LOS ANGELES, CA.-
Personal style reveals a lot about a person, even as far back as the Middle Ages. Just as today, a haute couture gown demonstrates the social status of the person wearing it and a doctor's white coat discloses an individual's occupation, in the Middle Ages, the figures that inhabited the illuminated pages of medieval manuscripts could be recognized at a glance by the clothing they wore. Fashion in the Middle Ages, on display May 31August 14, 2011 at the J. Paul Getty Museum
, Getty Center, explores how medieval artists used costumes to identify people by profession or to place them in a social hierarchy and at other times used fanciful or idealized images of clothing.
"People in the Middle Ages were highly skilled at reading the meaning of clothing," says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts. "The way figures were dressed in manuscripts provided the book's reader with clues to their social status, profession or ethnicity."
Fashion in the Middles Ages demonstrates how manuscript illuminations often reflected the actual styles and fabrics of clothing in the Middle Ages, as well as the economic factors behind them. Scholars were dressed in red robes that carried the additional prestige associated with the high cost of crimson dye, while peasants at work usually wore cheap, undyed wool in shades of brown and gray. Monks, doctors, prostitutes, knights, scholars, queens, and peasants could all be recognized at a glance by their distinctive clothing. Such distinctions offer valuable insights into the world of fashion, allowing us to see what the books' makers and owners might have been wearing and why.
While some medieval illuminations provided accurate reflections of the way people lived, other artists provided an edited and somewhat unrealistic representation of dress. In chivalric romances, wealthy patrons sought images of a perfect world, populated with glamorous versions of themselves and even well-dressed peasants.
Since medieval manuscripts were often biblical or historical in nature, certain conventions gradually arose for dressing figures from the past. Costumes for Christ and the apostles were at first based on the classical garments seen in surviving Roman paintings, but were later modeled on fanciful interpretations of the fashions worn in the Middle East and beyond. Included in the exhibition are manuscripts which display early Christian saints clothed in modified versions of the ancient toga, while Jews or Muslims were outfitted in elaborate hats and lavishly embroidered robes to signify their "otherness."
"Similar to fashion magazines today, manuscripts in this exhibition often present an idealized view of the individuals who are depicted," adds Collins. "Medieval illuminators used fashion to establish an ideal world that the books' patrons might wish to inhabit."