A reflection on the origin of modern fashion
How we dress, how we style our hair, how we decorate our body, is nowadays a personal choice, but in the past, there were rules to follow and it was not possible to appear in public dressed in inappropriate clothing. Besides, dressing nicely was not a necessity, clothes were just a way of covering one-self, only rich people could afford to use them to show off their wealth, and even then, the choice of clothing had nothing to do with personal style.
Something happened in the Renaissance, people started to really count on their looks to determine how they felt about themselves and other people.
In this period, in fact, material goods, especially clothes, became increasingly important to people, who began to use fashion to break with tradition. The use of mirrors became more common and the oil painting technique was perfected, seeing an extraordinary diffusion in Europe: it allowed for a more accurate depiction of details and a more natural rendering of reality.
These were contributing factors in pushing people to be more interested in their own image and in how they appeared to others.
A mirable example of this is the album entitled Klaidungsbüchlein (Book of Clothes), that Matthäus Schwarz started to compile in 1520. He worked as accountant for the weathly Fugger family, merchants from Augsburg, and he was fascinated by clothes, in which he spent a fortune. He was so obsessed with them, that he decided to commission artists a series of watercolour paintings that showed him in a variety of very elegant dresses. In a way, he created what could be considered the first fashion catalogue in history. He even commissioned naked portraits of himself noting his measurements, because to him a slim figure signalled attractiveness and youth, while gaining weight was a clear sign of ageing, a natural process Schwarz feared very much.
He was very careful with his choice of clothing, trying to dress accordingly to the taste of the people he wanted to impress. His fashion tactics proved to be more efficient than politics, when thanks to his well studied outfits, he gained the favor of Emperor Charles V who appointed him a nobiliar title in 1541.
So fashion was indeed becoming more and more important by the day. People did not want to be considered ‘behind the times’, and they also started to really care about how “fit” they were.
The english word “fashion”, expressed the concept of making something into a particular form, and it started to be applied to clothes in the Renaissance time.
Men and women aspired to appear slim, tall, and delicate, just like Schwarz, and short people were considered undesirable. In this sense, fashion could help them achieve the desired silhouette, reshaping the body and making them appear as they wanted to be perceived.
Dresses were composed of many elements and those who could not afford a complete new outfit, often opted for purchasing just one piece in a new color. Colors were one of the first things you noticed in a dress, therefore a very important element of the outfit, that had to be chosen with care. It was essential to pick a dress that came in fashionable colors and wear colors suitable for one's own social class.
Wearing red, for example, was usually a sign of power and prestige, just like purple, a colour for nobles and kings, and favored by the Medici Family.
Cosimo de'Medici and Eleanor of Toledo's appearances in portraits of the period, are an example of the way fashion could convey power, wealth or an ideology. The Medici used portraits as a way to communicate their refined taste as well as Florence’s wealth, and who could represent their intentions on canvas better than the great Agnolo Bronzino? The Florentine painter was a master in depicting magnificent dresses rich in precious details, and his portrait of Eleanor and her son Giovanni, is one of his masterpieces. Here the noblewoman is depicted as beautiful, delicate and rich as ever; the most remarkable element of the painting is her dress: a masterpiece of embroidery, all silk, gold and pearls. It’s a dress that leaves its mark.
The Renaissance was the moment when the concept of fashion as we know it today began to take root.
Driven by the ever growing desire to distinguish ourselves among the others, at some point we began to move away from with tradition and to use fashion as a means of affirming and expressing our personality. As we know, not much changed ever since.