The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2017

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MAR 2017 Issue
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Renaissance Fashion, Renaissance Bodies

Long dismissed due to a pervasive, often moralizing distrust of fashion’s ostensible frivolity, studies of clothing and fashion have lately emerged as vibrant intellectual forces within the humanities’ material turn and art history’s embrace of material culture. As a historian of Italian Renaissance art and material culture, I will here expand upon sophisticated conceptions of embodiment recently utilized by Renaissance fashion historians exploring the dynamic relations between bodies and the clothes that dressed them. Bodies imbue garments with meaning, furnishing the literal shapes and interpretative fields through which they can be understood.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1472 – 75. Oil on oak panel. 15 3/4 × 11 3/8 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Renaissance clothing has unfortunately been lost to us, by and large, save for tattered grave goods, yet it is available in mediated representations: letters, inventories, and literary texts, but also, crucially, in art and other visual representations. When relying on the period’s art as evidence for making sense of clothes and bodies, I would propose that we strive to cultivate visual sensitivity to the material and sartorial eyes of fashion-forward patrons and viewers—and here I borrow and amend Michael Baxandall’s enduring formulation of the “period eye”: the society-specific, culturally-contingent modes of not only interpreting but also viewing artistic representation, especially painting.1 Renaissance men and women were discerning and discriminating evaluators of the fastness of clothing’s colors; of the quality, weight, and feel of fabrics and leathers; and of the sheen and shimmer of metal adornments and iridescent silks. Only the wealthy could afford fabrics of bright (as opposed to lackluster) colors. Indeed, the fastness of dyes was a major economic and fashion concern in Renaissance Europe and one we tend to overlook as we take for granted the fashion of today’s cheap yet brilliant synthetic dyes. It is for this reason, for example, that states and princes throughout the Mediterranean fought to control the supply of alum, a dye-fixer (or mordant, so-called because it enabled dyes to “bite” into textiles) effective in holding fast exceedingly sought-after and expensive crimson dyes. While, moreover, we pay little attention to pleats in men’s clothing, except perhaps to ridicule them, in the Renaissance, wearers prized, preachers moralized, and civic authorities legislated against the conspicuous and costly—even wasteful—quantity of cloth required to fashion deep pleats in masculine array. Little wonder, then, that Hans Memling’s anonymous young man (Portrait of a Young Man), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lehman Collection, looks so pleased with himself and at ease, clad as he is in a heavily-pleated, fur-trimmed, and opulent crimson velvet garment.

A posh garment—one no doubt similar to that worn by our cocksure friend now residing on the Upper East Side—made an appropriately splendid gift from Milan’s Sforza lords to the teenaged Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1466.2 Lorenzo was presented a velvet giornea: a tunic typically open at the sides, generally gathered around the waist by a belt (to accentuate a slender and bold silhouette), and often brocaded with metal-wrapped silk threads or reinforced with mail, metal plates, leather, or even pitch. Lorenzo eagerly awaited the lavish Milanese tunic carefully sized to his precise measurements, and in one of his earliest surviving letters, the lad enthusiastically informed the Sforza that his giornea had arrived “in time” to be worn at his sister’s wedding, a momentous political event and supremely swanky spectacle which took place in the newly-inaugurated Loggia Rucellai on the day before the letter was composed. Wearing this sumptuous giornea decorated with Sforza heraldry, Florence’s magnificent golden boy cut a dashing, courtly figure and, just as significantly, vociferously declared his personal and dynastic allegiance to Milan’s lords.

Lorenzo poignantly asserted that he was the Sforza’s “most faithful servant” and that he and all the Medici who followed would display the emblems of, and their love for, the Milanese lords “not on our shoulders, but sculpted and infixed in the center of our heart.” Devices were frequently embroidered on Renaissance sleeves, and thus on shoulders. Lorenzo, however, movingly inverts this still-common trope: rather than wear his heart on his sleeve, he will wear his sleeve on his heart (an even more intimate part of the body). The heart serves, then as now, as a symbolic locus of the recording of desires and emotions, though these feelings are most efficacious when revealed—as they are in Lorenzo’s affectionate letter, which is at once insistently political and sincerely personal.

Lorenzo’s charming and witty turn of phrase cogently reminds us once again that, in order to study both clothing and its artistic representations, we must reckon with the body. Clothing, which constitutes our very sense of self, can be most fully understood, appreciated, and interpreted when we critically contemplate its embodied representation. We make clothes, and clothes make us.


  1. For the period eye, see Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  2. For a more expansive discussion of the giornea, and Lorenzo’s letter, see Timothy McCall and Sean Roberts, “Art and the Material Culture of Diplomacy,” in Italian Renaissance Diplomacy: Texts and Translations (1350 – 1520), eds. Monica Azzolini and Isabella Lazzarini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).


Timothy McCall

TIMOTHY MCCALL is Associate Professor of Art History and Co-Director of the Gender & Women’s Studies Program at Villanova University.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2017

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