The Morgan Library & Museum’s latest exhibit covers a wide stretch of sartorial history. There are the wartime influences, a certain controversial up-to-there hemline and styles ranging from voluminous to skinny and back again. But here’s the twist — we’re talking about the Middle Ages.
“Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands,” which opens today and runs through Sept. 4, features 55 manuscripts from the era — all pulled from the museum archives — as well as a quartet of full-scale costume replicas, designed by Netherlands-based Corinne Roes, of Atelier Mette Maelwael.
The show is an edited version of a similarly named compendium, recently released by the museum, by art historian Anne H. van Buren, who passed away in 2008. And by all indications, the Middle Ages provides an uncanny mirror of today’s fashion.
“The primary goal of the exhibition is to reveal to the public that this is a huge period — people tend to lump the Middle Ages together,” says curator Roger S. Wieck, who helped van Buren with her research. “But there was a huge amount of evolution. Fashion changed very quickly. It wasn’t all sack clothes and sashes.”
The exhibition opens in 1330 with “Fashion Revolution,” the first of eight thematic sections arranged chronologically. The big innovation here? The invention of the set-in sleeve and the use of multiple buttons, which allowed for tighter-fitting garments. “People basically wore big muumuus before then,” Wieck explains, pointing out a shawled figure in an illustration from Belgium. “His coat is as short as a miniskirt. This was condemned by preachers because, of course, when you bent over and knelt down….It was really scandalous.”
Twenty years later, fashion was mostly on hold, thanks to the Hundred Years’ War — although men’s styles were influenced by military garb. But soon the focus was back on clothing with the rise of full-sleeved houppelande gowns, some of which, as manuscripts show, came plushly lined in fur. Next up: the 1420s, which Wieck has dubbed the “Terrible Twenties.” “It was the absolute low point politically and for fashion,” he says. “Paris was occupied by the English. People were trying to put food on the table and keep warm. That’s the era of Joan of Arc.”
From 1430 to 1460, the pendulum swung again — extravagant headgear, voluminous gowns — and again and again in the two decades that followed. “In the Sixties and Seventies, fashion was all about a very slim, slender look,” Wieck says. “Women wore the turret [a tall cone-shaped hat] and a very high, tight waist; men often had high boots.” As the medieval era came to a close at the end of the 14th century, interest returned to the loose gowns, “but this time they’re relatively unflattering and bulky,” he adds. The last section, “Dawn of the Renaissance,” begins to see the impact of Italian style, in which doublet jackets were artfully slashed and tufts of smock pulled out.
If there’s one stereotype that Wieck would like to clarify, however, it’s that towering turret. “If you go into Halloween shops and buy a princess costume, they all have cones, right?” he says. “It’s a great look, but it was an extremely short-lived look — as short-lived as the looks today.”