Planning and Research Phase
The Politics of Fashion – Wherein I read something and end up with a biene in my goldhaube.
Recently and quite out of the blue I developed an interest in the gowns associated with the early renaissance in the Electorate of Saxony, most often referred to by costumers as “Cranach Gowns” after the Lucas Cranach and his followers who painted so many portraits showing this style.
So, needless to say, I now have to make one.
As part of the planning phase I’ve naturally been examining many of Cranach’s paintings as well looking at the diaries of others who’ve attempted this dress.
I’ve also reviewed Reconstructing History’s comments and pattern for the gown. You can read RH’s analysis here.
RH puts forth some decided opinions on who should and shouldn’t be wearing this dress, which of course got me thinking.
RH tells us:
“one of the aspects of historical costume that we [as re-enactors] most often ignore is age-appropriateness….”
“Another thing we often ignore is body shape. Some types of clothing aren’t shown on all types of bodies…. the fact that we never see long lanky women in some of the Venetian styles nor big-breasted women in Cranach Gowns is a fact that cannot be ignored.”
“…Cranach’s Saxon Gowns are one of those youth-specific gowns….[this] style of gown painted so often by Lucas Cranach was the fashion of young ladies and if more mature, more fully-developed and well-fed bodies will not fit into it, I do not find this to be a surprise.”
Let’s examine these ideas.
First, let’s say you accept that, based on Cranach’s art, only young slim women wore this fashion. Following this logic, you might also have to draw the conclusion, based on most European art of the time, that plus sized people, unattractive people and old people were actually quite scarce.
Based on seeing similar gowns on similar body types painted by several artists, RH rejects the idea that “the subjects of portraiture are like fashion models” or that there’s “an ideal body type, and the painters make everyone look like that”.
The problem is, even when you look at paintings by different artists working at the same time in the same geographic area, you can be hard pressed to get away from a certain body type. Do some reading on art and you’ll soon see artists described as being from a particular “school” and/or as following a specific style.
Often those of the same school would have similar ideals, and would follow each other’s work. It’s a false assumption to conclude that just because you see the same style of gown on the same body type by more than one artist that it must mean only that type of person wore it. What it really means is that the artists shared the same idea about what was an ideal body.
When you really think about it, it seems an implausible notion that all women living in 1500’s Venice must have been uniformly robust, buxom and curvy, yet it’s true, you’ll not see a slim women in those fashions.
So why not? Did they cast all the skinny girls into the sea? It’s probably safe to assume there were at least some skinny women living in Venice at the time. Did they wear some other fashion, better suited to their body type? That seems highly unlikely, the more obvious conclusion is that they (unhappily?) wore the fashions of the time anyway, because…..those were the fashions of the time…. regardless of not being able to live up to the ideal.
That’s also what still happens today. Go down to the mall for an hour, you’ll see versions of the current fashions worn more or less successfully by various people of all shapes and sizes. Where you will not see such a wide array of body types, is in magazines or ads. There, much as in historical art, the vast majority of images are of those with what’s considered to be ideal bodies. If, 500 years from now, you based your idea of what most people wore and looked like today on magazines you’d think we were all young and thin too. This is the real fact that can’t be ignored.
The cult of beauty has very deep roots. Ageism and body-idealization are hardly new ideas. Sad to think that hatred of our own bodies is something we might well share with our long-ago sisters.
This is the look you get when someone says
“The gowns are only ever seen on young women of slight build with very small breasts”
Not all that small breasted…..
Secondly, were Saxony gowns youth-specific? As in every age, the very flashy new high fashion gowns were likely worn first by the young and very wealthy. None the less, more moderate depictions of the Saxon gown, with many of the same elements (slashing, guards, stomach-lacing) do exist.
This lady appears to be more mature, and her figure is more average than most of Cranach’s racy young women, yet the gown has all the typical elements. I quite like her, she seems a very real person.
This lady too seems more mature. Like the other lady she wears a small cape (gollar) over her dress for warmth
In Cranach’s series of “Ill-matched Lovers” paintings, the portrayal of tooth-shaken old women dressed in Saxon gowns may indeed be intended to show that the women are dressing too young for their age. But if that’s true, why aren’t they wearing the same flashy gowns the younger women wear?
The old women’s gowns are decidedly plainer. The sleeves are simpler with no puffs or slashing, they wear plain headdresses, the gowns lack the amount of gold guarding worn by the younger women, and yet it’s still essentially the same dress. Arguably, this may mean the dress was worn by older women, just in a sedater, more age or widow-appropriate form.
In general portraits of older people, especially women, are harder to come by. It would be perilous for me to draw definite conclusions without an extensive survey. None the less, in at least some of the portraits of older women I’m aware of, such as Memling’s Portrait of Old Woman, or Van Eyck’s portrait of his wife Margaret, we see they are dressed in versions of the current fashions.
Lastly RH suggests that as re-enactors we should only chose fashions that fit our age and body shape.
I agree with this…… provided your entire goal is to look like you stepped from a portrait. If you are lucky enough to have the body type idealized in an era, the effect can be very satisfying.
If you can, wearing clothing that celebrates the shape you are is wonderful. My small breasted protruding-lower-belly shaped body, which has been a misery to me most of my modern life, was adored in 15th century, it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to 15th century fashion in the first place.
However, it remains that the vast majority of people depicted in medieval illuminations and portraits are both young and fairly slim. This could really limit your choices. Yet, we know for a fact not absolutely everyone died before 30, and it’s reasonable to guess that some skinny women lived in Venice and some plump curvy women in Saxony.
Perhaps as re-enactors we should consider, not just the ideals of the time, but how those ideals would translate to real, everyday people. Instead of suggesting that people who do not possess the “right” body for a time period shouldn’t wear its fashions, it’s more interesting to consider how you could and should adapt those fashions to your body, just as someone with your body would have had to do if living at the time.
I think Mary Wotton would agree