Susan and Ken Reed’s Life, Universe and Everything

Fifteenth Century Visual Sources and Costume Research: An Analysis

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The sources most commonly used for clothing research in the SCA are not original garments, but contemporary depictions of garments in art. To better understand how the researcher may best interpret visual sources, all of the sources of clothing information for the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries must be examined; and the relative availability of the different types of sources, and the limitations of those sources that are available must be understood.

The preferred way to study clothing would be to study the extant artifacts of the time supplemented by the study of other contemporary objects and in comparison with artifacts of the same type along the dimension of time, and by the study of other visual and verbal documents relating to that artifact. For the fifteenth century, surviving garments are so few and so unrepresentative as to be all but useless as a source of study of style change and geographic distribution. There are only a handful of articles tentatively dated to the fifteenth century and most of these are from archaeological finds from Iceland, Scandinavia and England.

That leaves us with contemporary visual and verbal descriptions of clothing. Of these, verbal descriptions are less than adequate because few writers fully describe clothing other than to say that someone had a red bourrelet, assuming that his reader would automatically know what a bourrelet was. If one does not have extant garments in sufficient numbers to study, the next best sources are visual renderings of clothing.

Clothing is a visual product. It has all the elements of visual design: line, color, shape, rhythm, balance, and so on. Just as words are insufficient to give a comprehensive description of a visual work of art, words likewise are insufficient to give a comprehensive picture of the effect of clothing in its context. Words can amplify a description, convey how an author may consciously feel about items of dress, and give information about such surrounding systems as costs of clothing production and purchase, methods of production, purchasing habits, materials, trade and distribution, and sumptuary legislation. Clothing, however, should be seen, and preferably seen worn its in original environment. From the fifteenth century, there are no candid photographs, no film, nor videotape that show people wearing clothing in everyday situations. The visual arts of the time are our best source for viewing clothing in its context.

Objectives of 15th Century Art

All visual arts are limited as a source for costume study in that they are interpretations of how things look and how close that image is to what the eye sees depends on the goals and conventions of the artists of a particular time and place. The purposes of art are rarely to give a photographic depiction of what one sees. Medieval art is a particularly clear example of art used for purposes other than the imitation of visual perception.

Art in the Middle Ages had the purpose of teaching and exalting sacred truth rather than the representation of what the eye saw. (1) The artists did not bother to show realistic seam lines or drape in clothing; the colors chosen were more likely to be symbolic than an example of what was actually worn. For clothing before 1400, medieval art can only be a guide to medieval clothing and it must be combined with other artifactual and verbal documents. Even with these, conclusions are highly speculative. After 1400, the emphasis in art is still on religion, but the nature of religious devotion had changed, becoming more internalized, more personal, and, dare we say, more humanistic. The art styles changed to reflect these new trends in religious practice and societal mentalities. Fifteenth century art did not abandon the purpose of teaching Christianity to the illiterate masses. Many of the art works commissioned for private use were often used for meditation and prayer. Fifteenth century art aided these goals through the portrayal of scenes set in contemporary settings and figures in contemporary clothing. This was believed to make the faith accessible and personally real to the individual believer. This was also a time when the mundane object could be suffused with mystical meaning. This encouraged the inclusion of accurately rendered everyday objects, including clothing, into art. (2)

Given the prevalence of religious art in the fifteenth century, it is fortunate for the costume historian that religious figures are so often portrayed in contemporary clothing. After about 1520, changing tastes produced religious artworks with figures wearing classical draperies rather than contemporary clothing, thus losing a major source of costume information.

In the fifteenth century, a renewed interest in humanism became strong enough that artists all over Europe grew interested in a naturalistic depiction of people in a natural-looking environment. (3) This was approached differently by Italian and Northern European artists. Northern European artists, especially Flemish artists, tried to achieve naturalism by using atmosphere, light, and the depiction of minute surface detail. Because of the latter, their artworks are often very informative about the details of clothing materials and construction. (4) Italian artists approached naturalism by discovering (or rediscovering) classical laws of ideal beauty and proportion. Highly idealized human figures are set into mathematically-constructed space, and Italian artists often ignored, idealized or distorted some of the details that are useful to the study of clothing, but would interfere with their pursuit of the ideal. (5)

Consumers of 15th Century Art

Public art was displayed in such public buildings as guild halls, town halls, and especially churches. This art was made to be understandable to an illiterate population. Even when it did not have an overtly religious subject, public art was often moralizing in tone using popular stories and mythology as allegories to promote virtuous behavior. 

Private art, while produced for better-educated patrons and more likely to be avant garde in technique, theory, and skill, also shared in this moralizing character. (6) Book illumination might have a broader range of subject matter as it was used both to illustrate books on technology, accounting, and practical skills, books on popular tales and chronicles, as well as religious books such as Bibles, Breviaries, Books of Hours, and other liturgical or prayer books. (7)

Most art works were commissioned. The exceptions were books and decorated household items which were usually commissioned, but also often produced and then sold at market to the middle and artisan classes. The patrons were, in contrast, either wealthy people of the noble or gentle classes, very wealthy merchants and tradesmen, the Church and religious orders, or guilds and religious or trade confraternities. They wrote the contracts for the art works produced and dictated specifications, not only for materials, but also for the design, that the artists had to follow. The imagery seen in these works of art reflected the views of the wealthier classes that initiated its creation. (8) Since most artwork was for public viewing, the values depicted had to be religiously orthodox and were likely to instruct the public socially in ways that were to the advantage of the patrons in power.

Biases in Artwork Pertaining to Costuming

In terms of clothing, how might these patterns of patronage and artist training and practice affect what we see in art? We would expect that the landed gentry and learned classes would be more often depicted than their proportion in the population. However, since much of the art is designed to appeal to and to teach the lower classes, it would have to have imagery that would not alienate them. There were some images of the lower classes used, and where the lower classes were not obviously being satirized or used as examples of vices, the images might be fairly accurate, since it does not appear that fifteenth century art idealized or glorified peasant simplicity. (9) Books produced for and by the lower classes should reflect a greater number of images of those classes. Books of Hours, with their calendar pages showing the proper labors of the month, often have numerous and sympathetic portrayals of laborers and artisans.

Color of objects portrayed in the art products of any time are limited to the available pigments. Pigments are not dyes, and the colors of the clothing shown may not match what was actually worn. During this time, color had both religious and social meanings, and it may well be that, at least in the cases of allegorical and symbolic figures, the colors used to portray garments had more to do with their symbolic functions than with the colors the garments really were. (10) However, we can get an idea of colors used in real garments by examining such verbal records as household accounts for colors of cloth or garments purchased or for dyestuffs purchased for home use, trade accounts and customs records on the import and export of dyestuffs, and descriptions given in contemporary literature

In this period, there was also a tendency of portraying certain stock figures wearing stereotyped clothing. These included ceremonial garb for kings, emperors, popes, and upper-level clergymen; fool’s clothing, symbolic clothing for allegorical characters, angels, and some saints; and clothing symbolic of “exotic” or non-Europeans such as “Moors,” “Jews,” or Asian, African, or other “exotic” peoples. (11) The clothing worn by these people were not typical dress (and they rarely appear in scenes strictly from everyday life) and were often fantastic variations of everyday dress, similar to the way that science fiction costumers create “alien” or “futuristic” clothing based on contemporary clothing. Only experience and some background in art history and iconography would enable one to distinguish between clothing portrayed as being worn in everyday life, and clothing serving particular symbolic functions in art.

We have lost many artworks from this period. Many of the materials used were highly perishable, and many art works disintegrated over the last 500 years. Textile materials and many books were used until worn out. Most of the art that has survived have done so because they were of a very high artistic quality, were collected because they were particularly good examples of artistic style changes or were by noted artists, contained inherently precious materials such as gold or gemstones, or were very rare. Some pieces of less high artistic merit survived because they were heirloom items that were passed down along generations. Other less artistically superior works were discovered by chance within other objects into which they had been integrated. A number of informative manuscript pages have been found in book bindings as these were used to produce books produced years later. (12)

This selective survival of historical artifacts may bias our knowledge of a period. Clothing items often survive because they were garments used for atypical occasions, because they were worn by someone deemed famous or important, because they were unable to be adapted into the newest style, or because they could not be worn by someone else until they fell apart.

The selective survival of art objects may bias the understanding of art production and style, masking what may have been a more widespread level of production that has been judged as “mediocre,” or is outside of the perceived mainstream of artistic development. However, for the study of clothing shown in artworks, no difference between clothing shown in surviving “inferior works,” and that shown in works considered “superior” could be found. However, works of art outside of the mainstream of art historical development were less likely to have been collected; and consequently, less likely to have survived. Less information can be found on the developments of clothing represented in non-mainstream art works that did not survive.

Visual sources are our most plentiful and instructive sources of information for the study of fifteenth century clothing, but they do have many limitations. The costume researcher must always keep in mind that period artists had different intentions than to accurately portray what the eye saw everyday, and must understand how those intentions may have modified how ordinary objects such as clothing were portrayed. Whenever possible, information from visual sources should be combined with that from extant garments and textiles and from verbal documents to get the fullest idea of what period clothing was like. Even then, the information available is incomplete and atypical, and caution must be taken to not make definitive statements about what was possible or impossible about period clothing based on the evidence we have.


  1. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2d ed., (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988), 40–41; Albert E. Elsen, Purposes of Art: An Introduction to the History and Appreciation of Art, 2d ed., (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967), 100–102; Creighton Gilbert, History of Renaissance Art throughout Europe, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973), 15; and Gottfried Richter, Art and Human Consciousness, trans. Burley Channer and Margaret Frohlich. (Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, Inc., 1985), 186.
  2. Frederick Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages AD 200-1500: An Historical Survey. 3d ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 400; Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries, (London: Edward Arnold, 1924), 240–244; Baxandall, 40–48; Elsen, 106–107; Richter, 186–191
  3. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 2d ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986), 329–331; Elsen, 145; Gilbert, 272–276; and Richter, 183.
  4. E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, (Oxford, UK: Phaidon Press Limited, 1984), 176–182 and 207–208; and Elsen, 105–122.
  5. Honour and Fleming, 333–335; Baxandall, 46–48; Elsen, 123–144; Gombrich, 167–175; 183–191, and 199. Baxandall discusses in great detail how Italian educational methods helped to educate patrons and artists who would be predisposed to this kind of mathematical and proportional bias in art on pages 86–108.
  6. Honour and Fleming, 351, and 357–360; and Elsen, 119.
  7. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, (Oxford, UK: Phaidon Press Limited, 1986), 156.
  8. Frederick Antal, Florentine Painting and Its Social Background, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947). 281–283, and 374; Baxandall, 1–14.
  9. Keith Moxey, Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 35–66, 140 ff. While the time period covered by Moxey’s book is outside of the period covered by this study, his discussion of the theme of the peasant in art is instructive.
  10. Baxandall, 81–85; and Honour and Fleming, 11.
  11. Margaret Scott, Late Gothic Europe, 1400–1500, The History of Dress Series, (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, Inc., 1980), 34, and 70–72; Jacqueline Herald, Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400–1500, History of Dress Series, (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, Inc., 1981), 96, and 113–116.
  12. De Hamel, 186.