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Renaissance Fashion: The Birth of Power Dressing

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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.

A Lady with a Drawing of Lucretia, by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530-33. Copyright Bridgeman Art Library 2010

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.

Gallery: Renaissance fashion in pictures

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 explained?

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 family.

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, yellow-black.

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 over-indulgent.

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 contentment.

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)


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