Fashion in the 16th century was something entirely different from what it is in our time. Catalogue for a major exhibition in Nürnberg offers a good introduction to the cultural history of dressing in the Renaissance
In Mode. Kleider und Bilder aus Renaissance und Frühbarock.
Ed. by Jutta Zander-Seitel
Germanisches National Museum 2015
We all seem to know what fashion is: the inexorable shifting of patterns, forms and colours of our material culture pushed by the fashion industry in a constantly recycling of trends and inspiration pushed by magazines, fashion shows, film stars and other frontrunners. It is also commonly though that this idea of a “fashion industry” was invented in the 15th century to spring into full bloom in the 16th.
However, the parameters, which governed fashion in the 16th century were quite different than today, and had different meanings to people at that time than it has today. On a superficial level, we might for instance claim that the phenomena of wearing ripped jeans is not that different from the widespread fashion in the 16th century to slash precious silk jackets in order to let the inner lining creep through.
In this case the reason is of course obvious. Jeans are the ultimate symbol on the might of the workers. Hence the 80s witnessed a quiet rebellion among stock-traders to sport Friday-wear in the office, consisting of jeans, polos and sweaters. Robbed of their class-symbol par excellence, workers united began to slash their jeans, thus parading their “poverty”. In the 16th century, the slashing of silk had quite a different meaning. At that time it signified the ultimate luxury: to render the most precious textile material even more fragile, thus demonstrating the wearers ability to shun any real, corporal work. No wonder, the slashing of silk was repeatedly forbidden in laws, which tried to regulate the dressing of the people from top to bottom in society.
It is not an easy job to decipher all the many systems of signifiers and symbols, which were at play in the 16th century and we are still far from understanding the intricate meaning of the many tiny details, which parade in front of our wondrous eyes when we look at sculptured, painted or drawn representations of the costumes of that period.
However, the last twenty years have seen a continued effort to unravel what fashion was all about at a time when it more than anything meant the art of creating oneself as opposed to the art of just signalling the ability to shop for something “new”. One of the centres of this effort is Nürnberg, where Jutta Zander-Seitel has reigned as head of the department of textiles and jewellery since 1995.
2016 has witnessed a very important mile-stone in her work, the exhibition of the collection of textiles held by the German National Museum in Nürnberg, home to one of the most important assemblies of preserved textiles from the 16th century. In connection with this exhibition she has also edited a very valuable catalogue, which in detail presents the different exhibits – textiles, drawings, paintings, archaeological finds and much more.
However, the catalogue holds so much more, not least the presentation of the history of the collection itself from its very early foundation in 1859, when the first item was acquired. Here we get information about the studies of the textiles, their (stressful) use in pageants and fashion-shows, their “publication” in magazines and books etc. But it also details the history of such precious items as the female gown, the slashed or knitted jackets, the trouser, capes, hats and collars. To this should be added the presentation of the remains from an archaeologically excavated tailor shop in Bremen plus chapters on the production and caring for textiles in the 16th century. Finally there is a substantial presentation of the restoration techniques, which have been used in the demanding work to keep these fragile textiles fit for the 21st century.
This book is a bonanza to any scholar interested in the early modern period as well as avid reenactors and living historians.
Slashed Jacket from ca. 1630 – 40. Entered the collection in the German National Museum in 1875. © GNM