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Fashion - Fair

Fashion in the 1590’s
Art is one of keys with which humanity unlocks the past and the rich tapestry of artwork
is a priceless document in man’s quest for understanding the lives and times of generations
which have preceded it. The rich repository of portraits of the 16th century are more than just
pictures to be admired-they are the living proof of the era they portray, the figures who straddled
the world of the times, their looks, demeanor, mien, social norms, customs and the lifestyles
which they led. Portraits of the nobility, kings, queens, knights, dukes, duchesses and the lay
people give us an intimate look at the way they dressed and the fashion of the age.
Portraits are the visual manifestation of the era when they were created, and they score
over written works because of the visual impact of the medium. A study of the portraits done in
the 1590’s acquaints us with the prevailing style of dress and reveals the characteristic of the age
as much as its unique political, social and economic design. In my study of fashion in the 1590’s,
I am guided by the work of Pourbus the Younger and Titi. Their detailed rendering of the
subjects capture the nuances of dressing of the day, and additional details have been furnished
through the written research of various historical scholars.
The latter part of the 16th century was a period of prosperity, and the royal families of
Europe, along with their noblemen, traders and merchants had amassed great fortunes. Choice of
dress was a political decision and an important part of court life. Rulers used the opulent dresses
and valuable clothes, along with sculpture and painting to announce to the world their power.
The opulent dresses which they wore became the reflection of the riches, and traced the
transition of men and their nations, materially and socially. Fashion becomes a barometer for the
progress of a nation, and the rich textiles, heavily embellished garments, quality and quantity of
accessories, jewels made of precious stones, pearls and gold, all testify to the wealth of the
nation. A nation which is economically and financially sated can channel its energies towards
enhancing its looks and spending its resources on vain pursuits. Vecellio’s book written during
the time explicates the use of costume as a “signifier of rank, office or age for the patrician noble
man and a signifier of sexual status and wealth for noble women.” (2)
Europe underwent a radical transformation in 1588 when Charles V, King of Spain,
Naples and Sicily and the Holy Roman Emperor established his son Philip the second on the
throne of Spain and made his brother Maximilian II the Holy Roman Emperor. Europe was no
longer ruled by a single court, but the culture, especially the sober, rich fashion of Spain
dominated the aesthetics of the continent. The Huguenots of France left the country after the
massacre of St Bartholomew, and they settled in Holland in England, and created the weaving
and spinning industries in these nations. The Protestant ethics of simplicity entered the realm of
fashion consciousness, but France and Italy resisted the sobriety of Spanish fashion, and nothing
could dampen the spirits of the nobility and the wealthy to flaunt their wealth and they continued
to dress in extravagant fashions, employing the best seamstresses and the most luxurious fabrics,
created in the city states of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Cesare Vecellio, a Venetian, published
two books on costumes of the age and this became the definitive work in fashion and included
the clothes worn by not only the people of Venice, but all over the world, especially Europe.
The portrait of the wife of Nicolaas de Helincx, who was a minister to the King, gives a
clear insight into the clothes worn by the nobility, marked by opulence of fabric, detailing and
style. Margaret L. King in her book Women of the Renaissance says that “the material
adornments of a woman’s body were expression of the status of the related male” and they
created an impression of “wealth and beauty.’ (3) The lady in the portrait is wearing a striped
doublet, with a skirt attached at the waist and a rich overgown on top of this. The striped doublet
was originally worn by men, but was later adopted by fashionable women in their wardrobe. The
critics Stubbes was so perplexed on seeing women wear this with such élan that he remarked
“they blush not to wear it.” The sleeve of the shirt is puffed out and ends in a wrist band, turned
upwards and highlighted with lace. This mix and match of skirt and bodice was an innovation of
the time. The overgown in the picture is fashioned after Florentine tastes and was much favored
by “Florentine noble women.” (4) The skirt falls closely around the body, clearly showing the
absence of a farthingale, which though was one of the most important items in a fashionable
woman's wardrobe. The farthingale could be cone shaped like the Spanish one, or the French
farthingale, which had padded rolls which kept the skirt out and rounded.
The black velvet overgown falls to the floor, and the sober color was in keeping with the
winds of counter–reformation, sweeping through the continent. Lack of color though could not
interfere with the expressions of wealth, as seen in the inordinate amount of bows used as
embellishment. The black also brings into sharp focus the rich silk used for the inner gown.
This gown has been used more as a surcoat, and the panels at the shoulder gave an imposing look
to the wearer, in spite of her apparent frailty. The ruff, another ubiquitous item of clothing of the
era, was made of linen or Holland cambric and embellished with lace on the outer corners and
could be either plaited or alternatively in a fluted pattern. During this time, both needle and
bobbin laces where being manufactured, and needle lace was a much sought-after ruff
adornment, and was known as lavori di maglia in Italy. (5) Passementerie and decorative laces
were much sought after as trimmings.
Wool and silk were the two main fabrics used as materials for stitching outer clothes,
while linen was used for inner garments. Rash or rascia a type of high-quality wool, produced
mainly in Florence was used for cloaks and coats. Silk was cherished for its indisputable sheen,
which was brilliantly captured in the portraits of the time. These silks could be satin, taffeta,
grosgrain, and sarcenet as well as the luxury silks like damasks and polychrome brocaded
velvets. Plain silks were preferred as they could be ornamented with surface decorations, like
braids and slashing.
The lady in the portrait by Titi is probably wearing a chemise which finishes at the neck
in a high collar, unlike the one worn by the noblewoman. Her overgown is made of black fabric,
and buttons all the way, from the neck to the leg. The high collar would render the buttons on
top useless, and they serve more as fashion objects than any practical purpose, just like the
buttons on the sleeve of the gown. Corsets were often used to give shape and were called “a pair
of bodies.” Small girls and children were generally outfitted in linen chemise or partlets over
which they wore gowns made of stripes fabric with black trim, as seen in Titi's portrait. Young
women, not married wore a large veil that “covers the face and chest.” (6)
The lady in the background of Titi's picture is most obviously a widow, or a servant, as
can be seen from her clothing. Vecellio describes the widow's dress as one which is black in
color, made up of Florentine rascia with a mantle fashioned out of buratto. Her head is covered
with a white cap, although here it is a piece of white cloth, and all this is more with “appearance
of nuns, than in secular dress.” (7)
Hair and adornments for it also constituted an important part of the woman's attire. The
most common form of head dress was the heart-shaped covering worn on the head. It comprised
of a piece of squaring and, put corner wise on the head, with the four corners drawn down on all
four sides, the ones at the back being tied. The heart-shape was achieved by puffing the hair on
the sides. The ladies of the nobility wore them embellished with jewels and made of lace, while
the common folk wore it more simply.
“A knight of the Order of Santo Stefano and his family” by Titi depict the dress worn by
knights of the order and in general, by men in the late 16th century. The order was founded by
Cosimo de Medici, the Duke of Florence, in 1561, and the dress was bound to be influenced by
Florentine fashion of the time. The men's clothes generally consisted of a doublet, fitted snugly
to the body, and sometimes worn as a “peascod” with the front stuffed outwards and a short skirt.
The doublet worn by men had high necks and used buttons as fasteners. Capes were detachable
and the doublet could be made of the same material as the hose or pants. The hose generally
worn in the late 16th century consisted of two parts, the upper or trunk hose and the canon or
lower hose. The upper stocks were also called breeches. (8)
Men too wore ruffs, but smaller in size than those worn by ladies. They wore a cloak
over the doublet, which by the latter part of the 16th century, became a much shorter version of
the lucco, which was made off “fine wool or black rash, reaching almost down to their ankles.”
Cloaks worn during this period were “thigh –length, circular cloak, often edged with braid”
and could be either the tabarri, cappa, or the ferraioli. The popularity of these cloaks can be
inferred from the inventory of prominent personages of the time like Filippo Magalotti, who
possessed at least 14 of these “different kinds of ferraioli and cappa.” (10) Cloaks were made of
silk for use in summer and rascia for the cold winters. (11)
Nations and the city-states had a “very gender and class conscious social order in the late
16th century.” (12) Liveries were an important “form of the dress decorum” (13) adopted mainly by
diplomats and courtiers, identifiable because of the signs and symbols with which they were
decorated. Military knights wore a red cassock over which was placed a ceremonial mantle,
white in color, the front of which was embroidered with the red eight pointed Maltese cross. The
knight in the painting by Titi, belongs to the order of Santos Stefano, and this is inferred from the
red, eight pointed Maltese cross, denoting the order, which is embroidered on the left shoulder,
denoting that it was an ecclesiastical robe. (14) Men wore their hair short and sported a pointed
The manner in which clothes were worn, the fabrics chosen, the patterns applied were all
dictated by a set of rules called the sumptuary laws, “which regulated dress, wedding
celebrations and other types of extravagant display, …enacted frequently” (15) These laws were
enacted to bring about rationalization of vulgar displays of wealth while at the same time protect
the interests of the “traditional popolano and burgher values.” (16) These laws also useful in
restraining unchecked spending, protecting the fortunes of the rich while at the same time
creating easily distinguishable distinctions in the class system. In a law enacted in England in
June 1574, a detailed description of what can be worn, and by whom is clearly outlined and it
makes clear that “Any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissue, nor fur of sables,” could be
worn only by the ruler and his immediate family. These sumptuary laws were suspended during
feasts, public holidays and state occasions. (17)
Portraits painted during this period are a testimony to the social and cultural traditions of
the time, and the painters’ keen eye for detail reveals to the onlooker the various facets of the
society. Clothes and the fashion of the time determine the way of life and the importance of
fashion in studying history is undeniable. The ostentatious clothes of the time were not only
raiments for covering oneself and giving protection from the elements, but served the greater
social purpose of “being seen as much as seeing.” (18)
The impact of fashion on the lives of people has been summed up by Janet Arnold in her
book A Handbook of Costume where she has so succinctly put it that
‘Whatever the approach, we must not overlook the fact that for many people in
sophisticated societies, dressing in fashion has been and still is a delightful, if not frivolous
occupation, pursued with great enthusiasm…. on all sides’ (19)
It is these portraits and paintings of fashionable people which give us an insight into their lives
and the emphasis placed on fashion during the time.
Arnold, Janet. A Handbook of Costume. London: MacMillan. 1973
Benedetto Varchi, Storia Fiorentina (Florence: Pietro Martello, 1721), Book 9
Cox-Rearick, Janet Fine Threads, Renaissance Style Come to Graduate Center Gallery
Distinguished Professor of Art History
Currie, Elizabeth Clothing and a Florentine style, 1550–1620 Victoria & Albert Museum
Renaissance Studies Volume 23, Issue 1, Pages 33-52 Published Online: 31 Dec 2008
Leed, Drea. Stubbes On Fashion: Excerpts from Philip Stubbes' Anatomie of Abuses, 1583
[Article]. ©2000. Dayton, OH: Author
Rainey, Ronald Eugene, Ph.D., Sumptuary Legislation in Renaissance Florence (Italy)
Columbia University, 1985,
Sainty, Guy Stair Il Gran Maestro (Testo Italiano) ©
Taylor, Lou Establishing dress history
Tummons, Traci Elizabeth. Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto il Mondo and the “Myth of
Vecellio, Cesare; Vecellio's Renaissance Costume Book, New York, Dover Publications, 1977
Parasole, Elisabeta Catanea; Musterbuch furStickereien und Spitzen 1616, Verlag Von Ernst
Wasmuth, 1891 (Facsimile of reprint of her lace and embroidery manual Teatro delle nobili et
virtuose donne ,1595) (online)
http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/library/pearledruff.htm Accessed on 10.04.09
Anonymous, Descrizione delle Feste Fatte nelle reali nozze de' Serenissimi Principi di Toscana
D. Cosimo de' Medici e Maria Maddalena Arciduchessa d'Austria (Florence: Giunti, 1608), 59.
in Elizabeth Currie
http://www.renaissancetailor.com/research_vocabulary.htm Accessed on 11.04.09
Enforcing Statutes of Apparel [Greenwich, 15 June 1574, 16 Elizabeth I]
http://elizabethan.org/sumptuary/who-wears-what.html Accessed on 11.04.09
Renaissance Costume And Dress - 1558-1614 (Originally Published 1926 )
Vecellio quoted in Tummons
Taylor, pg 7