Archives for the month of: June, 2013
Mary Duchess of modena wife of James II of england, 1675, Royal col, UK

Mary Duchess of modena wife of James II of england, 1675, Royal col, UK

Here is an exhibition which I am craving to see
In fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion (the catalogue)

It’s on at Buckingham Palace (yes really!) London and it is an exhibition about the fine clothing represented in portraits of the 16th and  17th century held in the Royal Collections. What is so remarkable about this exhibition is the fact that it is being held at all. In which other country does such a prestigious gallery hold an exhibition from the perspective of the dress of the sitters rather than their identity or more commonly the identity/fame of the painter? The curator of the Royal Collection, Anna Reynolds is an art historian but ALSO a dress historian and I feel proud that she has gained such respect for our field to be asked to organize this show (this is not a personal plug despite the same Alma Mater and the fact that Ms Reynolds is the president of our Association of Dress Historians).

So why did I choose this painting in particular? well for one she was italian, not english, and that interests me as she would have been wearing very different clothing before her marriage. But what intrigues me here is the ambiguousness – in terms of gender  – given by the fact that she is wearing male clothing. Nothing shocking per se, this would have been defined as a portrait in riding dress (we will return to the question “Why have western women always dressed like men to go horse riding?” at another time as it is a long and complex topic). the male attire coupled with her rather challenging gaze, I feel is saying more than just “I am off riding in the park”. She was a queen and as such her behaviour/thoughts would have been seriously kept in check by a rigid court culture. When looking at this portrait I get a sense of inner rebellion coming from the sitter. I may be wrong but I like that idea a lot.


Arsenic_And_Old_Lace_Poster Some of you may be familiar with this war-time comic (well I found it comic) thriller by Frank Capra. OK I am not going to talk about this film at all. I just wanted to nab the title to make a sophisticated pun for those of you who know italian. What I want to talk about in this post is a an italian artist who totally grabbed the attention of FASHIONARCHAEOLOGY recently. I think you will understand why

Francesco Merletti, Vatalaro col., IT

Francesco Merletti, Vatalaro col., IT

MERLETTI means “lace” in italian. He only seems to paint one woman and her slightly bulging eyes are as unsettling as they are hypnotic. Merletti’s sense of style is wonderful – hats, gloves, shoes, all chosen with great precision. This artist is not just a talented painter but also a sophisticated communicator of fashion history. I think of Christian Dior and the uncompromizing glamour of early 1950s Haute Couture when I look at some  his work.

C.Dior, black velvet new Look robe manteaux, 1947,p.c.

C.Dior, velvet New Look robe manteaux, 1947,p.c.

Lilly daché hat,photo: E.Steichen for Vogue USA, 1946

Lilly daché hat,photo: E.Steichen for Vogue USA, 1946 is his gallery in Milan where I believe he lives and works. Next time I will post his sculptures. Amazing!

I am re-posting this piece on men in underpants from last year. Time to get back onto this interesting topic once again. Soon I will post a follow-up on this: Renaissance underpants!

Aspertini Amico, madonna e santi, 1508-9c, mus naz Villa Guinigi lucca


Aspertini Amico, Madonna and saints, 1508-9, museo nazionale Villa Guinigi, Lucca, Italy

Did men wear underpants in the past? well some did and some didn’t. The ancient Greeks abhorred this item of clothing defining it as “barbaric” and unhygienic. The Romans adopted them in extremis to keep warm in the northern outposts of the Empire. They took the idea from the barbarians who wore tunics and trousers as their costume. But under the toga a roman citizen would have only worn his tunic which served as outer garment/undergarment, often even slept in at the end of the day. A fresh tunic would have been put on after the daily ablutions.

With the middle ages the barbaric custom prevails and soon all men wear underpants under their tunics (as well as an under shirt/tunic). Very simple in shape, made of linen and held up at the waist with a draw string. Baggy and comfortable. the peasant in the mosaic is working in the field in the summer heat and has stripped down to his underpants

peasant, mosaic, 12 th Century, St Philibert Abbey, Tournus, France

peasant, mosaic, 12 th Century, St Philibert Abbey, Tournus, France

Everything changed once men started wearing clothing that was closely constructed to the body. By mid 1300s we get into the western pattern cutting era and a new age of male body consciousness. Baggy underpants are out, skin-tight briefs are in.

Martydom of St Stephen, illuminated manuscript, 1380c, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Martydom of St Stephen, illuminated manuscript, 1380c, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Ok I am bored of underpants now. We’ll leave the topic aside after today and move on to other stuff (but we will come back to it I promise)

Before you think I am weird go see the previous blog and you will know what this is about.

So what happened in Europe once Christianity arrived, did they or didn’t they wear underpants? well things get difficult for the dress historian here due to the proximity of underpants to genitals and the reproductive organs. Anything to do with sex quickly became taboo, which means we are very short on images and even written evidence on the wearing of underclothing.

But here is something interesting. Have a really good look at the figure on the far left, inside the hut ( and while you are at it the guy sitting next to her).

Yes she is not wearing underpants and yes her genitals are on show. The question is WHY?.  Possibly a reference to staying indoors during the winter months, keeping warm and having sex. But back to underwear: with the use of long linen undershirts women did not generally wear underpants (except at that time of the month). The T shaped undergarment  was enough, it hid the woman “shame” and absorbed sweat and body odor. Linen could be boiled in hot water or scrubbed on riverside stones, unlike wool or the silk used for outer clothing by the higher classes.

Limbourg brothers, month of February, Les tre Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, 1412

Limbourg brothers, month of February, Les tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, 1412

Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc Du Berry

linen underpants, 15th century, Lengberg castle, Germany

linen underpants, 15th century, Lengberg castle, Germany

Ok they are in bad shape despite excellent conservation, but they are an amazing find (found with other underwear) and they are from the same period as the above image.

So in conclusion we can say that some women did and some women didn’t wear underpants in the middle ages.


mosaic at Piazza Armerina, Sicily

mosaic at Piazza Armerina, Sicily

girl's leather underpants, museum of London

Its THE question which comes up in history of dress lectures year in year out… morbid/fetishist student interest for this topic aside, it is a GREAT question.
As children we all looked under our dolls’ dresses to see if there was underwear there, as adults we tend to look at the exterior first and usually dont think about what is underneath at all. But as all dress historians know, what really makes an outfit is what is worn under the clothing to shape the body.

SO this will be a key topic at FASHIONARCHAEOLOGY

For women in Ancient Roman times we have evidence of underwear: the famous sicilian mosaics (image 1)  which also address the important topic of women and physical exercise in the past  and  the hugely important Roman London find – a pair of girl’s leather underpants (image 2, now  in the Museum of London)  physical/matrial evidence to support the visual material. Amazing!!

Tulio Lombardo, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1500-10c, Kunsthistorisches museum, Wien, Austria

Tulio Lombardo, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1500-10c,
Kunsthistorisches museum, Wien, Austria

The image I have chosen as the banner for the blog…I fell in love with this sculpture back in 2008 at the Renaissance Faces exhibition, National Gallery London. I find this object intriguing on several levels: the ambiguous gender of the two, the utterly fashionable hairstyles, the classical inspiration, the contemplative mood.
It’s by Tulio Lombardo “the leading sculptor in Venice in late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century” p. 212 of the catalogue Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian (National Gallery Publications) (National Gallery London)