Published: May 3, 2011
The complex and rich history of courtly fashion of the late Middle Ages as seen in the manuscripts and early printed books of the period is the subject of a fascinating new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum titled “Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands.” On view May 20⁓eptember 4, the show includes more than 50 works of Northern European origin from the Morgan’s collections, and also features four full-scale replicas of clothing seen in exhibited manuscripts.
Covering nearly 200 years prior to the beginning of the full Renaissance in France about 1515, “Illuminating Fashion” examines a period in which clothing styles changed more rapidly than had previously been the case, often from one decade to the next. Social custom, cultural influences and politics †such as the Hundred Years’ War (1337‱453) and the occupation of Paris by the English (in the 1420s) †had a notable impact on fashion, and medieval illuminators deftly recorded these shifts in taste.
The exhibition also touches upon how artists used clothing (garments actually worn) and costume (fantastic garments not actually worn) to help contemporaneous viewers interpret a work of art. The garments depicted were often encoded with clues to the wearer’s identity and character.
“The Morgan is delighted to present this captivating exploration of an important aspect of late medieval culture,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “As is the case today, artists of the medieval era understood how people used clothing to communicate their status and role in society. As fashions evolved, illuminators followed suit in manuscripts, providing not only an illustrated record of changes in dress and social customs, but also a symbolic visual commentary on the values and morals of the people they depicted.”
The exhibition is organized in eight sections, the first of which is titled, “Fashion Revolution, 1330‵0.” During the second quarter of the Fourteenth Century, fashion moved in an important new direction as the largely unstructured garments of the late Thirteenth and early Fourteenth Centuries gave way to tighter, more form-fitting clothing for both men and women. This was primarily due to advances in tailoring and in the use of multiple buttons.
For example, the manuscript of the Vows of the Peacock (circa 1345‴9), on view in the exhibit, shows the image of “Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain Playing Chess.” The four young men in the miniature are all dressed at the height of the new fashion.
The next section, “Wasp Waists and Stuffed Shirts, 1350‹0,” reveals how the catastrophes of the bubonic plague, which first struck in 1348, and the defeats of the Hundred Years’ War had a stagnating effect on the development of fashion for much of the second half of the Fourteenth Century.
“Luxury in a Time of Madness, 1390‱420” is a dramatic contrast to the previous section. This 30-year period is one of the most sumptuous, elegant and luxurious of all the Middle Ages. Women also began to wear their hair in temples, a double-horned coif surmounted by veils or a tubular burlet as seen on Delilah in the French Bible historiale, circa 1415′0.
Military occupations are seldom kind to fashion. In the “Terrible Twenties, 1420s” French nobles fled the occupied capital and art commissions dried up. Fashion declined as a simpler approach to dress prevailed. In the “Hours of William Porter,” circa 1420′5, the leaf depicting the Decapitation of St Winifred shows the tyrant Caradoc wearing a new garment that evolved from the houpeland: a robe (gown).
The exhibition closes with “Dawn of the Renaissance, 1515 and Beyond.” King François I was famous for his interest in Italian art and culture. While Italian fashion had begun to influence northern clothing in the early Sixteenth Century, by the accession of François to the throne in 1515, the true Renaissance began in France, in art as well as in fashion
The Morgan Library & Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street. For more information, 212-685-0008 or www.themorgan.org .
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