London Fashion Umbrella: The Noble Art of the Sword

Rapier of Christian II, Elector of Saxony, The hilt probably made by Marx Bischhausen of Dresden, the blade Solingen, c. 1605-7, Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

I am a pacifist, but I do love a good fashion accessory that is useful as well as beautiful. I also am fascinated by the concept of “the fashion victim,” – both figuratively and literally. The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe, provides arena to consider both objects and histories relating to violence, fashion, and the transition the sword from deadly device to the ultimate fashion status accessory of its day.

The Wallace Collection is one of London’s marvelous but underappreciated museums which preserves and displays the private art and decorative arts collections of Sir Richard Wallace. Hertford House, the Wallace family residence was bequeathed to the nation and opened as a museum in 1897.  The museum’s permanent collection of painting, sculpture and decorative arts, mainly of the 18th and 19th centuries offers a wealth of information and inspiration for dress historians and designers, so a visit (also free!) is always rewarding.

Rapier, Saxon, Dresden, the blade Solingen, c.1608, Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

However, the current special exhibition, which displays Renaissance swords and fencing books in the context of social and sartorial fashions, is a particularly astute and relevant exploration of the relationship between social climate and what people are wearing.

The exhibition positions itself decidedly as a ‘fashion exhibition,’ and also as a nod to sport during the London 2012 Olympic season. Here, in my case, the marketing worked –  this exhibition moved to the top of my must-see list!

The objects and textual information in this small but perfectly formed display offer a concise overview of the social milieu of 16th century Europe that gave rise to the need for middle class civilian men to swagger with a rapier at their hip. These swords were urban weapons – seen as both marks of masculinity and fashionability – as well as the props of the modern outlaw. Imagine if contemporary street gangs started packing luxurious and decorative handguns, all meticulously coordinated with their other opulent and expensive articles of dress. That’s the sort of phenomenon The Noble Art of the Sword describes.

Parade costume of Christian II, Elector of Saxony, The construction and embroidery probably Saxon, Dresden, the fabric possibly Italian, beginning of the 17th century, between 1601 and 1609, Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

Indeed the swords, and their craftsmanship were a fashion culture unto their own, and the decorative styles of the metalwork were echoed in the decoration of contemporary masculine dress. This is illustrated in the exhibition by the display of an early 17th century ensemble worn by Christian II, Elector of Saxony around 1609.

Fight Book Detail- Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gran Simulatero dell'arte e dell'uso della scherma, Siena, © the Howard de Walden Library

The popular ubiquity of the sword supported not only the smithing and textile industries but also publishing. The necessity to know how to wield one’s sword gave rise to the proliferation of illustrated fencing manuals, many exquisite examples of which are displayed in the exhibition. The most sumptuous of these is The Academy of the Sword, written and illustrated by Dutch fencing master Gerard Thibault d’Anvers published in 1628. The massive tome features detailed engravings that bring to life the techniques, accoutrements and manners of fashionable fencing in the Renaissance.

Girard Thibault - Academie de l-Espee 1628 Met. museum.jpg

A wholly satisfying look at fashionable masculinity, craftsmanship, sport and violence. It’s thrilling and alluring – and that’s coming from a pacifist fashionista!

The Noble Art of the Sword is on view until September 16th, and the exhibition catalog is available to order online here.

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