In Italy circa 1400, scholars turned to the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome as a source of ideas about their world. Historians examining this period assigned the name "Renaissance" (French for "rebirth") to this time when a new focus on humanism contrasted with the medieval emphasis on spirituality.
These ideas spread from Italy to Northern Europe, influencing scholars and creative artists. The artists created realistic portraits and scenes of daily life and showed clear views of dress even to the point of showing where the seams were located. They faithfully depicted the lush velvets, satins, and brocades worn by their sitters.
Royalty wore the most lavish garments, but the well-to-do merchant classes could easily imitate court styles. Intermarriage among the rulers of European countries provided one means of spreading fashions from one country to another as royal brides and grooms dressed themselves and their retinues in the latest styles from their home country.
By the sixteenth century, the recently developed printing press was turning out books that purported to show clothing styles in different parts of the world. Such books, which are of some use to costume historians, require careful evaluation because many of the styles depicted are imaginary and contain both realistic and inaccurate representations.
Predominant styles. Styles worn in Italy in the early fifteenth century showed some similarities to those of Northern Europe in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. At the same time, with the proximity of Italy to the Middle East, Asian influences are evident in fabrics with Eastern design motifs, in clothing showing some similarities to Turkish robes, and in headwear in turbanlike forms. Part of the differences in styles came from the Italian failure to adopt northern styles such as the extreme pointed-toed shoes and the V-necked, highwaisted women's gown. Silhouettes of women's gowns were wider than those in the north. Necklines were low.
Bodices were attached to gathered skirts. Many gowns and men's doublets or jackets were made of figured velvets, brocades, and damasks produced by skilled Italian weavers. Small puffs of fabric of contrasting color were pulled through the elbow, armhole, and some seam lines.
This decorative idea became a feature of men's styles all over Europe in the early years of the 1500s. The exterior fabric was slashed and puffs of contrasting color pulled through the slits to make elaborate decorations. The silhouette for men grew wide and full.
Italians styles remained somewhat different from those of the north until the later 1500s when Spain, France, and Austria came to dominate the Italian city-states. By the sixteenth century, international events helped to move Spanish styles to the center of the fashion stage. Christopher Columbus's voyage to America in 1492 made Spain, which had financed the trip, rich. When Charles V became not only king of Spain but also ruler of the Low Countries and what has become Germany, Spanish influences spread throughout Europe. Dark, rich textiles were made into women's garments with fairly rigid, hourglass-shaped silhouettes. A stiff, hooplike structure held out skirts. Handsome black-on-white embroideries ornamented collars and undergarments. By the latter years of the century, the conservative, narrower, more rigid lines of Spanish origin also predominated for men.
Portraits and inventories of clothing provide an excellent picture of the dress of the colorful monarchs of England, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, as well as that of the rulers of France and Spain. The evolution of men's shoulder shapes from broad at the beginning of the century to narrower, and of women's skirts from inverted cone shapes to barrel-like forms (called farthingales) is clear evidence of fashion as an integral part of dress. Narrow white frills at the neck grew wider, rounder, and still wider to become huge, stiff, starched, lace ruffs, which in the sixteenth century eventually subsided into wide, flat collars.
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