It is clothes that make the man, the old saying goes, and you can update that with "or the woman." Even if that is an exaggeration, and even if you think fashion is silly and you gape at the stupidity of what you see going down the couture runways as the flashbulbs pop, it is inescapable that how we dress is important. It affects economies and jobs. It reflects self-expression and the constant pull between conformity and eccentricity, of belonging and rebelling. Clothing and fashions ought to be a rich vein for historians to mine, but perhaps because fashion is fleeting, and perhaps because a four-hundred-year-old doublet fades, decays, and comes apart in ways that sculptures and paintings of the same age do not, historians have paid little close attention to dress. Yet in _Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe_ (Oxford University Press), historian Ulinka Rublack has shown how powerful and meaningful can be a detailed and limited evaluation of the forces of fashion for a specific period and area. The years involved are around 1300 to 1600, and the area she concentrates on is Germany (she has written before about early modern German history) with some inclusion of other areas of Western Europe as well. Clothes were important all through that time in a way they had not been in, say, the Middle Ages. Textiles were of unprecedented variety and came from all over the world, and often wages would be paid in cloth. Tailors had new materials to work with, and they had plenty of work to do since men's clothes in particular were tighter to emphasize (and exaggerate) bodily form. Consumerism in general was up, and people who were concentrated in towns made booming markets. Artists turned to depicting people in the clothes of the day. Rublack says that this time and place marked the first instance of people taking deep interest in the appearance of the dress, and much of her book is an evaluation of how people fretted about what to make the new aspects of fashion.
New also to the time, because of the new printing technologies, were "costume books," such as the _Book of Knowledge_ of around 1550, by the English physician Andrew Boorde. It showed what Rublack says is "an almost naked and clearly unwise Englishman" who cheerfully declares, "Now I will wear I cannot tell what, all fashions be pleasant to me." This was the first book to show how Europeans from different regions dressed themselves, although Boorde warned that England could never be a role model for other nations if it imitated foreign dress. He was the first to use the word "fashion" (from the Latin for "making") to refer to a temporary mode of dress. There were plenty of these books, and many ranged beyond Europe to show how people dressed in the orient or in the New World. A remarkable source of images here (and, quite properly, this is a handsome volume full of colorful illustrations from the period) are the sixteenth century watercolors commissioned by Matthäus Schwarz, a 29-year-old accountant from Augsburg. From his twenties to his old age, over a hundred paintings of how he dressed (and one pair of how he looked undressed) were made into a book, his _Klaidungsbüchlein_ (Book of Clothes). Of one image, Rublack says, "He also wore a finely pleated white shirt, a green heart-shaped bag with a golden string, a rectangular piece of jewelry with his coat of arms, and his lute. He had such fun with clothes!" In a fascinating chapter, "The Look of Religion," Rublack examines how clothes were on the minds of religious reformers. It turned out that there was no "Protestant" way to dress, but the material culture tied to such an affluent bourgeois was not going to stress austere simplicity but instead "endorsed a notion of civil decorousness and hence adapted Renaissance ideals." Luther attacked the showy robes of Catholic officials, and other clerics sought to attack clothing fads. There was a fashionable baggy hose called _Pluderhosen_, and an associate of Luther preached against them as the work of the devil and a sign that the Antichrist was at work and would soon be upon us; then some wag nailed a pair of _Pluderhosen_ across his pulpit. How to dress properly and decorously, without too much show or deference to fashion, was a fit subject for a great deal of religious thinking. It turned out to be more an economic issue than a religious one. There were religiously-inspired sumptuary laws to make sure that things didn't get too fancy in places like Geneva, but "few men and women were actually prosecuted in a city that had a strong mercantile elite and ironically thrived on silk production."
Fanciness of dress, Rublack shows, was not the concern only of the affluent members of courts. Though the aristocrats might have had more opportunity for finery, by the sixteenth century there were cheap versions of dyes available, and the lower orders might sport flashy scarves or handkerchiefs to brighten up the more drab clothes that were proper to their station. No doubt they overspent to do so, and one of the attractions of this lovely, detailed, and erudite volume is seeing how they were engaged all those centuries ago in the same sort of pursuit of fashion that still consumes us.