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Renaissance Fashion and Dress Codes

Piero del Pollaiuolo (Piero di Jacopo Benci) (Italian, 1441/42–1485/96). Portrait of a Woman, mid-1470s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940 (50.135.3)

Piero del Pollaiuolo (Piero di Jacopo Benci) (Italian, 1441/42–1485/96). Portrait of a Woman, mid-1470s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940 (50.135.3)

Did you know there were dress codes in fifteenth-century Italy?

In our society today, the way we dress often reflects our personality and how we are feeling in that moment. In fifteenth-century Italy, clothing served as an indicator of one's social and economic status. Most of the female portraits in The Renaissance Portrait From Donatello to Bellini display young women in their best clothing—probably gifts from their new husbands. The young woman in the portrait above wears a giornea—a long sleeveless dress—over a brocade garment likely embossed with gold thread. Her jewelry, which could have been part of her dowry, is elaborate. Her hair is decorated with rosettes of sapphires and pearls, and she wears a ruby brooch on the top of her head. The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan in northern Manhattan that exhibits art and architecture from the twelfth to fifteenth century, has a brooch that looks very similar to the cluster of pearls and sapphires in our young woman's hair.

Left: Detail of Portrait of a Woman. Right: Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor", mid-15th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1957 (57.26.1)

This young bride also wears a pearl necklace with a pendant and brooch in the center of her dress. Although we don't know her identity, we can tell that she is wearing the latest fashions and is likely from the Florentine upper class.

Women during this time were only allowed to wear their bridal clothing and jewelry for a short period after their marriage. Italian governments formed sumptuary laws to control showy, public displays of wealth. These laws were mostly related to women's clothing; for example, there were restrictions on the length or type of fabric that could be used in a woman's dress. Sometimes men would sell their wives' bridal clothing or jewelry a few years after the wedding because of the sumptuary laws. There were also laws about parties that limited, for example, the number of guests or dishes that could be served at a wedding feast.

In my artwork below, I brought the young Renaissance bride into the twenty-first century. This is what I think a modern bride with Renaissance flair would look like:

Sources

Bayer, Andrea. "Art and Love in the Italian Renaissance." November 2008. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

———, ed. Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. 12–13, 103–104.

Christiansen, Keith, and Stefan Weppelmann, eds. The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. 101–105.


What restrictions, if any, do we have that are similar to sumptuary laws? Who are your favorite designers today? What similarities do you see between Renaissance and contemporary fashion?

We welcome your responses to these questions below.

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