A “fashion revolution” in the Middle Ages? Yes, says art historian Roger Wieck, curator of Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands at the Morgan Library. Just as art was changing with the dawn of the Renaissance, so, too, was clothing. I asked him to explain.
What was the “fashion revolution” of the late Middle Ages?
Around 1330, due to the invention of the set-in sleeve and the use of multiple buttons, tight clothing for both men and women became available. It was this “fashion revolution” that forever distinguished men’s and women’s clothing.
Do the lavish ensembles we see in illuminated manuscripts—such as the gowns and hats in the illumination shown above—reflect what people actually wore?
Yes, but you have to be careful in interpreting each picture. Artists did depict actual clothing, but they also included fantastic and old-fashioned garments. You also have to keep in mind artistic license. People in real life were hardly as thin, with waistlines as narrow, as those seen in medieval art.
And manuscript illuminators used fashion not only to set a scene, but also to comment on the characters they depicted.
The most fashionable people in medieval art are often the bad guys. For women’s clothing, look to what the temptresses and prostitutes are wearing. For the men, look at the teenage boys and executioners. The tormentors of Christ are usually dressed to the nines.
Was medieval and Renaissance fashion influenced by events of the day, such as the Hundred Years’ War and the bubonic plague?
Yes—for example, there was a “fashion freeze” in France from about 1350 to 1390 due to the duress of the Hundred Years’ War and the strike of the Black Plague.
King John of France died in London as a prisoner of war. Military costume influenced clothing worn by civilians, who now wore their doublets padded—unnecessary, but it gave them what was then considered the manly hourglass silhouette.
The 1420s were also a tough time for France: the northern half of the country, including the capital, Paris, was occupied by the British. During this decade, too, fashion took a nosedive.
What are some of the most spectacular or fanciful outfits you’ve come across in the pages of illuminated manuscripts?
Surely there is no more elegant clothing than that depicted by the Limbourg brothers in the calendar miniatures of the duc de Berry’s famous Très Riches Heures. Those miniatures are justifiably world famous.
Your exhibition at the Morgan includes four ensembles inspired by manuscript illuminations created using period fabrics and techniques. What did you learn during the process of crafting these replicas?
What I learned from these recreations—the wonderful work of Corinne Roes of Atelier Mette Maelwael—was that no matter how beautiful these garments are in two dimensions, they are unbelievably impressive in three. And when you see one of these garments actually worn and move in space and time, it knocks your socks off.
Many people know medieval clothing from the movies—such as The Princess Bride or even Robin Hood: Men in Tights. How right, or wrong, does Hollywood get medieval dress?
In conjunction with my exhibition at the Morgan we recently screened Becket from 1964 with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Pamela Brown plays a particularly slimy Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wears headgear from the 15th century—300 years later than the time of the King Henry II—but they’re so deliciously over-the-top that they actually do make her appear particularly dumb-headed.
What might a late medieval gentlewoman think of today’s fashion trends—like platform shoes, miniskirts, and enormous handbags?
I see young men on the subway with pointy shoes that remind me of the pouleines of the 14th century, which sometimes forced their wearer to walk backwards. The miniskirt of the Middle Ages was a lot more shocking than today’s, as it was worn by men.
And I think a gentlewoman of the Middle Ages would be pleased to see the return of men’s tight pants—they would remind her of how revealing and flattering were the hose worn in her era.
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Interesting interview. I’m into modern men’s fashion myself, but it is interesting and kind of funny to think about the “fashion revolution” of the Middle Ages. The history is amazing to me, like the “fashion freeze.” That had to be something back then!
Re. question 2, surely you are not suggesting that everyone at court wore totally up to date fashion? There must have been the less well off courtiers who would have worn olf-fashioned clothing or hand me downs because of the sheer expense and procurment of textiles. When seeing tv or theatrical productions that place all the characters in the fashion of the day is to me false, when so many clothes were given to others and worn till literally they fell off someone’s back, and then maybe patched, the patches patched and then eventually shredded and turned into paper.
Hi Katie, Good question. I don’t think Roger meant to suggest that. He was replying to my question about whether the garments we see in manuscripts are based on actual examples, or were invented whole-cloth (so to speak). So yes, the garments in manuscripts were based on (and exaggerated from) what artists saw, but certainly only the very tippy-top elites had fine, glamorous attire.
I also find it funny when period movies show everyone spotlessly clean and without a stain, rip, tear, or mend on their clothes—and of course, with perfectly clean and coiffed hair. If it’s not that way today, how much less so before the advent of washing machines and in-home showers?
I used to work in the business and it is the zips and the machined seams etc. that get me. How long would it have taken to make a frock in real time, would the dye really have taken completely each time and not fade etc. I went along to a place to vet the ‘medieval’ costumes as they wanted everyone to look authentic. I pointed out what are they going to do about fillings in teeth, broken bones in plastercasts ect. I removed watches, zips, hooks and eyes, colours were atrocious, and the shoes…youcan guess, trainers!! What are they thinking. Mind you when I was making costumes at Glyndebourne Opera House, it was amazing how taking ordinary cotton fabric and overlaying other fabrics you could make it seem authentic with a bit of distressing and good lighting. The movies of the 50’s are excellent, the cantilevered bras under the bodices (The Vikings) and the red lippy, hysterical.
Great story, Katie, ha! Good lighting is everything, right?
By the way, are you talking about The Vikings with Kirk Douglas? One of the all-time, all-time greats and a personal favorite. I always did wonder if they got the mead-hall and funeral-ships-with-torches details right, but I didn’t pay much mind to the costumes. Perfect excuse to break out the mead and watch it again.
I love them all. Liz Taylor in her figure hugging cossies showing off her assets, Janet Leigh with her . enormous assets in The Vikings playing next to her former, current, ex hubby Tony Curtis. Kirk Douglas leapin’ o’er hill and dale and fjord being masculine. Fantastic. I send you a virtual bottle of mead to enjoy. On another matter, am watching a programme now on the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton being discovered under a car park. What a way to go!!