The first book of fashion : The first sartorialist of the 16th century?

Dr John SLAMSON

The first book of fashion : The first sartorialist of the 16th century?

This book is a fascinating object, not only because it is about XVIth century fashion but also because it is a rare historical piece made available to us in perfect condition, which is no small editorial achievement.

“The First Book of Fashion” is about Matthäus Schwartz, an accountant from Augsburg (1497-1574), who finds himself working for the famously influential Fugger family (whom the city merchants and bankers refer to as “the Medici of the North”).

When Schwartz was 23, he began commissioning watercolours depicting none other than himself. In the introduction of his work, he credits ‘older people’ for encouraging him to document his evolving sartorial habits. Remember, the ability to visually document even the most recent past remained elusive, compared to today’s means of instant communication. In reality, during the 1500s, only the richest people were able to afford commissioning portraits of themselves.

Schwartz started his documentation process by working backwards, using his memory, and discussions with his father to recreate images of the clothing he wore in his previous 23 years. The project imagined by Schwartz eventually developed into an account of ‘history-in-the-making’, with no less than 137 watercolour paintings. Schwartz stopped his arduous documentation of what he wore each day when he reached his sixties, at which time his son Veit Konrad took over.

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The book has been expertly edited by historians Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward, and presented in its entirety with comments and fully detailed descriptions of each picture preceded by a complete historical introduction. There is a glossary for clothing terms and a chapter devoted to the contemporary recreation of an original XVIth century outfit (with all measurements included by costume designer Jenny Tiramani).

Call it pioneering, selfie-style pre-Instagram narcissism, but there’s another layer of meaning to the book.

First, there’s a historic concern regarding Schwartz’s relentless recording of each detail he could recall—he went as far as commissioning paintings of himself as a baby and as a boy. His focus was on detailing truth–not limited to paintings of his naked and unembellished self, with comments about himself getting fat. This is an extremely candid book, as Schwartz shows himself naked, growing old, and recovering from a stroke.

Many paintings are associated with specific circumstances, taking on a political tone, such as the yellow and red doublet made for the return of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Germany. The colourfulness of the outfit expressed both his joy and enthusiasm as well as his allegiance to the Catholic emperor. No wonder he was ennobled in 1541.

Lastly, the book is a unique document revealing how men of a certain social status perceived the act of choosing how they dressed.

Matthäus Schwartz’s was anything but an aristocrat, as his father Ulrich Schwarz was a wine merchant. Still, his grandfather had been the mayor of Augsburg (and had been hanged for corruption in 1478, likely because of the pressure of powerful enemies). The Schwartz family shows the trajectory of the ascending bourgeois class rising from middle to upper class. Schwarz trained as an accountant in Italy, like his son later would, showing an ability to move in international circles. But he was not alone in his passion for clothes and his concern for appearances.

“Schwarz was a full-time employee”, says Ulinka Rublack. “Yet he spent much of his income on dress. Additional evidence tells us that a broader spectrum of urban and rural people was fascinated by clothes. Even if they were only able to afford one yellow sleeve, they still partook in a new world of fashion and defended their right to dress.”

We have to re-imagine this period in different colours and question influential arguments that fashion only democratised in the 20th Century (or that the period before the 18th Century presented a drab sartorial world outside royal courts). Then as now, people used clothes to express values and emotions–which is why clothes already encompassed fantasies, aspirations and anxieties. Through charting appearances, a man like Schwarz confronted male competition, his body shape, and age. He also simply loved the possibilities of new accessories, materials, cuts and makes.

The French sociologist Lipovetsky sees fashion as an engine of Western modernity (starting in the middle ages), because clothing choices exploded tradition and encouraged self-determination, individual dignity, and opinion making. Dress certainly has been a vital historical force for much longer than we usually concede.’

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The text sheds light on a different meaning of the word ‘fashion’.

Garments were made individually at a time when no powerful marketing groups sold clothes on a mass-market level. Rather, “bespoke” was the norm and clothes had to be invented and designed by people who ordered them, which made clothing not just luxurious, but significant.Some outfits were created for specific social purposes (mourning, courtship, etc.), as ‘formal wear’ really meant there were rules to be observed.

Of course Schwartz took specific care in selecting the fabrics and designs and, because of his position, had access to a wide range of cloth. His personal creativity and involvement in the crafting process show he was someone with a true awareness and sartorial knowledge and not merely a person who bought expensive clothes for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

No doubt, he took pride in the elaborate invention of his sometimes sober and other times lavish style, as with his famous doublet featuring 4800 ‘pinks’ (small cuts slashed into the fabric).

We are very happy to present an interview with one of the authors, Ulinka Rublack, a professor of Early Modern European history at Cambridge University and a Fellow of St John’s. She was born in Tuebingen, studied in Hamburg and completed her doctorate in Cambridge and is the author of Dressing Up: Cultural identity in Renaissance Europe.

Is there something specific about Augsburg from a sartorial standpoint?

Sixteenth-century Augsburg was a textile city, in which many people were involved in weaving, and it was also a luxury city, in which a small elite of very rich people and those attached to them consumed expensive fabrics and were internationally very connected. The Emperors and their big global entourage regularly visited, and then laws regulating expense on dress would simply be lifted for everyone.

Could you give us an idea of the sartorial freedom that existed in the early XVIth century?

There was considerable freedom. Augsburg, for instance, did not issue laws regulating expense for most of the sixteenth century. Imperial laws mostly restricted the excessive use of silks and velvets, but they never commented on the colour of dress, for instance.

How did Matthäus Schwartz differ in his approach to clothing from aristocrats?

Schwartz was quite careful not to wear the most expensive furs, jewellery, large quantities of velvet or silk. But that left plenty of options to dress in visually stunning and elegant ways!

Was he perceived as an upstart or was his manner of dressing a way to blend into the higher strata of society?

His grandfather was already known as elegant dresser, and had been elected mayor of Augsburg. It is difficult to know how exactly Schwarz was perceived, but he was not unique in the way he dressed—some of his peers seem also to have been interested in sourcing vintage fashion from aristocrats in Italy, for instance, or buying interesting dress in Antwerp, the new global hub. The fashion for heart-shaped leather bags he wore was inspired by Bruges, where we also find them in inventories of men and women.

Was there a point when he could have been viewed as too ostentatious by those above him?

There is no evidence for this, and I think that those above him liked the subtlety and delicacy as well as joy he often expressed through clothing.

The variety of colors that Matthaus Schwartz used is amazing as compared to what men wear today…

In his time many colours were worn and vibrant natural dyes experimented with. The whole of southern Germany was in love with yellow, for instance. Schwarz has amazing outfits in green, or purple. Veit used more restrained colours, but we know from portraits and inventories that other Germans did not, while Bruges inventories bear out that black did take over during the sixteenth century. We need much more archivally based research on these different trends and their significance.

What were the do’s and don’ts entailed by his position? It seems he was a powerful man but also an employee: what kind of persona did he build?

Schwarz was a crucial middleman between the Fugger merchants and the Habsburgs, for instance, which explains why he was ennobled. Yet he was only married to a colleague’s daughter. So there was definitely status asymetry, and he worked hard every day to earn his salary.

Was it expected of him to project the aura of someone stylish or was it somehow strange that an accountant of that rank should be so particular about clothing?

I think he was not unusual in his taste, but in his dedication to style and the way he linked this to research on the history of dress. He was a pioneer in this respect, and researched medieval dress in his city. People, I think, would have appreciated him as a serious chronicler of changing manners and style.

What was Schwartz’s intention with this book? What has survived from his diary The Course of the World?

Schwarz destroyed his diary, unfortunately, but the references to it suggest that it was not that extensive, although it did cover his relationships before he married. Schwarz was really excited about the project to chronicle fashion and its changes when he started the project, and he worked together with a young artist who was his age. When he grew older, the project became more challenging for him  — I think he simply had not anticipated seeing himself growing old!

You mention that there were other such books in Utrecht and Cologne. Was there anything similar in the rest of Europe?

Not that we know – not a visual chronicle. Schwarz’ record is unique, and more extravagant and extensive than that of his son, which makes it one of the most special illuminated manuscripts in the world for me. I am so pleased that the only original can now be seen in colour – the original is on parchment and is so fragile that even scholars often can not look at it.

Are you working on a new project?

Yes, at the moment I am working on feathers in dress, and will hopefully visit feather makers in Paris next year.

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The First Book of Fashion, edited by Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward, Bloomsbury Books, 2015.