When talking about the renaissance, it is often about the Italian renaissance which is dated to
about 1420 until 1600. The beginning of the renaissance in the other parts of Europe followed later and was not this pronounced. „The rebirth of the antiquity“ was a golden age dominated by
wealth, influence, power and progress. Florence was ruled by the immensely rich Medici family. They had acquired their wealth through banking and cloth trade. The „dark days“ of the Middle Ages
were over and everything seemed to flourish in this time, especially in Italy: the arts reached their climax with absolutely realistic reproduction, the newly discovered central perspective, the
secular portrait painting, the return of ancient gods and the increasingly plastic painting by the use of colour, light and shadow.
The names of Italian artists of those days are
still extremely famous like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Fillipo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli, just to name a few. I can highly recommend the works of the great but unfortunately today almost unknown artist Domenico Ghirlandaio who captured scenes of the everyday-life in his works.
The dresses are generally floor-long and have wide skirts. Gowns are not longer one-pieces but a parting between bodice and skirt has developed. Both pieces are cut separately and are then sewn together. The waist is usually higher than the natural one; an inch/a few centimetres (sometimes up to right under the
bust). The neckline is round square-cut.
1. Two Venetian Ladies by Vittore Carpaccio, 1510:
The fine gowns of these two Venetian Ladies are very high-waisted. The wide skirt begins right under the bust. The high waist was a most distinctive feature of the Italian Renaissance fashion and it lasted for decades. The two are apparently prosperous – pearls are stitched around their low necklines. The lady in yellow wears a necklace of big pears and the other a heavy silver one. Gold threat is worked in the fabric of the sleeves of the woman playing with the dog and her hem is decorated with golden braid. The lady in yellow has a hem edged with a silver saw-toothed braiding. They indulge in the fashion of slashing, the sleeves have huge cut-outs showing a puffy underdress. Three different ways of slashing can be seen in this painting: small slashes in the bodice of the lady in yellow, huge oval cut-outs in her sleeves and thirdly, the foreground ladies' sleeves which look like just ¾ of a sleeve with edges tied together with ribbons.
2. The “Lucas Cranach dress / the “Saxon gown”:
The great renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder lived from about 1475 to October 16, 1553. The artist of German origin painted several women who are all wearing a distinctive style of dress.
This style can be studied in the portrait of Saint Mary Magdalene, painted in 1525.
Basically, the elements of this style are
Two kinds of fabric dominate the gown: purple velvet (infrequently black) and gold brocade. The latter appears as braid along the neckline down to the waist, as ribbon on the sleeves and in three levels at the lower skirt. Approximately in the middle of the skirt the first and narrowest level is placed. The next level, twice as broad, is located at about a quarter of the skirts length over the hem. The broadest, three time as wide as the narrowest, is at the hem. The measuring of the levels in whole-numbered multiples should create an air of harmony. When notional dividing the space from the front neckline down to the waist in two, the lower half is the lacing. One can see the white under-gown. The upper half is a rectangle of the same gold brocade or other fabric; usually gold or red, too, and embroidered with stitching and pearls (squiggled floral motives or geometric patterns like the diamond pattern). The back of these gowns is in general square-cut and relatively low.
In Lucas Cranach the Elder's painting "Hunting near Hartenfels Castle", 1540, there are curious
variations of this style. The sleeves differ but also the colours: two ladies (one standing on a boat, the other on the left shooting a crossbow) are dressed in the Saxon style but in black and a
soft yellow or cream, instead of red and gold. Perhaps the strong contrast is a security measure, to be distinctly visible in a hunt can be life-saving.
Another woman rowing a boat is dressed all in a cold silverish shade of blue.
3. Eleanor de Toledo's style of dress:
Eleanor de Toledo (ital. Eleonora di Toledo) was the wife of Cosimo I de'Medici. As her name suggests she was born in Toledo, a province in central Spain. In 1539, aged 17 years, she was married to the future ruler of Florence and brought an immense dowry with her. Her father, viceroi of Spain, had tried to persuade Cosimo in vain to take the elder daughter with an even larger fortune as a wife. Cosimo, however, wanted to marry the younger Eleonora, whom he had seen some time before and liked well. It is reported that he remained faithful to her througout their marriage.
Around the year 1545, Angolo Bronzino painted Eleanor and her son Giovanni. Eleanor is clad in a gown of voided velvet (velvet with satin background). Her sleeves in the portrait with her son are quadratically in profile.
The slashing reached new heights here: Her sleeves consist each of four tapes of fabric held together by many gemmed little brooches to form a sleeve.
Her bodice is tight and and conceals every form that nature placed there. It reaches from the square-cut neckline to the waist. The gown is relatively high-cut and a golden net stretches
4. The Mannerism dress
I shall call this style the Mannerism dress as it came up in the time when in fine arts the through-composed Renaissance style changed to what is called Mannerism. I know of no name for this specific style of dress.
Mannerism featured seemingly odd hand gestures, anatomically inexplicably composed limbs, lurid colours, a dramatic air and e.g. the auricular / lobate style in the decorative arts.
An example is the Portrait of a Lady, Pieter de Kempeneer, c. 1527-37, Städel, Frankfurt.
The skirt is wide and cone shaped, in tucks at the waist. The waistline of the gown is higher than the natural. The bodice is tight and the low, nearly off-the-shoulder neckline square-cut. The puffy sleeves are very voluminous, exaggerating the shoulder section. From about the elbow, the sleeves are tight and wrist-long. Prosperous women did not spare expense or effort when it came to fabrics for this style of dress: fabrics like satin which glimmer in the candle-light and strong colours were quite the thing. Unfortunately, figuring out the fabric is not easy in manieristic portraits because painters did not pay so much attention to haptic looks.
A popular accessory for Italian ladies was a fan to cool themselves in the summer heat. As folding fans were not yet invented, they used a flag or weathervane fan. These flag fans consist of a handle (wood/ebony, gold or silver) and a turnable flag of stiff material. One would make rotary moves with the hand and the fan spins and provides cool air. Fans made of feathers were used as well as can be seen in the portrait by Pieter de Kempeneer mentioned above.
To protect the hands from the winter's cold muffs were used. Usually, they were made of black silk or velvet adorned with embroidery and lined with fur.
The lapdog: The lapdog was a symbol of status and gave some warmth to its mistress. Those dogs had to be light in weight and good-natured, so they could easily lay on the lap, be coddled and provide some company to the ladies. Popular were the pug, Pekinese, Pomeranian and Chihuahua. The pets are quite often seen in portraits of noblewomen.
Usually, the delicate footwear of the ladies was hidden under heavy floor-long skirts. In the renaissance, the high heel became a fashionable attribute: in the year 1533, the small Caterina de'Medici, Princess of Urbino, came from Italy to France to marry the Duke of Orleans. She wore high heels to appear taller and many female members of the French Court soon copied this fashion (Italian heel). In the following time the women wore shoes with more than 10cm (8 inches) heels, quite similar to modern stilettos. In general, ladies wore delicate footwork suiting their feet. The cow-mouth-shoe, however, that had come up towards the end of the middle-ages was still in fashion.
By the end of the 15th century, another style of footwear had arisen: the so called Chopines. Those platform shoes had their origins in the pattens. The Chopines' soles were made of cork trimmed with fabric which, at their zenith, had a sole height up to 75cm (circa 30 inches). This fashion was most popular among patrician women in Venice and the higher the shoe, the higher the social rank of its wearer. With the consequence that the ladies needed up to two maids to balance along the streets.
A high forehead, as an expression of great prudence, was the height of chic and consequently, the front hair was removed (plucked or shaved).The hair line wandered up the head some centimetres. Occasionally, even the eyebrows had to bite the dust, sometimes just to be penciled over.
In paintings, the look appears all in all rather natural and unaffected. It appears to me that a
minimum of rouge or powder was applied.
Fair hair was the the ideal of beauty. Women with darker hair sat in chairs on sunny terasses with their hair spread to bleach in the sunlight. The difficulty must have been to obtain one beauty ideal without destroying another: I wonder how they managed to bleach their hair without getting a tanned skin...
For a short period of time a strawberry blond/ginger/auburn kind of tone was desired (called Titian red). These looks were supported/created by bleaching with inter alia chamomile or by using henna.
The hairdos became increasingly elaborate and unique to each wearer. Generally, there were two primary styles: on the one hand, the curly hair was parted in the middle and fell down on the shoulders while the top layer of the hair was twisted into a bun at the back of the head [seen in Ghirlandaio's portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni]. On the other hand, there were the Roman inspired plaited/braided coiffures [seen in Botticelli´s "Simonetta Vespucci"].
Renaissance portraits show braids arranged in many, many ways and styles. Not seldom, hair-pieces had to be added as the own
hair was not enough for the opulent hairdos. Young (unmarried) women and girls wore their hair flowing loosely over their shoulders or twisted or braided with ribbons and pinned up. Curly hair
created by iron hair curlers heated in the fire was universally fashionable.
Judging from the portrait of Beatrix Pacheco, Countess of Montbel and Entremonts [above] water waves were considered so as well.
The Balzo was an opulent headpiece which first came up in the early 15th century in Italy but did not establish itself and soon was forgotten again. But when it became chic in the beginning of the 1600s it was all the rage. So, what is a Balzo? A Balzo is a headdress looking very much like a turban or a large circle or half-moon around the head.This ring could be either small or even ridiculously big. It was made of wire, padding and hard-wearing linen like buckram, covered with precious fabrics, pearls, braid and fur. Lucrezia Borgia, the infamous daughter of Pope Alexander VI wore the Balzo often. Very beautiful, a femme fatale, offspring of a ruthless family she was wife of three noblemen and had a list of affairs, including one with her sister-in-law's husband (perhaps/probably). Nevertheless (or consequently?) she was an icon, a dazzling figure in the fashion world, as well as was her sister-in-law Isabella d'Este. In Isabella's portrait, painted by Tizian/Titian about 1534-36 this headpiece can be seen. The Balzo fashion did not spread to northern Europe.
To the “Saxon gown”, on the on hand a hairnet of gold and pearls can be worn. The other variant is a great cap of red fabric called cap or Barett (German) (nearly alike to the men's), well-endowed with white ostrich feathers.
Eleanor de Toledo wears her hair in a hairnet decorated with pearls or gemstones. Hairnets, or the less sheer hairbags, were major elements in Renaissance fashion for the head. On the one hand, they covered the hair decently (the hairbag) or at least kept it bundled. Adornment didn't stop from them. Consequently, especially hairnets used to be decorated with silver or gold thread, pearls and gemstones. A variant is a hairnet or -bag sitting at the back of the head, held in place by a ribbon or band around the forehead. To this, a long artificial plait (wrapped in fabric and enwound with braid) is attached.
A rather odd Renaissance hairstyle, the German Wulsthaube, was fashionable between the 1450s and 1500. It was made of decorative or plain cloth over a large construction into some
kind of stiff and deformated turban. Wulst could be translated as bulge while Haube means cap.
The nobles and the increasingly rising middle class wore jewellery (except from the stylish aspect) to show their wealth. Rings were very popular and several were worn on each hand. Astonishingly, looking at various renaissance portraits, you can see the pictured personswearing rings not only third phalanx (like today) but also on the second. Meanwhile this fashion is experiencing a revival in the so-called Midi-rings.
An interesting thing is the so called “marriage pendant”. This pendant made of gold contained two gems above another – a blue one (diamond, the upper stone) and a red one (probably ruby, the lower one). Attached to the pendant which was worn on a silver or coral necklace are three pearls. The latter necklace was believed to increase fertility. The “marriage pendant”, as the name suggests, showed the coverture of the female (kind of like the relationship status in social networks today). It was bought or lent for the marriage and also pictured in the portraits of the woman.
In portraits of women wearing the “Saxon gown”, they are wearing huge plain coil chains, great golden and gem-studded collars and finer golden necklaces. “Think big!” seemed to be the motto. Those chokers and collars were worked of connected metal ornamental tiles adorned with gemstones and pearls. These ornamental tiles are real masterpieces of goldsmithing concerning the limited possibilities of this time. Generally, pearls and gemstones were favoured as every kind of jewellery.
- Please note that this list claims no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -
Keywords: fashion, costume, dress, robe, gown, Lucas Cranach, epoch, epochs, waist, Medici, Balzo, fabric, Wulsthaube, Lucrezia Borgia, lapdog, cow, mouth, shoe, chopines, Titian red, coiffure, braid, Barett, Saxon gown, forehead, fabric, accessories, shoes, hair, jewellery, patterns, sewing, Florence, ruff, baragoni, velvet, Italian heel, fabric, high forehead, hairnet, barett, Tizian, fur, antiquity, cap, barett, Isabelle, gold chain, necklace, Mannerism, marriage pendant
© Nina Möller