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Dressing Up, Then and Now

By Ulinka Rublack


I will never forget the day when a friend’s husband returned home to Paris from one of his business trips. She and I were having coffee in the huge sun-light living-room overlooking the Seine. We heard his key turn the big iron door. Next a pair of beautiful, shiny black shoes flew through the long corridor with its beautiful parquet floor. Finally the man himself appeared. “My feet are killing me!”, he exclaimed with a veritable sense of pain. The shoes were by Gucci.

We might think that these are the modern follies of fashion, which only now beset men as much as women. My friend too valued herself partly in terms of the wardrobe she had assembled and her accessories of bags, sunglasses, stilettos and shoes. She had modest breast implants and a slim, sportive body. They were moving to Dubai. In odd hours when she was not looking after children, going shopping, walking the dog, or jogging, she would write poems and cry.

Yet, surprisingly, neither my friend nor her husband would seem very much out of place at around 1450. Men wore long pointed Gothic shoes then, which hardly look comfortable and made walking down stairs a special skill. In a German village, a wandering preacher once got men to cut off their shoulder-long hair and slashed the tips of the pointed shoes. Men and women aspired to an elongated, delicate and slim silhouette. Very small people seemed deformed and were given the role of grotesque fools. Italians already wrote medical books on cosmetic surgery.

We therefore need to unlock an important historical problem: How and why have looks become more deeply embedded in how people feel about themselves or others? I see the Renaissance as a turning point. Tailoring was transformed by new materials, cutting, and sewing techniques. Clever merchants created wide markets for such new materials, innovations, and chic accessories, such as hats, bags, gloves, or hairpieces, ranging from beards to long braids. At the same time, Renaissance art depicted humans on an unprecedented scale. This means that many more people were involved in the very act of self-imaging. New media – medals, portraits, woodcuts, genre scenes – as well as the diffusion of mirrors enticed more people into trying to imagine what they looked like to others. New consumer and visual worlds conditioned new emotional cultures. A young accountant of a big business firm, called Matthäus Schwarz, for instance, could commission an image of himself as fashionably slim and precisely note his waist measures. Schwarz worried about gaining weight, which to him would be a sign of ageing and diminished attractiveness. While he was engaged in courtship, he wore heart-shaped leather bags as accessory. They were green, the colour of hope. Hence the meaning of dress could already become intensely emotionalized. The material expression of such new emotional worlds – heart-shaped bags for men, artificial braids for women, or red silk stockings for young boys – may strike us as odd. Yet their messages are all familiar still, to do with self-esteem, erotic appeal, or social advancement, as are their effects, which ranged from delight in wonderful crafting to worries that you had not achieved a look, or that someone just deceived you with their look. In these parts of our lives the Renaissance becomes a mirror which leads us back in time to disturb the notion that the world we live in was made in a modern age.

Ever since the Renaissance, we have had to deal with clever marketing as well as the vexing questions of what images want, and what we want from images, as well as whether clothes wear us or we wear them.

Ulinka Rublack is Senior Lecturer in early modern European history at Cambridge University and a Fellow of St John’s College. Her latest book is Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, which shows how clothes made history and history can be about clothes.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Coleen Hatrick and Eva Santiago, Lauren. Lauren said: It's Wednesday! Let's play dress up! http://bit.ly/cXLJkk [...]

  2. [...] which shows how clothes made history and history can be about clothes. She has previously written this post for OUPblog. This article is posted with permission from the BBC History Magazine/Oxford University [...]

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