Renaissance Men’s Fashion Today
by Maria H. Loh | Art News | June 29, 2022
Certain men’s fashions have always been controversial. In 2014, Mark Rylance, a star of the BBC’s popular sixteenth-century TV drama Wolf Hall, told reporters that he thought “the codpieces are too small.” The actor, who played chief minister Thomas Cromwell, protagonist of the Hilary Mantel best seller on which the series was based, speculated that the sartorial edit was perhaps a directive from the show’s American producers, who feared that historically accurate codpieces might shock their transatlantic viewers. Indeed, if you look at any number of Renaissance portraits of Henry VIII, you might be immediately taken aback by the elaborate mound of shimmering white silk that bursts forth and rises up conspicuously between the king’s legs. Damian Lewis, who had the monarch’s role in the show, explained to the Los Angeles Times that these unusual attachments were,
“… a symbol of your virility, your derring-do, your sense of adventure. They were encouraged, it was a fashion, and Henry liked them.”
The finely crafted attention magnets, as critic Michael Glover recounted in Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art (2019), were not meant to be functional but to draw the beholder’s eye to the site of a man’s power. In Henry’s case, the ostentatious fashion add-ons also helped divert attention away from an ever-increasing obesity.
Codpieces were hardly alone in Renaissance fashion for augmenting the reality of male bodies. There were form-defining doublets cut from silk and figure-concealing tunics lined with fur, striped and multicolored tights that drew attention to men’s legs, body-sculpting leather and plate-metal cuirasses, embroidered garments embellished with light-reflecting gold threads, perfumed gloves trimmed with lace, velvet caps encrusted with gems, and suits of armor often chased in exquisite detail.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, an age of heightened moral, economic, and political austerity, black became the new gold and men transformed from “peacocks to penguins,” or so we are told in art historian Timothy McCall’s wonderful new study Brilliant Bodies: Fashioning Courtly Men in Early Renaissance Italy. The book focuses on “aristocratic ideologies of bodily representation,” that is, on the way the “fifteenth-century glitterati” or the “Renaissance one percent” used fashion to project and consolidate their political clout.
These Italian lords were the fashionistas and influencers of their time, determining what and who was in and out. Rulers introduced “devices” and “emblems” (essentially logos) meant to be stitched on the lush robes they distributed to their followers. Families differentiated themselves through color as well. Men in the House of Este in Ferrara wore green, red, and white, while over at the House of Sforza in Milan under Ludovico il Moro, the clan favored morello (dark red), for it invoked the duke’s nickname. Renaissance rulers cultivated “brilliant bodies” because “it was a prince’s duty to exhibit and manifest extravagance, to distance himself visually from his subjects.” In contrast to the “great masculine renunciation of fashion” that would take place in modern times, a cultural shift noted by British psychologist John Carl Flügel in The Psychology of Clothes (1930), McCall lays out a prehistory of bling in elite menswear.
Readers who worry that McCall’s book might be an academic affair directed toward art historians, costume scholars, archivists, and other specialists need not fear: the chapters are beautifully illustrated, the writing is accessible, the argument is clearly developed with a critical eye toward current debates on gender, identity, and the symbolic valorization of whiteness, or “brilliance,” in the courts of early Renaissance Europe, where aristocratic men and women regularly bleached their hair blond, powdered their hands and faces white, and embellished their clothing with shimmering metallic threads and gems that made their bodies glow like the sun.
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