History Blog

History Blog: Velvet, Silk and Baubles - Costume of the Italian Renaissance

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The most flamboyant fashions of today hardly dazzle compared to the richest garments of the Italian Renaissance. No blue jeans and sweatshirts back then, of course. The self-respecting gentle man or woman of Florence, Milan, Venice or Rome paid minute attention to how they appeared in public.

In the 16th century especially, clothing for the wealthy took on massive proportions. For the wealthiest women, gowns were heavy, intricate and difficult to walk in. That's the impression I have from paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. Sleeves and hems trailed on the ground far behind. Bodices lined with boning buttoned or laced up the back. Head dresses encrusted with gold and silver threads and precious stones probably encouraged the lady to have a demure dip to her chin. In some cities, the high-soled shoes worn to keep the lady's feet out of the muck of the streets were so high that maids had to support her as she walked. Combine these with an assortment of undergarments, and you get a gorgeous, but uncomfortable, noblewoman.

Men were not immune to the sumptuous fashions of the time. Their clothing often reflected their occupations: The judge or notary wore long, embroidered robes, a prosperous merchant a plainer robe of rich fabric with a hat resembling a turban on his head, and a young prince might wear tri-colored stockings, a belted short tunic and detachable sleeves that reached toward the ground.

And like today, fashion was not only about looking good, but about appearing wealthy. Men and women of the Renaissance who dressed above their station were flaunting the sumptuary laws which forbade non-nobles to dress like royalty. The laws in many cases were aimed at the courtesans- prostitutes who raised their profession to an art form with their education, elegance and style. Many courtesans had rich patrons and so became rich themselves and able to afford the expensive silk brocades and jewels that by necessity were reserved for noble women. In any case, sources show that few people (the governments included) paid much attention to these laws.

Fashion in the Renaissance wasn't only about clothing. Women dyed their hair blond by washing it repeatedly and drying it in the open air, or attached false locks under their hats and veils. Men fell to the seduction of perfume from the ladies and also in their own stockings, shoes and shirts. Those who could afford it studded their hair, fingers, fans and head dresses with precious gems like rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls. Women powdered, rouged, scrubbed and plucked themselves in their mirrors, showing that some things haven't changed in 500 years.