen (shearing and combing) and Het vollen en verven (fulling and dyeing).[12] Landscapes too are sometimes populated with small figures, whose silhouette can be particularly interesting. They can also be a useful means for dating landscape or architectural scenes that contain few other clues.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Figure 8.5) illustrates some of the ways that dress can enhance our understanding of a genre painting and the cultural context that it depicts. A rustic barn serves as the location for a wedding feast in Brabant. The bride is seated at a table beneath a green canopy. She is distinguished by her green clothing, her loose hair with its halo-like headdress, and her demeanor. As custom dictated, she does not eat but instead sits still, eyes cast down, hands clasped. The rest of the figures are shown in action—eating, carrying, pouring, piping—and represent a cross-section of society. On the far right, a wealthy landowner is shown in conversation with a monk who has perhaps just conducted the wedding ceremony. The landowner is recognizable by the sword at his waist (the mark of a gentlemen) and his fashionably cut doublet made of expensive patterned black silk, unlike the plain wool and linen garments worn by the other attendees. The difference in clothing between the peasants and the outsiders (the monk and the landowner) is echoed in their different behaviors. The latter are engaged in eager conversation while the former are focused on the food, with few interpersonal interactions. Dress and body language in conjunction lead the viewer to consider a contrast between the different social manners and priorities of the figures.[13]

Figure 8.5. The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Apart from the bride, all the women wear unadorned plain linen veils that completely conceal their hair and either hang behind their head or are folded back up to the crown. The men wear a variety of different types of headwear, which suggests that the imaginative appropriation of ordinary dress forms was a common strategy. The cap worn by the piper is decorated with three silver coins, while the young child in the foreground has been given an expensive peacock feather to adorn his oversized hat. One of the figures carrying the makeshift platter of bowls has tied a bunch of white ribbon aglets to his red cap, while his companion uses the upturned brim of his green bonnet to carry his wooden spoon.

The figures are shown from all angles, and the artist has portrayed details about how the clothing was constructed, for example, seams running up the back of the men’s hose, and the eyelet holes around the bottom of their doublets through which the garments were laced together. The bagpiper in red and white was originally portrayed with a large codpiece that was painted out sometime after 1622, since it appears in a copy produced by the artist’s son in that year. Although there is anecdotal evidence that Pieter Brueghel attended events like that shown here, despite its apparent verisimilitude it is unlikely to represent a particular wedding and will not have been an exact representation of what was worn. As with a portrait, it will have been sanitized and carefully composed by the artist.

Portrait Miniatures

Another specific type of painting, the portrait miniature, was first established during the 1520s at the English and French Renaissance courts. The technique of painting a portrait in miniature developed out of manuscript illumination and the etymology of the name “miniature” is not based on size, but technique (being derived from the Latin miniare, to color with red lead —the technique originally used for capital letters in manuscripts).

While their small size and deliberate concentration on facial likeness naturally limits the amount of information about fashion that a miniature can contain (they only rarely show a figure in full-length), an examination of the details of jewelry and neckwear is often revealing. Miniatures were frequently given as private gifts, either as a love token or as a mark of favor from the monarch to his or her subjects. Some were also used as diplomatic gifts from one ruler to another, or to convey a likeness during marriage negotiations. Miniatures were easily transportable and wearable, and were often set into jeweled lockets or elaborate cases. Although some were copies of larger paintings, the majority were painted from life, and their intimate nature—viewed in private and serving as a prompt to the memory of a person in their absence—possibly means that the facial likeness was subject to less idealization and the clothing to less contrivance than a formal portrait intended for public consumption.

Furthermore, occasionally portrait miniatures show people in clothing that might not have been deemed suitable for a full-length portrait. It is probably no coincidence that the two portraits showing English queens in masque dress are both in miniature format.[14] Isaac Oliver’s miniature of Anne of Denmark of c. 1610 shows the queen with her hair worn half-loose in curling tendrils over her shoulders, the rest in a complicated arrangement of plaits, pearls, gemstones—quite unlike the formal hairstyle set over pads seen in her other portraits.[15] She wears the mantle over one shoulder which was a common feature of masque dress but which never appears in full-length images of the queen. Similarly, John Hoskins’ miniature of Henrietta Maria shows the queen dressed as “Divine Beauty and the Stars” in Tempe Restor’d, performed at Whitehall in 1632. Again her hairstyle and feather headdress are unusual departures from contemporary fashions, as are the numerous silver stars decorating her bodice.[16]


Fresco painting had been employed since antiquity, but it enjoyed a revival in the fifteenth century as part of the renewed interest in the classical world, and was used to decorate the walls and ceilings of churches, public buildings, and private homes. In Italy in particular, the significant fresco cycles in both secular and religious buildings provide a wealth of information about fifteenth- and sixteenth-century dress. The church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence contains numerous frescoes designed by leading Renaissance artists in collaboration with important patrons. Among the most celebrated and well preserved are the two cycles by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his team of assistants decorating the Tornabuoni Chapel, the main chancel in the church. Completed between 1485 and 1490, they depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the life of St John the Baptist, while also incorporating numerous portraits of members of the wealthy Tornabuoni family and their acquaintances, whose patriarch, the banker Giovanni Tornabuoni, was responsible for commissioning the cycles. These members of the Florentine elite appear in contemporary fifteenth-century fashions alongside the biblical figures in the sacred narrative, whose clothing is simpler and more akin to classical drapery. Here the former are presented as detached observers rather than active participants in the scene, and their appearance brings the story into the present, emphasizing the reality of the sacred events.[17]

In The Birth of the Virgin Mary (Figure 8.6), clothing is used as a narrative device to instruct the congregation by differentiating between the different characters in the story.

Figure 8.6. The Birth of the Virgin Mary, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1486–90, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Photo: Peter Barritt/Getty Images.

The Birth of the Virgin Mary, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1486–90, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Photo: Peter Barritt/Getty Images.

It takes place inside an opulent room decorated with a classical bas-relief frieze of playing putti and intarsia paneling, which the central figures in contemporary dress must have endowed with greater immediacy and relevance. On the right, St. Anne reclines in bed, watching the midwife prepare to bathe her newborn daughter, Mary. On the left, a procession of five young women arrives to congratulate the new mother. The figure leading this group, who stands out because of her elegant dress and her position closest to the central axis of the composition, is the patron’s only daughter Lodovica Tornabuoni, who was only fourteen in 1490 when the cycle was completed. Lodovica’s dress clearly highlights her importance. Her brocaded gown (cioppa) is of the most fashionable cut, with a tight front-laced bodice, square neckline and skirt pleated from the waist, and is constructed of an extremely expensive silk brocaded with gold thread woven with flying eagles and suns with rays.[18] The way in which this garment falls stiffly to the ground, in contrast to the fluttering skirts of the young girl pouring water, reveals the different weights of the fabrics from which they are constructed.[19] Ludovica’s trumpet-shaped sleeves are slashed at the elbow and open at the shoulder seam to reveal her white shirt (camicia) worn beneath, which is arranged into puffs. The fifteenth-century custom for a married woman to cover her hair in public was not strictly observed in the warmer Italian climate, although Lodovica’s youth is suggested here by the absence of a veil. She was married in 1491 and is shown here wearing a distinctive crocettina (cross surrounded by pearls) pendant that formed part of her dowry.[20]

Changes in the Physical Appearance of Paintings

One important consideration when interpreting the clothing in a painted representation is how the physical appearance of the picture surface might have changed over the centuries. Certain pigments have a tendency to change appearance and the impact can be accelerated by climatic conditions, particularly exposure to light, moisture, and atmospheric pollution. Moreover, the discoloration may disproportionately affect the different pigments across the paint surface, giving a particularly misleading impression of an artist’s intentions, both in terms of the hue of a fabric for example, but also in terms of spatial regression and three-dimensionality.

Organic pigments derived from plants and animals tend to discolor most, in particular red lakes, yellow lakes, and indigo. The effect is clearly seen in the Portrait of the St. Adrian Civic Guard c. 1630 (Figure 8.7).[21] The Netherlandish schutterij or civic guard were voluntary defensive organizations whose membership consisted of wealthy citizens appointed by the magistrates. Militia group portraits of this type (known as schuttersstukken) were commissioned when the membership changed—each officer contributed to the artist’s fee and is clearly individualized to commemorate his prestigious role. The officers shown here had just completed their three-year tenure. The figures are shown descending the staircase of their meeting hall, the St. Adrian Gallery in Haarlem, led by the Colonel of the troop, Pieter Jacobsz Olycan, who can be identified by his orange sash. The Ensign (flag bearer) was always a young bachelor, usually shown more extravagantly dressed than the other figures. Here Ensign Saloman Colterman appears on the right, wearing a white silk doublet patterned with flowers (in November of 1630 he married and had to resign from the post).

The very pale greyish-blue sashes worn by several other officers were painted with indigo, a pigment that is particularly prone to fading on exposure to light. A small section of one of the sashes that was covered by the frame reveals that originally the paint was a much brighter shade of blue. This has an impact on the aesthetics of the painting (the sashes do not stand out as they once would have, and show shallower three-dimensional modeling), but also on its meaning, since it is now not immediately obvious that the colors worn correspond closely to those of the state flag—dark orange, white, and blue.[22] The blue sashes are better preserved on the left side of the painting than on the right, probably due to the fact that during the eighteenth century the painting hung to the left of a large window in the hall of the St. Adrian civic guard. In other militia group portraits, for example The Banquet of the Officers of the St. Adrian Militia Company in 1627 by Frans Hals, the blue sashes show a better level of preservation, probably due to a combination of factors including thickness of the paint layer and exposure to light. Interestingly, when used as a textile dye, indigo does not display such fugitive properties as when used in paintings.

Figure 8.7. Portrait of the St. Adrian Civic Guard, Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, c. 1630, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Photo: Margareta Svensson.

Portrait of the St. Adrian Civic Guard, Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, c. 1630, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Photo: Margareta Svensson.

Other changes to pigments over time can also distort the visual impact of a painting today. For example, tiny touches of silver, often used to recreate the shine of pearls in miniature paintings, have a tendency to oxidize, giving the impression of dark beads making up a necklace instead of the creamy white lustrous pearls originally intended. The oil used as a carrier medium can become discolored and yellow, turning blues green. Likewise, the varnish used to cover the finished painting and make the surface shine can also discolor over the years and lend a painting an excessively brown hue. These changes are accidental. Sometimes, however, the clothing in a painting is deliberately retouched, occasionally by the original artist but more usually by subsequent generations so that the styles fit the current prevailing aesthetic. Furthermore, nineteenth-century restoration and cleaning with strong abrasives and solvents has sometimes removed subtleties, leading to a distorted visual appearance in the surface textures of fabrics. All changes, whether deliberate or accidental, must be borne in mind when interpreting a painting as visual evidence for historical dress.

Illuminated Manuscripts

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the peak production of illuminated books, with the main centers being firstly located in Paris and, by the mid-fifteenth century, Flanders. The earliest were religious (Bibles and Books of Hours), although the emphasis became increasingly secular in the fifteenth century, with new translations of classical texts, romances, and historical accounts. The invention of the printing press and moveable type stimulated the decline in manuscript production by the mid-sixteenth century. However, large numbers of manuscripts survive from the fifteenth century and provide a wealth of information about fashions from the period. Their colors are particularly brilliant, having been protected from light damage within the closed pages. They often show many different types of people, both rich and poor, dressed for numerous different situations and climates. However, they also frequently combine figures in fashionable dress alongside others wearing (sometimes inaccurate) historicizing or invented clothing. Sometimes historical events are placed within the context of contemporary society.

Figure 8.8. Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1460–70. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1460–70. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

An illumination of Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, attributed to the Coëtivy Master, which dates from c. 1460–70 (Figure 8.8), is typical in depicting classical and allegorical figures in clothing familiar to an elite Renaissance readership. The original text, The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius (c. 480–524), was written in prison c. 524 while he was awaiting trial for treason, and was one of the most widely read works during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Here Boethius is shown on the left speaking to Philosophy, who presents him with the personification of the seven liberal arts, each of whom is shown with their attribute: Grammar (book), Rhetoric (scroll), Logic (patterned wheel), Music (musical notation), Geometry (set square and measure), Arithmetic (scroll with symbols), and Astronomy (armillary sphere). Despite representing a late Roman text, the illustrator shows the female figures dressed in various different styles of clothing and headwear popular at the Burgundian court in the late fifteenth century. Astronomy wears a steeple-shaped hat draped with a fine transparent veil, Music is shown in a small gold pillbox-type padded hat known as a bourrelet, while Geometry wears a rather unusual tall folded bourrelet. Grammar and Rhetoric have chosen simple veils of thick linen to cover their hair and are also dressed in the most basic styles of clothing—a simple cloak and gown. As befits her senior rank, Philosophy as leader of the group wears the tallest, most complicated headdress—an M-shaped kite-like hennin constructed on shaped wires, evidently heavily starched, and worn over a gold steeple-shaped cap. As Margaret Scott notes, this also fits with Boethius’s description of her as seeming to touch the sky.[23] While some of the women are dressed in simple gowns others are more ornate. Geometry, for instance, wears a V-necked green gown trimmed with gold at the neckline and hem, with a wide black belt encircling the high waistline. One side of the gown is tucked up to stop it trailing along the ground as she walks. Boethius wears a floor-length pink gown trimmed with fur at the hem and wrists, and a red cap. Again, he is not shown as a fifth-century Roman but in a traditional style of clothing worn by older men during the second half of the fifteenth century, which vaguely recalls academic dress.[24]


The increasing focus on naturalism and direct observation of the world, which was such a key feature of the Renaissance, resulted in the flourishing of drawing as a medium. Technology too had an impact—an increased supply of paper during the fifteenth century provided an alternative to costly parchment derived from animal skin, while print-making techniques provided a means by which works on paper could be easily replicated and disseminated. Renaissance drawings served numerous purposes, from allowing an artist to work up early ideas for a composition, to capturing the transitory appearance of a loved one, or the form of a sculpture or building. Some drawings were intended only for the artist’s eyes. Others, known as modelli, were shown to patrons for appraisal, whose increasing involvement in the development of large fresco or painting commissions during the Renaissance, together with a greater emphasis placed on originality and creativity in design from the artist, necessitated regular discussions about both concept and composition.[25] In this way drawings served as visual aids to be adjusted and refined as necessary. Some costume designs by Inigo Jones in England and Bernardo Buontalenti in Italy were evidently produced to be shown to the patron of a theatrical production for approval, occasionally providing them with options from which to choose.[26]

Many artists made studies of figures, which were then incorporated into a final painting or print, sometimes serving as standard patterns to be reused as many times as necessary. Albrecht Dürer was evidently fascinated by the intricacies of dress, both male and female. His drawings of Irish peasants and soldiers show that this interest straddled social classes and nationalities.[27] A series of pen and ink drawings shows the women of Nuremberg attired for various occasions. Nuremberg Lady Dressed for the Home (Figure 8.9) is thought to date from c. 1500 and was probably modeled by Dürer’s wife Agnes.[28] The woman’s bodice has long sleeves covering her wrists and a neckline concealed by a cape-like collar (Gollar) probably of wool, decorated with black braid or embroidery, trimmed (and possibly also lined) with white fur, and fastened with a brooch.[29] Over her skirt she wears a finely pleated linen apron and a pouch purse hangs from the leather girdle around her waist. Her hair is completely covered by a fine linen veil or Steuchlein, which was standard attire for married German women of all classes, and is tied at the nape of the neck. It is worn over a large padded support cap beneath known as a Wulsthaube. She carries a handkerchief in her left hand. This drawing reveals interesting details about clothing construction, for example, that the pleated apron continues above the girdle and is apparently suspended from the neck. It also shows features of everyday dress, like the leather pouch, which might not necessarily have been included in a formal painted portrait.

Figure 8.9. A Woman of Nuremberg Dressed for the Home, Albrecht Dürer, c. 1500, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Photo: DEA/G. CIGOLINI/VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini/Getty Images.

A Woman of Nuremberg Dressed for the Home, Albrecht Dürer, c. 1500, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Photo: DEA/G. CIGOLINI/VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini/Getty Images.


Prints allow the reproduction of multiple images from a single matrix, and the rapid growth in the print-making market during the Renaissance was the key means by which visual information was spread throughout Europe. Prints were used to convey the appearance of a work of art, the facial likeness of a person, or a fashionable style of foreign clothing. They often contain particularly revealing details about dress, as line becomes more important in the absence of color. However, although many prints are dated, using this as evidence for the date of the clothing portrayed can be problematic. Prints were often republished at a later point, sometimes with changes which resulted in the production of various different versions or “states,” and the date inscribed may represent either the original or the later year. Prints were also sometimes based on paintings dating from much earlier, so the date on a print may suggest that a fashion persisted for much longer than was actually the case.

Prints by Abraham Bosse are particularly invaluable resources, given that they invariably show bourgeois figures in the contemporary fashions and surroundings of seventeenth-century France, even when the subject matter is traditional or biblical. La Galerie du Palais by Bosse (Figure 8.10) represents three of the small arcaded shops found in the Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cité in Paris in the 1630s.

Figure 8.10. The Gallery of the Palace of Justice (La Galerie du Palais), Abraham Bosse, c. 1638. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: www.metmuseum.org.

The Gallery of the Palace of Justice (La Galerie du Palais), Abraham Bosse, c. 1638. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: www.metmuseum.org.

Based on a play by Corneille entitled La Galerie of 1632, Bosse shows the elegantly dressed men and women browsing the items on offer.[30] On the right the seamstress’s shop includes standing bands, falling bands, tuckers, pinners, and cuffs, which are pinned on display and contained within stacked boxes. The mercer’s stall in the center offers gloves, ribbons, masks, muffs, and fans. Three of Bosse’s own designs for fans still exist and the seller selects a box marked “eventails de Bosse.[31] Such prints do not simply show what was worn—they also show how fashion was integrated with the behavior and manners of daily life. Bosse’s depiction of shopping both as a spectacle and a social activity—and as a new sphere of public life in which women were active participants—is echoed in a growing number of literary and visual sources from the seventeenth century onwards, including Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or the Silent Woman of 1609–10.[32]

Although the fashionable clothing represented in this print matches that in other visual and literary sources, some satirical prints use exaggeration to highlight elements of dress subject to contemporary social comment. The pitfalls of a search for fashionability are a recurring theme of ridicule. While a deliberate casual negligence in dress was highly fashionable during the 1630s, the extreme to which it is taken in some of Bosse’s disheveled and undone cavaliers suggest an element of theatricality and mockery which must be acknowledged. Satires can, however, be a particularly useful aid in gaging social reactions to fashionable styles, which were evidently deemed noteworthy enough to parody.

The sixteenth century saw the introduction of the first costume books, which were illustrated with prints.[33] These can be considered the precursors to the true fashion plates which first appeared in France in the late seventeenth century, and demonstrate the fascination with exploration and classification that was a broader feature of the Renaissance. The most well-known early costume books were those by Abraham De Bruyn (Antwerp 1581), Jean Jacques Boissard (Paris 1581), and Vecellio (Venice 1590 and 1598). Systematically and hierarchically organized, they show figures from a variety of nationalities, cities, and social positions, and were a source of inspiration for fashionable men and women, costume designers and artists, while also circulating styles of dress internationally. The documentary value of the portrayals, however, must always be tempered with an understanding that they often propagated stereotypical conceptions of the clothing worn in each country, and that the artist may sometimes have been working on verbal descriptions rather than direct observation. By his own admission in his opening “Discorso” to Book II, Vecellio says that his representations of dress in Asia and Africa are based on second-hand reports rather than evidence of his own eyes or dependable testimony.[34]


This chapter has so far focused on the traditional flat arts—painting on canvas, panel, plaster or parchment, and drawing or printing onto paper. However, what are now often described as the decorative arts, a category into which dress itself falls, frequently depicted a variety of clothing forms. Tapestries reached an extraordinary level of detail and skill in the fifteenth century, and were far more highly valued during the Renaissance than paintings. Like paintings, they often incorporated figures in contemporary dress, even when portraying historical subjects. The key centers for tapestry production in the period were France and the Low Countries, in particular Arras and Tournai. Woven on a loom, tapestries were often copied from a full-scale cartoon that was hung behind the warps. Cartoons themselves are rare survivals, as they were usually created on paper and reused multiple times, or cut into pieces to make the transfer of the design more manageable. Tapestries, too, are subject to particular pressures, the dyes used for the threads often being even more prone to fading than in paintings, and the wool in particular being affected by mold and insect damage.

The Unicorn is Found is the second tapestry from The Unicorn Tapestries series in New York (Figure 8.11). Analysis of the clothing of the figures has been important in establishing a date range for the tapestries (c. 1495–1505)—in particular the shape of the round-toed shoes worn by the men and the hairstyles. Dress also provides clues to the identity and roles of the various figures in the hunting party, and so is an aid to the narrative. Here the lord of the hunt appears in the top right wearing a red hat decorated with a large plume, a doublet made of cloth of gold woven with a pomegranate design, and a gold chain around his neck. The lymerer appears in the left foreground—he is responsible for questing the game and holds his specially-trained scenting dog on a lead while pointing to the unicorn. He wears protective knee-high leather leggings over his blue hose, as recommended in the popular hunting guide, La Livre de la Chasse (Book of the Hunt) by Gaston Phébus of 1387, to guard against brambles and thorns.[35] The level of detail contained within the tapestries is extraordinary and indicates many intricate features of clothing construction, including seams up the back of hose, ribbon points fastening codpieces, and ornate knots on the leather straps of the hunting horns. Nevertheless, despite this detailed rendition of the clothing worn in a Renaissance hunt, the styles are likely to have been idealized. The men wear a huge range of different doublets, hose, hats, and footwear, which lend variety and interest to the composition, but whose variations are likely to have been exaggerated for visual effect.

Figure 8.11. The Unicorn is Found (from The Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: www.metmuseum.org.

The Unicorn is Found (from The Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: www.metmuseum.org.


Unlike the two-dimensional visual sources discussed so far, sculpture modeled in the round allows a three-dimensional representation of a clothed figure. Many new sculptural forms were developed in this period, including the revival of the classical portrait bust, which became popular in the fifteenth century and was produced in a wide range of materials including marble, polychromed wood, wax, terracotta, and bronze. Dating from 1453, Figure 8.12 is the earliest securely dated Renaissance marble bust.[36]

It represents Piero de Medici and was originally placed in a niche above a door in the Palazzo Medici. The sitter is shown wearing a sleeveless tunic over a velvet doublet woven in a pomegranate design in a number of different piles. The border of the tunic is decorated with diamond rings, a Medici device symbolizing strength and fidelity. While the individualized nature of this marble bust is influenced by antique sculpture, truncating the figure horizontally across the arms and including such fine details of clothing are new innovations.[37] Unlike antique examples, most fifteenth-century male portrait busts are inscribed beneath on a cartellino bearing the name of the sitter, artist, and date which is useful when interpreting the dress portrayed. One limitation of much Renaissance sculpture, however, is that it often shows men clothed in classically-inspired armor, as seen in the bust of Piero de Medici’s younger brother Giovanni, rather than the contemporary fashions worn by Piero.[38]

Figure 8.12. Piero de Medici, Mino da Fiesole, 1453–4, marble, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo:y DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Piero de Medici, Mino da Fiesole, 1453–4, marble, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo:y DeAgostini/Getty Images.


Technical innovations, coupled with cultural changes associated with the Renaissance, meant that a wider variety of visual material was produced in Europe than ever before. Growing interest in individualization evidenced in the rise of portraiture as a genre was reflected both in the facial features of a subject, and also the details of his or her attire. Given the scarcity of surviving clothing examples from the period, these visual sources are of huge value. While this chapter has focused on the most significant sources, others such as ceramics, stained glass, mosaics, and embroidery can also prove revealing.

Visual sources do not, however, replace the value of extant garments. Nor should they be considered in isolation, but are best compared alongside literary and documentary sources, including accounts of household spending, letters, memoirs, contemporary publications and social commentary. Very occasionally, the literary and visual sources can be aligned, as in the case of the clothing worn in a miniature by Isaac Oliver of 1616, Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset (Figure 3.7). The Sackville inventory of 1617 clearly describes some elements of this outfit in detail, including the trunk hose: “Item one paire of Bullen hose of Scarlett and blew velvet the panes of Scarlett laced all over with watchett silk silver and gold lace and the puffs of blew velvett embroidered all over with sonnes Moones and stares of gold.” However, in the inventory, the suit consists of only five matching items (hose, gloves, stockings, hatband, and boothose) and does not include the doublet, shoe roses, girdle, and sword hanger seen in the miniature.[39] The discrepancy is perhaps explained by the fact that at this date, the Earl was heavily in debt and had sold many of his possessions.

Just as many of the artistic forms explored in this chapter showed an interest in depicting earlier styles of dress, particularly classical ones, so this impulse continued well after this period. Types of clothing worn during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries were of interest to later generations of artists such as Gainsborough, whose sitters in “Vandyke” dress wore clothing based on the styles of the 1630s.[40] However, nineteenth- and twentieth-century “redrawings,” in costume books and encyclopedias, can produce a very inaccurate, distorted, and sentimentalized view of Renaissance clothing. Women in such illustrations, for example, sometimes display the sloping shoulders revealed by ogee necklines and low pinched waistlines deemed attractive during the mid-Victorian period, which completely change the fit of a Tudor bodice.[41] The dress historian must always be certain therefore that they are looking at a true Renaissance source, not a later interpretation, one which imposes the aesthetics of its own period in terms of construction, color or even body type onto those of the past.