Fashion conveys complex messages. The recreation of an outfit taken from one of an extraordinary series of Renaissance portraits reveals how one man made his mark on society. 

The outfit was designed to lift the spirit, make people marvel at novelty, and show off advanced civilization

Dr Ulinka Rublack

In 1530 Matthäus Schwarz, an accountant in the German city of Augsburg, was a man in his prime: slim, smart and successful. In a portrait that shows him in an outfit made for the occasion of the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, he is every inch the fashionable man about town, ready to step out of his door and join the party.

In the painting Schwarz wears a doublet made in panes of brilliant red and yellow silk over a shirt cut from fine linen. His slender calves are shown off in yellow leather hose and his knees are cross-gartered. On his feet are slim shoes and on his head is a flat black beret made in felted wool. At his waist are belts carrying the sword and red purse that complete the picture.

Now an experimental project undertaken by Dr Ulinka Rublack, Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge, has brought this portrait alive in a historically accurate reconstruction of the outfit it depicts. The project reveals the role of dress in conveying complex social and political messages and the way in which fashion had a profound effect on mood and behaviour. 

Head accountant of the Fugger merchant company, Schwarz commissioned paintings of himself showing in considerable detail the clothes that made up his changing and highly fashionable wardrobe. These portraits, known as the Schwarz Book of Clothes, represent a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the history of fashion as well as Renaissance performances of the self as visual act.

In order to bring her project to fruition Dr Rublack enlisted the expertise of dress historian and theatre designer Jenny Tiramani to whom historical accuracy is of paramount importance.  She has worked with some of the country’s leading theatre directors – including Sir David MacVicar and Tim Carroll – and recently set up the School of Historical Dress with the backing of Mark Rylance, Sir Roy Strong and Dame Vivienne Westwood. Her knowledge of the materials, shape and construction of early 16th century clothing of the type worn by Schwarz was vital to the success of the project.

To put together the outfit in the painting would have taken Schwarz many months of effort in sourcing materials and the craftspeople to make them up.  It would have incurred him considerable expense. And to put the finished garments on in the privacy of his home Schwarz would have needed the assistance of servants to lace him tightly in.  To achieve the narrow waist that such an outfit demands he would have denied himself rich foods. 

As a historian of material culture, Dr Rublack seeks to get close to the past by looking at the things that people lived with and among, and exploring their complex relationships with the objects they used and collected. She is particularly interested in fashion and her research concentrates on the Renaissance and Reformation.

Many of the things that have survived from these periods are those which were looked at rather than used, precious items which were regarded as heirlooms and tied up with notions of continuing value - painting and sculpture, jewellery and curiosities, for example.  Much rarer are items that had, at least in part, a practical function, such as textiles, clothing and footwear. And the further back one goes, fewer are the examples of this second group of things passed down to us.

Historians of material culture need to look at visual and written sources, such as portraits and diaries, in addition to inventories, to build up a picture of how people lived in relation to the things they possessed – and the roles that these things played in shaping their lives. In the instance of fashion, the shaping element takes on a literal sense: just as the body makes demands on clothes so do clothes make a demand on the body.

In her book Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, 2011), Dr Rublack tells a vivid story of how people across society expressed their aspirations and emotions through appearances in an age which underwent fundamental changes in how things were made and marketed. The process of writing the book brought her close to the experience of what colours, textures and cuts appealed to men and women at the time - but she wanted to get a better grasp of both the practical processes that went into the making of dress and the experience of wearing garments that are, to our eyes, so outlandish.

The portrait that Dr Rublack chose shows an outfit that Schwarz wore in 1530. He had it made for one of the most important events of the era - the return of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Germany after nine year period during which many parts of the country had turned to Protestant faiths. Augsburg witnessed long-standing confrontations between Protestants and Catholics and would eventually tolerate both faiths.

The purpose of the outfit was to impress and, in particular, to signal Schwarz’s allegiance to Catholicism and to the Emperor. And impress it did: in 1541 Schwarz was ennobled, a tremendous leap in social status for a man who was the son of a wine-merchant. Although he was well off, he was essentially a scribe who worked with figures, recording the business transactions and managing the credits of the Fugger merchant company.

“The colours red and yellow are associated with happiness – and they demonstrate Schwarz’s joy at the visit of the Emperor and his brother Ferdinand of Austria. Schwarz notes that he wished 'to please Ferdinand' and he did so by symbolically expressing gaiety, youthful agility, pride and beauty. His was an aesthetic performance of political values through the expense and effort he had invested in such having so wonderful an outfit created,” says Dr Rublack.

“What we’ve learned in the course of this project is just how spectacular and dramatic such an assemblage would have been. The effect of the bright yellow is almost dazzling when you look at it for some time. The coordination of the textures, dyes and materials is subtle and ingenious.The outfit was designed to lift the spirit, make people marvel at novelty and show off advanced civilization .”

Handling the garments made for the project has shown the extent to which last-minute styling contributed to getting the right look. Dr Rublack says: “The shirt, doublet and hose would need to be skilfully fitted by at least one servant when Schwarz was dressed in the morning to make them work together perfectly. Once he had taken his sword and walked on the streets, a man like Schwarz would be completely confident of his sartorial achievement – but equally he would have been worried about any speck of dirt or loose seam as well as about over-eating and drinking.”

High fashion treads a dangerous line: in making a bold statement, it’s easy to look foolish. The Renaissance fascination with image-making encouraged self-display – but this had to be balanced by an awareness of the dangers of self-delusion and ridicule. In the Renaissance, as today, fashion encouraged fears as much as fantasies and fun, openness to change and reflection on what it means to be human.

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