Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands

A week and a half remains to see the Morgan Library and Museum current exhibition Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands.  There are two important things to note about this upfront: first, that there is an online version of the exhibition that allows viewers outside of the New York City area to access the show, and second, that those who are within range will find it extremely rewarding to make the effort to view these rare and beautiful documents in person.

This text and the accompanying exhibition are largely the work of Dr. Anne H. van Buren with the assistance of Roger S. Wieck.  In 1983 and 1986, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded grants of support for this project, which was initially conceived as a historical fashion study that utilized concisely dated documents, which in turn could then be used as a working chronology to assist with dating art.  Research for this project ensued for almost 30 years and in 2008, close to final realization, van Burens gave three Jasper Walls lectures in the Spring of that year.  Only a few months later in the Fall of 2008, she passed away unexpectedly, and it was not until 2011 that the final product of all of her extensive research and labor was finally released.  The resulting catalog/reference book is an impressive tome of 431 pages, which includes a strong balance of incredibly thoughtful text and beautiful images.

The exhibition covers the time period from 1330 (the common starting date with many historians for the birth of “fashion”) through the early 16th century when the influence of the Italian Renaissance and the accession of King Francis the I of France, spawned a new stylistic reference period for fashion and culture.  Through the use of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books, the influence of politics and social change on fashion is witnessed, as well as the way that clothing became an important tool for artists to use when conveying messages to viewers about the character and identity of the figures portrayed in their work.

Although weighty in significance, the arrangement of the show itself is fairly straightforward.  The entire exhibition is set up within one large rectangular room.  Glass vitrines snake around the perimeter of the space, filled with carefully propped open books that are placed in chronological order.  Neatly above on the walls, a timeline is painted that contains important political milestones within the history of France and the Netherlands, which is broken up by enlarged images from some of the featured texts. In the center of the space are two separate platforms with pairs of mannequis that are dressed in recreations of period costume executed by Corrine Roes of Atelier Mette Maelwael, Netherlands.

I did not discover the catalog until after viewing the show, and when walking around the room I was deeply impressed by the well-researched and written wall and label copy.  Each manuscript had a catchy title to draw you in to reading the paragraph below, such as: Catharine of Cleves Shows Off, Jilted Suitor in a Murderous Rage, or Musicians Have Always Been Snappy Dressers, and the additional text gave a clear and interesting background behind what was happening in the story line at that point, what the historical clothes were that the figures were wearing, and what that clothing demonstrated about the time period and the character pictured.  Although there were not three hour lines waiting to burst into the room, I was pleased to notice that almost everyone else who passed through the space in the few hours that I spent viewing the show also took the time and care to read all of the label and wall copy.

The eight thematic fashion time periods identified in the show are 1330-50 Fashion Revolution, which chronicles the invent of the set-in-sleeve and a new differentiation between men’s and women’s dress.  Wasp Waists and Stuffed Shirts: 1350-90, Black Plague & the Hundred Years’ Wars Impact on French Fashion, which demonstrated some influences from military garments such as the advent of the men’s pourpoint, Luxury in a Time of Madness 1390-1420 that noted the decadent direction that fashion took (such as with the emergence of the Houpelande) during the reign of Charles VI while he struggled with chronic bouts of madness, The Terrible Twenties 1420’s, Peacocks of the Midcentury 1430-60, Late Gothic Vertigo 1460’s and 70‘s when the epitome of the ‘gothic look’ is seen, Twilight of the Middle Ages 1480-1515, a time period in which Charles VIII and Louis XII invaded Italy exposing France to Italian culture, and the Dawn of the Renaissance 1515 and Beyond.

Although the $95 price tag prevented me from purchasing the book on the spot, I spent some time going through it and it quickly recommends itself as an important costume history reference for any fashion historian.  One particularly notable feature is the glossary of English and French clothing terms at the back of the book.  Due to the often-frustrating nature of searching through antique documents and trying to reconcile terminology with the 19th century costume history books created after the fact, this glossary is an invaluable tool in itself.  Costume terms are provided in both languages with supplementary passages from contemporaneous literature to enhance the definitions provided.

Even for those with no specific interest in Medieval clothing, I strongly encourage you to stop by the Morgan Library & Museum to pay tribute to the late Dr. Anne H. van Buren, and her meaningful and laborious contribution to the field of fashion history.


Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through September 4th, 2011.  For hours, admission, and directions please see the museum website.

All of the above images are from the Morgan Library & Museum Website.

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