Gothic & Baroque Fashion – Are They About Beauty & The Beast

Baroque Boys looking beautiful, ready to escort a gorgeous girl rocking a Gothic frock on a night out at the opera in the Teatro alla Scala at Milan

Sociologists have many ideas for why the comfort of the past seems never to have been more appealing as we endeavour to invent and continually imagine the future.

There are always periods of time when design styles from the past overlapped and over the years they have been reinterpreted in many different ways.

There were often quite large time lapses too, as styles spread from Europe to England, on to the new world in the Americas, and then internationally to their colonies, including Australia.

There is no doubt everything old becomes new again. Fashion is always on the move and from time to time it likes to wander onto the dark side, as well as onto the bountiful, the two extremes.

Jo Bayley of Fashion Elixir and I enjoyed a discussion about the profusion of beautiful exuberant imagery the terms Gothic and Baroque inspire.

Lyre Valiente show at Fashion Week Madrid 2013 - roving on the dark side of the Goth!

As the evolution of design styles in architecture from antiquity to today are my arena, she asked me to write about their characteristics and how they relate to contemporary fashion.

Briefly the design styles were not named or ‘labelled’ until the nineteenth century, when the terms we recognised first came into general use in an attempt by academics to classify them for study purposes.

Many of the terms were first used in a derogatory manner. Gothic was associated with the ‘Goths’ the so-called ‘barbarian’ tribes from the north that had ‘sacked’ Rome in 410 and ruined her glory days.

In terms of fashion for the Gothic, we can think rich deep colours such as all shades of ‘cardinal reds’, plus purple the colour of kingship.

Then there are all those fabulous colours in stained glass windows and what Christian priests wear, starting with white.

Actress Jessie Chastain - Going for Baroque in a fab frock worn with Harry Winston Jewels at the 84th Academy Awards

Baroque was derived from various Hispanic words denoting ‘a misshapen pearl’, which was a precious gem highly prized at the time.

It also has the attached connotation of being something inherently beautiful, which can also be viewed as bizarre or extreme.

When thinking of the Baroque you need to think in the grand manner; imagine wondrously heavy woven fabrics weighed down with encrustations of golden braid, precious pearls, semi precious stones and lavish amounts lace, gold and otherwise.

Then there are large bold damask style patterns, rich incredible stuffs, jacquard style weaves and most especially satins. Velvets that are deep and enmeshed with sculptural relief or embroidered are also a highlight.

Tapestry is yet another aspect – it certainly makes a great jacket with jeans.

For the guys the Baroque style is ‘heaven’ sent, especially when designed by men to impress other men.

For the girls the Baroque is a fashion statement.

Going for Baroque Jessie Chastain looked gorgeous at the 84th Academy Awards in LA wearing black encrusted with gold braid and Harry Winston jewels no less!

For the Gothic girls think hairstyles puffed and caught up or Baroque braided for extra chic – both are meant to flatter the face so the wearer at least appears virtuous.

Finally, think Beauty, because it is what both styles are really all about!

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man; The Measure of all Things

In so many ways we are in awe of the amazing achievements of our ancestors, especially when we re-examine them in our own time and with all of our advantages.

When you learn to appreciate the evolution of art, design and style in regard to philosophical and intellectual ideas and social change it’s like having your very own ‘Avatar’ moment, finally understanding the amazing connectivity of the people on Pandora with their amazing tree of souls.

Jim Cameron’s Pandorians were enlightened, entirely in tune with their whole world and responsible for nurturing and maintaining the balance of nature within their own, and the vast universe.

Well so were our own ancestors in many ways, especially in antiquity when they studied the measurements of the stars and designed their buildings to be in harmony with humankind and the universe.

One thing we do know about our ancestor’s achievements is that their architecture makes for a visual feast most people want to relate to. This is no accident.

It is because all architecture before the end of World War II was inspired by the idea of the buildings we live and work in relating in direct proportion to the proportions of the human body.

Architecture is the art of enclosing space and from antiquity until the end of World War II in the twentieth century a lifeline of continuity connected architectural design styles.

Their formation was based on principals of harmony and order in the universe and reflected the beliefs and values of each age in which they were conceived.

Order directly relates to organization, a state that can be changed at different times to suit changing circumstances.

The ancient Greeks and the Romans believed in an ordered society, one in which everything was arranged logically, in a succession or sequence. This idea led to development of many of the ‘working’ systems we have in place today and brought humankind out of chaos and darkness of the ‘Gothic’ age into the expansiveness of the Baroque age and eventually onto the streamlining of the ‘Modern age’.

If order could be brought about they believed, it would precipitate a condition of peace and harmony, which when translated into art and architecture would be perceived as uniformity of both design and style.

Following the sacking of Rome by Alaric, the Visigoth and his tribe in the year 410 the sands of time and a veil of legends fell over Rome, that former great intellectual, political and artistic capital of the ancient world. Many fled to the safety of the hills and the city fell into decay, never to recover its former glory. It didn’t disappear entirely during the era we now call the Middle Ages (4 – 14th centuries) and despite being exhausted by wars, famines and epidemics, gradually the people came back to live again in the old capital.

During the fifteenth century Rome was dirty, depopulated and in ruins. One contemporary description compared it to an old women dressed in rags. There was really no scientific excavation at all.

To put it into historical perspective when Christopher Columbus was busy exploring the New World at Rome artists, scholars, princes, adventurers and Popes all began feverishly searching through the soil for remains of its former splendour. Rome was being plundered and brought back to life in descriptions, maps and plans and actually rebuilt – all at the same time.

In Europe from the sixth century churches and cathedrals were at first built in a style preferred by the Romans, which today we call Romanesque.

This meant that at first the round arch and dome from Roman architecture was preferred. They were also elements that emphasized the incarnation or that of God coming down to earth.

They were at the foundation of its form, which was constructed on the principal of load bearing masonry the Romans had perfected so well.

Images projected onto the ruins of St Mary's Abbey, a ruined Benedictine abbey at York in England. It was one of its richest back in the day. Today it lies in ruins destroyed by Henry VIII's henchmen during the dissolution of the monastries

Medieval Europe witnessed a spectacular flowering of religious architecture, as both zeal and emotion drove the workers on as they acknowledged the privilege of building the house of God.

During the Middle Ages the spirit of the medieval bourgeois played a great decisive part in its development. Local men inspired by patriotism and the idea of receiving indulgences, or special privileges granted by the church to those who helped build the house of God were greatly encouraged.

In France between 1050 and 1350 more stone was excavated than during the entire history of Ancient Egypt, to complete 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches and some tens of thousands of parish churches.

The Gothic style started at St. Denis with the Abbot Suger during the 12th century from 1122 – 1151.

This is when pointed arches first became the main characteristic of the ‘Gothic’ style of architecture in medieval Europe, until the sensuously shaped ogee curve was introduced and added to the mileu during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

This additional shape was inspired and influenced by returning Crusaders, who had seen such a design in the east on their travels.

Both these shapes pointed ‘heavenwards’ to God, the being believed in monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity, to be the creator of the universe. So they gained academic sanction.

The Early Gothic style developed by Suger at St. Denis with his team of architects and masons was a system of great logic and structural ingenuity. The characteristics are: an emphasis on verticality, pointed or ogee style arches, rib vaulting, flying buttresses, spacious arcades and high clerestory windows flooding the space with light.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. The Gothic style was originally all about introducing ‘light’ into the sacred space.

White in the church represents the inherent qualities of ‘Gothic’ light, which was an integral part of its architecture’s original intent.

For Abbot Suger visible things were ‘material lights’ reflecting the infinite light of God.

Embracing this idea enabled him to also justify the whole concept of using colour and splendour (lots of gold material, gold thread, rich fabrics and gem studded gold objects), as he wanted to flood his cathedral with the wonders of light.

You could say that he got quite carried away.

Painted glass windows at first told the stories from the bible through wonderful images that were an essential aspect of every cathedral because the majority of the population was unable to read.

These evolved into an amazing art form and the wonders of stained glass to be found in great cathedrals all over the world today.

The ‘fashion’ for coloured glass also spread out to reach the parish churches, where the installation of stained glass windows became more about reflecting the social and monetary status of the local individuals who donated them.

Being able to raise the roof to never before seen heights as well came about through the ingenious development of buttressing.

Stained glass at St Denis, Paris is quite spectacular

These are external supports that enabled ceilings to soar heavenward seemingly ‘unsupported’ and effortlessly.  This achievement was indeed both a wonder and a revelation. The mathematics involved is indeed impressive.

The English would take these ideas much further, embellishing the ceilings of their churches and cathedrals with a glorious array of stone fan vaulting that is singularly breathtaking in style.

For fashion statements in the Gothic style think long and slender to represent the height to which Gothic roofs soared, think plain and perhaps pointed ends to sleeves and hemlines, patterns gleaned from Gothic motifs anything from the ghastliness of gargoyles to the purity and simplicity of saints…and…very definitely plenty of pleats.

They echo the shapes of fabulous fan vaulting such as that on the ceiling of Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey at London.

Also, don’t forget a bishop’s mitre for the head, which together with the Cope, a cape adopted during the thirteenth century for the celebration of the Mass were fashion statements in themselves.

Stone was the only material of choice, because all around our ancestors was evidence of an antique past fashioned in stone, one that even in ruin informed the techniques used to help humankind imagine and build its future.

Proportion, whether in the human body or in a sacred building, came to be considered the distinct mark of beauty and a reflection of God’s cosmic order.

Now look at the fashion and work out the connections for yourself, although you may have trouble with the Gothic because you are used to it being always associated with ‘dark’ and ‘gloomy’ thoughts and influenced by much older ‘Goth movements’ that many people still subscribe to.

So we know now that ‘dark’ is not what the original intent of the Gothic style at all – it was really all about the light’ dispelling the darkness. About goodness overcoming evil.

Will the pundits and fashion dictators however get it right?

Or will it always embrace the ‘gloomth of abbey’s’ as observed by eighteenth century English nobelman Horry Walpole.

Wax for candles was produced by 'bee keeping' monks, part of a tradition that was rich in symbolism and practical.

The ‘gloomy’ aspect also came about because quite simply cathedrals and churches were dark places on overcast and rainy days when the sun did not shine and illuminate the ‘coloured’ glass or penetrate the high clerestory windows.

This was quite often at that time – documented weather patterns from the middle ages inform that thought.

These massive edifices were only lit by candlelight for centuries so just imagine how dark they would have been without masses and masses of candles burning on normal days for they were only used in profusion during services.

If we also understand that candles were very expensive for the majority of the population then we will also know how actually seeing many of them burn en masse was an absolutely huge extravagance, a dazzling and often quite overwhelming experience for those with only a few pennies to their name.

The monks in many abbeys were involved in bee keeping because honey was a valued harvest, for their food and medicaments, as well as the making of mead the fermented honey alcohol that is much prized in history.

Beeswax was the other and probably most essential byproduct because vast numbers of candles were needed to illuminate even a small space.

The multitude of advantages that would flow on from the invention of electric light would change everything and everyone…but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

What about the Baroque?

The characteristics of the Baroque style in architecture are all about a revival of classical architecture, one that was monumental, expressive, extravagant and full of life and movement.

It was also about the progression and recession of great mass and a statement of overwhelming power and majesty. It was basically the next phase and a progression of the classical Roman style in architecture, with just a thousand years or so pause in between.

In terms of grandeur think St Peters Basilica at the Vatican and that great sweeping colonnade fashioned by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini leading up to it.

Putting a giant dome atop the Gothic style Duomo (Cathedral) at Florence during the 15th century required its designer Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) to actually go out and ‘invent’ the mechanism and machinery for lifting materials to great heights even before he started.

It was more than about just inventing the lifting device. It was also inventing a systematic approach one that allowed him to keep his skilled workers safe as they surmounted all odds to bring his ideas to fruition.

In the process he transitioned the building from the age of the Gothic style into the Age of a developing Baroque style, defining one if its main characteristics, the dome.

Heritage architecture makes for a visual feast that most people want to relate to. And, this is no accident and it’s no wonder to me that it has transposed over into every aspect of our lives, including our fashionable concerns.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013-2014

For more on the Gothic check out our story about employing a ‘stitch in time – including Opus Anglicanum, or English work


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