Posted by: Lucrece | December 23, 2015

Art as Evidence – using images for clothing research

If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know that I place a certain amount of importance on getting the objects I make to look and behave reasonably like those pictured in art work of the period.

Too often, when someone makes a garment or other object, and it doesn’t really look “right” the accepted explanation is that it’s because what’s shown in art is stylized; that the real thing didn’t/couldn’t really look like that.

It is after all, a pretty convenient excuse.  But just because I can’t get something to look right, doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue is with the artist’s work and not my execution.  That’s why I try not to rely too much on this fall back.

For example, let’s say I make a Tudor gown and the bodice isn’t smooth like those in portraits but instead wrinkles across the body.  I could say “well the artists made them look smooth, but in reality fabric just doesn’t behave this way, it would actually have had some wrinkles”.  But the truth is I’d have failed to understand the amount of structure in a garment like this compared to a modern dress.  Had I interlined the fabric properly, I could have made it look every bit as smooth as they look in the portraits.

All that said, it’s also very important to understand that I don’t take everything I see in drawings or paintings as completely literal, far from it.

Artwork in the 15th and 16th centuries was certainly quite stylized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the clothing didn’t look in essence as it is depicted.  There is often a sort of “core truth” to the images that emerges when you survey enough of them.

I am careful to consider the subject of art.  Is the figure I’m looking at a portrait of an actual person, or is it an allegorical figure?  Is it a person depicted supposed to be from a foreign culture?  When it comes to saints and foreign people, there is much greater risk that the artist may have dressed them fantastically, rather than the actual fashions of the time.  I am highly suspicious of single examples; if a dress is the only one like it I can find anywhere, I will generally not make it the focus of a project, even if I really love it.  My overall objective is always to make the most plausible examples.

At the beginning of a clothing project I start by amassing a sizeable file of images which, when available, includes: pictures of the garment I want to make; those from other nearby cultures in the same time period; those from the period(s) leading up to the one I’m working on and; those that followed.  Fashion particularly tends to become more understandable when viewed in the context of its evolution instead of just as a moment in time.

Once I’ve got a file of images, I’ll generally spend several weeks looking at them over and over again on a daily basis.  I’ll try to notice details, differences, similarities.  Before I ever get to the pattern and cutting phase, I will have reviewed my images literally hundreds of times, and sewn the gown in my head over and over.

Eventually I reach what I would describe as a sort of “magical moment” when I’ll suddenly feel that I REALLY understand the essence of the dress, how it evolved, and how it lead to the fashions that followed.

Then….. I get my scissors 🙂



  1. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who obsesses over what their thing should look like. My “look book” for the outfits I want to create are extensive. lol

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