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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Fashion in European Armor, 1400–1500

At the beginning of this period, by about 1420, the development of full plate armor—a defense enclosing almost the entire body with a system of steel plates articulated by rivets and leather straps—was complete. Regional and national fashions in civilian costume had been developing and noted long before this period. In armor, however, it is during the fifteenth century that certain characteristics in form, construction, and decoration can be seen, which are typical for different regions of Europe. Since the larger surfaces afforded by plate armor now allowed for an entire harness and its elements to be more individually shaped and decorated than armor of previous periods, such characteristics gave rise to distinctive styles and fashions of certain nationalities.

By far the largest manufacturers of armor were Italy and Germany, and the respective tastes and styles disseminating from the armor-making centers of southern Germany and northern Italy dominantly influenced the styles and fashions of most other regions throughout western Europe. In general, the German style favored a slender, symmetrical outline of the body. An emphasis on elegance and the vertical was achieved by richly decorating the surfaces of the plates with ridges and grooves, often in direct imitation of the folds in contemporary costume, while the plate’s edges were decoratively cut with openwork, or embellished with applied or gilt brass borders reminiscent of Gothic tracery. By contrast, fifteenth-century Italian armor usually is asymmetrical (the left side, as the first point of an enemy’s attack, being protected by larger plates that sometimes carried additional reinforces), somewhat rounder and heavier in appearance, and—if decorated at all—features less obtrusive decoration. In the Alpine region, where Italian and German tastes met, armor was worn that represented a hybrid of both styles.

But despite the dominance of these German and Italian fashions, fifteenth-century documents demonstrate that contemporaries also distinguished clearly between armor fashionable in France (including Burgundy), Spain, and England, although each of these national styles was usually to some degree influenced by a combination of German and Italian taste. France and England especially had adopted a style based on German taste, but Italian armorers are recorded as having worked in Spain, France, and the Burgundian Netherlands throughout the fifteenth century, while the large armor-making centers in southern Germany and northern Italy, either by trade or direct commission, supplied clients throughout Europe with their products. Indeed, many Italian workshops produced armor made specifically for export in the fashion worn in Germany (alla tedesca) or France (alla francese).

At about mid-century, Italian armorers began producing armor all’antica: armor imitating (or thought to imitate) arms and armor of the style used by the heroes of classical antiquity. “Muscled cuirasses” and other figuratively embossed armor reappeared in Europe for the first time since antiquity, and became fashionable for use in court festivities.

During the last decade of the fifteenth century, it became popular in western Europe to wear a short skirt, often of richly adorned, sumptuous fabrics, over the armor. This fashion continued until well into the first half of the sixteenth century.

A rare example of the influence that armor, or rather the implied privilege and status of wearing armor, could have on civilian costume is demonstrated by an Italian trend of the second half of the fifteenth century, recently published by Tobias Capwell. During this period, it appears to have been regarded as fashionable to wear so-called arming points on garments intended purely for civilian use. Arming points are essentially pairs of strings that are normally attached to the arming doublet (a sturdy garment worn underneath armor) in order to secure individual elements of the armor to the body. In later fifteenth-century Italy, these points appear to have acquired fashionable status through their inherent quality of bestowing an aura of chivalry on the wearer.