Costume & Style – Fashion Reflects Culture and Growth Pt 1


costume-lecture-1Costume, in both the eastern and western world, encompasses all that we wear. Together, with the influence of fashion, costume fulfills many of our aesthetic dreams and is a worthy medium for human creative expression reflecting a culture and its social growth.

It also allows us to more easily communicate our ideas about who we are, while reflecting how we embrace change. It’s all about the power of perception. While the development of fashion is a capital change, it is of far greater significance than a mere passing change of style.

textile-2-18th-century-male-costumeIt is clothes that make it possible for rulers and governments to obtain obedience, religions reverence, judiciaries respect for the law and armies discipline.*

It can enhance our physical superiority or suggest one is superhuman or, in the case of convicts, sub human.

Costume can inspire fear, impose authority and denote power, which is more than often equated with wealth. On this level costume becomes subjected to politics and can project our beliefs both religious and spiritual, while aesthetically conveying an image for purposes of personal status. It is all about accommodating a desire to be distinguished from others in society.

Prima Porta at Nicholson

Detail: Breastplate, Prima Porta Sculpture of Emperor Augustus, Nicholson Museum, Sydney

How the power of our perceptions were first manipulated in the west from the first century is perhaps best illustrated by the famous Prima Porta sculpture of Roman Emperor Augustus.

He placed side by side two powerful ideas and concepts, which are reflected in Roman architecture and Roman costume, that of ‘auctoritas’ or inner weight, the authentic and exemplary and ‘potestas’ the powerful and authoritative.

The breastplate he is wearing is covered with relief sculptures that are a complex statement of propaganda, including commemorating Augustus’ victory over the Parthians in 20 B.C.

The applied reliefs would have been coloured to highlight how allegorically he evoked his feat of arms in particular, the central scene


Reconstruction of how the Prima Porta Sculpture of Emperor Augustus would have looked before all its colours faded and fled over time

It portrays a defeated barbarian delivering a Roman banner previously lost in battle by the Roman general Crassus to the Parthians in the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C1 back into the hands of Augustus.

Prima Porta Sculpture of Augustus, discovered in 1863 in the Villa of Liva Drusilla his wife. On display at the Vatican Museums

In defeating Rome’s enemies and taking back Rome’s famous banner Augustus bought great honour to his family and all Rome. Augustus Caesar’s portrait statuary brought everyone under the spell of his lofty countenance.

He was also portrayed with bare feet, which scholars have suggested represent his divinity. The way his right foot is disposed strengthens the impression of his coming to a halt so that he can survey all he can see.

It tells us he wants to dominate what lies before him and that he will challenge all who enter his arena.

The Prima Porta is a powerful statement of his position in society and his intent as a Roman general.

As we can see his costume goes along way in helping him to project that idea. Cupid the son of Venus at his feet is riding on a dolphin, Venus’s patron animal. The Julian family claimed they were descended from the goddess Venus and both Augustus (Octavian) and his great uncle Julius Caesar endorsed this way of claiming his lineage, without claiming divine status.

Maison Carree, Nimes

Maison Carree, Nimes

A Roman building of the Augustan period with auctoritas had dignity, validity and authority, which is still perceptible today through what remains. Augustus Caesar wearing his military costume has ‘potestas, a tangible reminder of the very real perceptions of both his power and authority.

Portrait of a young woman, attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

From the fourteenth century onward in the west we find the appearance in costume of new elements owed less to function than to caprice. As the feudal system that had been in place throughout the Middle Ages disintegrated, throughout Europe political power became more concentrated and social and economic emancipation were widespread.

The constitution of national powers brought with it, despite wars, a burgeoning of luxury in royal and princely courts, which remains one of the most remarkable phenomena of this period.

They were grouped around the King in France, England and Spain and elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire and in Italy where they were adapted to the local system of principalities and dukedoms.

During the 15th and 16th century in Italy a great outpouring of art and economic growth was reflected in the textiles worn. There were rich tapestries, brocades with gold thread, and the legendary cloth of gold.

A patron who was at once conspicuous, wealthy and passionate about the antique fostered the fashion for valuable ornaments. Such attitudes were embodied in the Medici of Florence and the Sforza of Milan

This included sensational objects for personal adornment such as hairpieces, head and hand coverings, footwear and other accessories, including undergarments and glorious jewellery.

All these various aspects of costume individually have an interesting history.

Renaissance jewels were emblematic of enduring passion. Pantalone and Zanna, commedia dell’Arte characters sat amongst jewelled splendor in a golden gondola decorated with forget me not’s and surrounded by rubies, diamonds and pearls, the seagoing vessel a favorite allegory for an individual’s triumph over the storms of love.

Enseigne or hat badge; gilt-bronze; circular; Marcus Curtius leaping into gulf; strapwork border with satyrs on each side; head on cartouche at bottom © courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Renaissance goldsmiths were often trained, not only as jeweller and goldsmith, but also as painter and sculptor. Allegorical designs were incorporated into decorative devices and used in many ways.

This included the enseigne, a type of badge worn on the hat or cap of a man of prominence.

The charm of such an emblem is that its significance was only known to those already familiar with it. Biblical themes were also popular, or a portrait, monogram or device of the wearer or his patron saint. They were pinned on the underside of the rim of a turned up hat, or were sewn into a head dress,

In England during the reign of the Tudors medieval forms were retained at first, but under Henry VIII when peace and prosperity at first reigned, a degree of luxury prevailed with slashed doublets and capes lined with animal furs.

Henry VIII of England’s love of jewels and flamboyant display is immediately apparent in all the depictions of him. Hans Holbein’s the Younger’s portraits present the most familiar and powerful image. In his youth his chest was 45 inches, which by 1540 had grown to 58 inches providing a perfect display area for jewels.

He kept abreast of all the latest developments in the arts, fuelled by a desire to create a court as sophisticated and splendid as that of his admired ‘brother’ Francois 1 of France.

To achieve his aim, Henry imported French and Flemish craftsmen to work in England.

Francois 1, surrounded as he was by so many of the famous artists and artisans of the day, was a vision of sartorial splendour.

The Tudors perceived that visitors equated lavish display at court with national strength and power.

For many people it was far more important to have seen Queen Elizabeth in person rather than to have seen England, an attitude that underlines the success of the Tudor propaganda machine

During the reign of Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603)  richly decorated costumes were under Hispanic influence with tight bodices, sleeves and excessively wide skirts while men wore tight fitting doublets with puffed trunk hose.

Women’s costume was much more elaborate, due to the Queen’s efforts, as she strove to replace the image of the Virgin Mary in the people’s consciousness with that of a Virgin Queen.

At this time the woolen industry and cloth trade in England increased, with England only importing luxury textiles for the wealthier classes.

As in Europe allegory was popular, with devices of profane and sacred love decorated with enamel and set with sapphires, rubies and emeralds.

One of the most important pieces of jewellery remaining from the Elizabethan period, is a heart shaped gold locket known as the Darnley Jewel, named for Lord Darnley, 2nd husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

It was made for his mother Lady Margaret Douglas, the Countess of Lennox and was richly decorated with gemstones and many enamelled emblematic figures and inscriptions and it has four allegorical figures.

On the front is a Cabochon sapphire, a stone cut with a smooth rounded surface and highly polished, that is set within a winged heart, the Douglas crest.

It is surrounded by enamelled figures of Faith, with the cross and lamb, Victory with an olive branch and Truth with a mirror.

A crown in the centre is set with two rubies and an emerald surmounts it. Both the cabochon sapphire and the crown are hinged and open to reveal symbolic motifs and mottos inside.

On the reverse are enamelled symbolic emblems, including a sun in glory, a crescent moon for the Goddess Diana the Huntress and a reclining male.

Lady Margaret had it made and sent to her husband, the Earl of Lennox who was eventually murdered, and it is said to refer to her ambition for their grandson to become James 1 of England, as he eventually did in 1603.

During the seventeenth century in Europe and England, expansion of trade and industry led to a period where costume was influenced more by currents in art and intellectual thought than by any other factors.

Love and Death were both commemorated and hair was often contained in lockets in conjunction with painted miniatures.

The court of Henry IV (1553-1610) in France was not at first outstandingly elegant, but this gradually changed as he put Paris and its people back on a happier footing following the divisive and destructive wars of religion.

As hygiene and manners improved a more delicate language was also adopted in the salons and men took to refining their image to suit their newfound freedom in a country at peace.

He married Marie de Medici of Italy, who came to France bringing every aspect of Italian influence,  including its costume and its love of rich heavy stuffs, along with her.

During the Jacobean era in England (1567-1625), which coincides with the reign of King James VI melancholy prevailed, with a tendency toward a more sober mode of dress that increased during the reign of Charles 1 (1600 – 1649).

While a great patron and collector of the arts, Charles 1 projected an image of rigid piety.

Five Children of King Charles I after Sir Anthony Van Dyck oil on canvas, 17th century (1637) 35 1/4 in. x 69 3/8 in. (895 mm x 1762 mm) Purchased, 1868 courtesy National Portrait Gallery London

His children were depicted as all the children of this period as miniature adults, their costumes the same as their parents,,, including jewels.

The original of this group portrait was painted for Charles I in 1637, and is still in the Royal Collection. It shows the children at full length with two dogs, the mastiff depicted here and a small ‘King Charles’ spaniel at the right.

Along with Van Dyck’s earlier picture of the three eldest children, it was an immensely popular composition, and was copied many times. Van Dyck’s relatively informal group of royal children contrasts markedly with the stiff, formal portraits of a generation earlier.

Parisian society dressed to display itself, and even though Cardinal Mazarin in 1644, tried to forbid the wearing of gold and silver in costume, an ordinance from the time notes that nobody took any real notice of his prescription.

His niece Anna Maria Mancini (1639 – 1715 was quite a beauty and her clothing choice was accentuated by a fine collection of pearl jewellery, presumably a treasured gift. The white pearl has many attributes among them innocence, purity and perfection and alludes to the birth of Venus from the sea.

Under the reign of Louis XIII (1601 – 1643) economic progress grew and it became harder to distinguish a person’s rank, as the different ranks in society were equally well dressed and everyone aspired to carrying a sword.

Louis XIII’s brother Gaston Duc d’Orleans

A contemporary observed that Parisians no longer seemed able to live without ribbons or laces or, a mirror and noblemen were now obliged to change clothes and ornaments every day.

Gaston, Duc d’Orlèans (1608-1660) Louis XIII’s younger brother took part in many of the conspiracies of the nobles against Louis’ first minister Cardinal Richelieu, and against his own brother.

Men of good birth ‘muguets’ or lilies of the valley as they were more generally known, threw themselves completely into the pursuit of elegance.

They wore satin suits, cloaks of silk panne, beaver hats, scented suede collars, known as collars of flowers as well as lace trimmed bell bottom trousers.

The common people and minor country gentry, whose daughters married working men, disapproved of this luxury as elegant men vied with women in inventing new fashions.

King Louis XIV & His Brother Duc D’Orleans

Over a period of 125 years until 1715 it gradually became refined, elegant and more modern than ever before led by the very young and dashing Louis XIV (1638 – 1715).

Louis had inherited the throne when he was five years of age and he did not come to the throne until his 21st birthday.

He was a dashing young man full of energy and joi de vivre.

The founding of Art and Design Academies in France by King Louis XIV carried out by his able first minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert the influence of the Baroque style of architecture.

This was designed to reflect the grand manner and power of the Church at Rome, meant that costume finally broke free of the restraints imposed on it during the Reformation and Counter Reformation in Europe.

It led to a preference for conspicuous luxury, which was enjoyed big time by Generals under Louis XIV’s command.

Order, majesty and solemnity were now set to reign in France.

In this new climate of rigid dignity brocades or velvets were worn only for ceremonial occasions.

Pockets, formerly vertical, now became horizontal.

A woman’s gowns became softer, supposedly invented by his mistress Madame de Montespan to hide her pregnancies; often highlighted by lace or linen flounces.

During the reign of Louis XIV women crimped their hair into puffs or Bouffons over the ears and the rest of the hair was plaited and rolled into a chignon at the back.

For men hats had become useless accessories, carried under the arm by gentlemen who wore them only rarely.

This was also brought about because men wore wigs, a fashion dictated by his father Louis XIII when an illness made him lose all his hair in 1633.

It was initially limited to switches mingled with the wearer’s own hair but wigs became established in court fashion from 1655 onward.

Louis’ first minister Colbert was worried by the quantity of hair bought from abroad. He was going to prohibit wig wearing, but France ended up selling so many wigs to the rest of Europe that exports made up for the import expenditure.

Following Louis XIV’s marriage to his mistress Mme. de Maintenon, a note of gravity was added recorded by his courtier La Bruyere who noted its effects in 1682… ‘… formerly a courtier had his own hair, wore doublet and breeches and wide cannons and was a libertine. This is no longer in favor; now he has a wig, a tight suit and plain stockings and is fervently religious’

After 1678 hair was transformed into a complex scaffolding of locks that was completed with a cap that crowned the head in a veritable architecture of muslin, lace and ribbons all mounted on brass wire, a fashion that lasted for 30 years despite criticism and royal disfavor.

For gentlemen costume was completed with walking sticks, swords, and the mask, which was held in place by a button gripped between the teeth or a thin handle pushed into the hair, protected the complexion or preserved the wearer’s incognito.

The cravat made its appearance in the latter part of the 17th century, and civilian costume gave it great variety and imagination with panels of rich lace and a full butterfly bow of ribbon under the chin.

For a while it was wound around the neck and pushed through the sixth buttonhole, a fashion that is said to have taken place when soldiers, hurrying to dress for the Battle of Steenkerck in 1692, who tied them that way in haste.

The bow was a true lovers knot and an essential adjunct to 17th century clothing. It was an emblem of love, when Aphrodisian themes preoccupied many an artist and craftsman who devoted his attention to them.

Louis XIV, it appears, wished to increase his height and during his reign shoes gained great style and elegance as worn by his favourite artist Charles Le Brun, the King’s designer par excellence.

Women’s shoes were inspired by men’s styles and were often made of brocaded silk or velvet, while leather shoes were decorated with silk embroidery.

An immense vogue for lace in Europe from the two great lace-making countries Italy and Flanders. Louis XIV’s first and most trusted minister Colbert brought 30 workers from Venice to train and impart the knowledge of working lace to French craftswomen.

Within a few years the lace making centers of Normandy and Burgundy were able to hold their own against foreign competition.

As the seventeenth century grew to a close in France, the strict ceremonial aspects of daily life patiently built up by Louis XIV, now limited the extent of individual caprice in dress.

… continued

Costume & Style  – Fashion Reflects Culture and Growth Pt 2

Costume & Style  – Fashion Reflects Culture and Growth Pt 3

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014

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