Made in Florence: Renaissance Clothing
Updated: Jan 19
The merchant and banking classes gained their fortunes largely from the textile trade and in turn became patrons of art. Artists paid homage to the textile industry in their paintings by adorning their saints, patrons, and citizens with clothing made in Florence. Italian Renaissance clothing was all about silk, wool, fur, and jewels.
Florence was a textile town from the tenth century. This land-locked city on the Arno River at one time was the center of wool and silk manufacturing. They were not raising sheep in the city but instead had all the necessary tools and skills to turn raw wool into fabric. If Florence did not have the raw materials, they established a supply chain. Wherever there was a chance to be included in trade and business, they participated. Fourteenth and fifteenth century Florentines were indisputably the best business networkers in Europe.
Florentines were industrious and masters of self-promotion as their textiles were prized throughout Europe. They were also the primary suppliers of luxury cloth and fur to the papacy. Their business network expanded from the courts of Europe to the harems of Turkey.
Raw wool from Italy, other European countries, and the Western Mediterranean were imported to Florence and exported as finished luxury materials. There were twenty-seven steps to make shorn sheep fleece into wearable and fashionable cloth. Different types of skilled workers were employed to process the wool from raw to finished clothing, from carders, stretchers, dyers, weavers, tailors, and stitchers. Most were poor to middle class paying jobs with shop owners barely making a profit.
Silk required a long production process, but required less labor costs prior to weaving than wool, making the skilled weavers higher paid and silk more profitable. After obtaining the raw silk, the process included spinning, reeling, throwing, dyeing, and weaving. Silk weaving varied by the size of shop employing either only a few or more than twenty, most of which were young boys and young adult men. The process pieces at the beginning were low skilled, often done by girls and women in convents or orphanages.
Textile workers were by no means life-long employees as there was a high level of absenteeism, changing jobs, and fluidity in employment. Wool had about six standard weaves produced with two or three different looms, but silk had many more varieties as well as different looms needed to produce a range of fabrics.
Women were also involved in the textile trade. Largely prevented from participating in the guild system, they found ways to sell items in public markets. However, a minority of women were members of the guild as early as 1407. Eventually they were ten percent of membership by the late 1500s. Many specialized in selling used clothing outside of traditional trade environments. Recycling garments was quite common and an outlet for the rich who may not want to be seen twice in the same clothes. Women’s textile work was often out of sight, taking place at home embroidering, patching worn fabric, and making undergarments.
Tailors were one of many artisans that created clothing. Documents give us some insight as to the scope of a tailor’s work and earnings in the early sixteenth century. Most had modest success and ran their own small shops. In the mid fifteenth century about 20% of tailors were considered poor. Antonio d’Agnolo’s logbooks from his tailor workshop tell us that in a ten-year span from 1445-55 his shop produced over 800 garments for 168 clients. He grossed only 60 florins a year and yet had to pay shop rent, employees, and guild dues. On the other end of the spectrum, Lorenzo de’ Medici had five tailors and spent 5,000 florins on clothing in 1515.
Moroni’s portrait of a tailor tells us about his status. He is not of the class of Antonio d’Agnolo, but rather a master tailor, perhaps a senior member of the guild, or attached to a noble family. His cream-colored linen jacket has a pattern of small slashes that reveal a slightly darker color underneath. The red breeches have deep slashes which have a gold-colored fabric peeking through. Slashed fabric was fashion forward in the mid 1500’s. Note the volume of fabric and how it is puffed out and stands away from the body. The amount of fabric and bulkiness would only be affordable for the well to do. In addition, he has a ruby ring which an ordinary artisan would not be wearing. The leather belt has a place for a sword, another indication of status. Carrying a weapon was allowed only for a few well-chosen men of honor.
Moroni’s tailor is well dressed in silk. In the Middle Ages silk came from the Near East, and later on became available in the western Mediterranean, then Spain. Producing raw silk closer to the production process became advantageous and by the sixteenth century sericulture was practiced throughout Italy. Florentine silk manufacturers obtained their raw silk from Naples, Calabria, and Sicily.
By about 1620 foreign competition reduced the wool manufacturing to local consumption and silk was also affected by outside competition. Producers managed by churning out the cheapest types of fabrics that required less labor and, in the end, the highly skilled silk weavers that made luxury fabrics were often left behind.
Silk became the preferred fabric for the elite by the end of the sixteenth century. Multicolored brocaded velvets, plain velvets, and damasks gave way to grosgrain, satin, and taffeta. Silk was also lighter and more comfortable to wear. Fashion became less regional in Italy with influence from France and other countries by the early 1600s. However, the Florentines preferred to continue making and purchasing silk fabric made in their hometown instead of imports.
Dressing in Layers
Getting dressed was more complicated in the Renaissance and the various garment types had specific names. Here are some basic terms and brief descriptions of what people wore. Men, women, and children all had basic clothing as part of their layers. First was the camicia, a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt/tunic mostly of cotton or linen. It was the layer than was closest to the skin and the material was easily washable. A cappa was a cloak or mantle worn by men and women and most everyone wore a cappello, a head covering or hat. At the end of the day everyone would change into their amply cut nightshirt or gown called a guardacuore, meaning “keeper of the heart.”
Women and men had different clothing requirements. There were quite a few terms for what we would call a women’s dress. Women were required to wear four layers in public, even in the hot summer months. Wearing the proper clothing was especially important if they ventured out of the house for a feast day, church, or to visit family. The many layers were regulated by statute. On top of the camicia, they wore a cotta, a women’s basic gown of lighter weight material. The most visible layer was the cioppa, a sleeved overgown, worn over the cotta. This would be made of the most expensive fabric and is the clothing most often seen in Renaissance art. Some overgowns were sleeveless in which case sleeves were tied on to the shoulders and arm holes. The final layer was the mantello, a long cloak. The mantello was designed to hide the figures of married women. In addition, there would be veils or head coverings, jewelry, and wooden clogs, or platform shoes.
A Florentine man would also dress in several layers, but the clothing was less restrictive. The camicia tucked into his hose or tights, and the hose could button onto his shoes. The braghetta, or codpiece, was a distinctive and noticeable when accentuated with padding. It served as a sack for men’s genitals that joined the hose or tights and was also used as a place for money and handkerchiefs. The next layer was the farsetto, a doublet, like a vest. Form fitting and stuffed with cotton, like a quilt, it cut a fine image of the upper torso. Next was a tunic like garment, the cioppa, pleated or gathered, and varying in length according to the style. The mantello was worn in public over the garments. In addition, a hat or cap, belt, and shoes were worn. Little jewelry was worn by men.
Styles varied by city, and of course, with time. In Benozzo Gozzoli’s 1459 parade of Florentine men in the Procession of the Magi we see the fashionistas of Florence. Painted for Piero de’ Medici (1416-69), Gozzoli includes many Medici family members and their large entourage of nobility. Men are clad in expensive brocades and colorful tunics (cioppa). As was the style of the time, men wore tight leggings of various color combinations, sometimes with one leg one color and the other in a different color. This accentuates their lithe figures.
Six handsome youths accompany the Magi Balthasar on his white horse in this detail of the east wall of the chapel. The figures stand in a variety of poses to show the color and intricacy of the fabrics from the front, side, and back. In addition, there is a fine view of the Tuscan countryside with fertile hillsides. Balthasar elegantly places his hand on his waist to allow an uninterrupted view of his clothing. The inclusion of luxury fabrics on these figures brings honor not only to Florence, but to the Medici. This was not every day dress, but special occasion feast day attire. Gozzoli may have gone over the top in painting nearly every figure in expensive fabrics at the behest of the Medici patron.
A braccia was a unit of measurement, literally meaning an arm, and is equivalent to about thirty inches, or about one yard. Fabric was measured and paid for in units of braccia. At the turn of the fifteenth century a fine wool would cost about 3 florins per braccia and velvet brocades with gold or silver threads cost 20 florins per braccia. A well cut velvet cioppa of 13 braccia with gold thread embellishment might cost over 250 florins.
It took about six months to weave fifty braccia of luxury three pile brocaded velvet. Fifty braccia of damask took about eight weeks to produce, and fifty braccia of taffeta four- and one-half weeks. Large amounts of fabric were needed for most garments, especially outer garments with the most public visibility. About nine braccia was needed for a man’s mantello. A women’s long sleeveless overdress could take twenty-six braccia. Tailors overcut mantles to achieve a greater volume of material, indicating the wealth of the client. There were many layers of garments and types of fabrics depending on whether someone was an artisan, married female, noble, or merchant. Gold brocade fabric, silk interwoven with gold wrapped thread, was by far the most expensive. Rich women would often have only the sleeves made with gold brocade.
A portrait of a young sixteenth century man epitomizes high fashion. Lodovico Martinengo is in his early twenties when he sat for this portrait. He is from Brescia in northern Italy and although we do not know much about his family, he came from nobility and wears his wealth proudly.
His white linen camicia with red cross-stich protrudes at the neck and wrists. The deep red mantello with many braccia of fabric surrounds him with light catching the three gold satin stripes. The ostrich feather atop his red cap stands out against the green velvet background. Bartolomeo Veneto, the artist, has rendered with detail the silk sleeves with gold thread, and small slashes in the sleeves revealing gold fabric. His braghetta is visually prominent. The yellow and black statin with red trim contrasts with the dark doublet. Last, but not least, his gloved hand rests on his sword, with the gold hilt catching the light. The clothes are the centerpiece of this impressive portrait as we are left with little sense of his character.
Weddings were another public way to show family pride and honor. Even the middle class went all out. Antonio d’Agnolo’s logbook records four gowns and some silk for a bride and her sister, in the mid-1400s. The bride was marrying a weaver, not a high paying profession. The cost of the ensemble was equivalent to purchasing over 500 loaves of bread, 52 brace of capons, 140 eggs, and a half barrel of red wine. Marriage required a trousseau of bride’s clothing, jewelry, shoes, a dowry, and a gift to the groom. The groom and the two families were very involved in selecting the gowns. Marriage was a public event with a procession through Florence. A headdress could cost 60 florins and two dresses upwards of 200 florins for the rich. For comparison, a wool weaver would make about 43 florins a year; unskilled laborers 27 florins a year; Brunelleschi as foreman of the Duomo in the 1430s 100 florins a year; a lawyer 400 florins.
The twenty religious feast days were also prime opportunities to show off one’s wealth and position. The color, fabric, cut, volume of fabric, and embellishments were easily read signifiers of a family’s wealth, social status, and position in the city. In addition, honor and reputation were indicated by the number of gowns women had, or the cut and fabric of man’s cloak. Cultivating a public image was essential. Even the intensity of the color would signal the quality and price, much like a brand name today might mean haute couture. Blue was the most expensive color for silk fabric as three different dyestuffs were needed.
Lower class women wore calf-length linen or wool belted gowns with an apron. Male shopkeepers wore belted tunics and leggings from plain fabrics. The difference between the haves and have nots – or important people and lower class – is depicted in Masaccio’s fresco of St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow. St. Peter and two others walk down the street dressed simply, but with many braccia of fabric. The three poor and sick men on the left have short tunics and truly little clothing. It should be noted that artists did not attempt to depict biblical characters in historical costume but preferred to represent them in contemporary clothing.
Males achieving a government or ambassador position also needed expensive clothing. About twenty yards of red fabric and the fur of fifty martens were used to make a cioppa for a man serving as a prior in the city government. That was just for the overgown, not the shirt, hat, hose, or leather accessories. Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici traveled to Rome representing Florence when Pope Alexander VI was elected. One hundred seventy-five squires and grooms accompanied six men plus Piero. They never wore the same outfit twice, bestowing great honor on the men and the city with their extravagance.
A stunning portrait painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio features a profile view of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni. Born in 1468, she wed Lorenzo Tornabuoni in 1486. Both the Albizzi and Tornabuoni were powerful families linked to the Medici. This was painted, posthumously, at age twenty, after she died giving birth. The expense to dress a noble women’s public appearance could cost up to forty percent of a family’s income, and half of that expense was not clothing, but jewelry, belts, fur trim, and embellishments. A whole complex retail system existed to make and sell all elements to dress people. There was no one stop shopping, but separate retail and artisans for each piece of an ensemble.
Giovanna’s portrait attests to the expense to present her, not foremost as a beautiful woman, but to present her as an instrument to show honor to the family. Her death in childbirth is witness to her role as wife and mother. Her yellow silk damask giornea is meant to be worn in public and in open in the front and sides to allow for walking. It is embroidered with the letter “L” and the Tornabuoni family diamond emblem. Her red silk sleeves with white flowers are tied to the bodice of the gown with slits to show the underlying white fabric. The rubies, diamond, and pearls are status symbols.
Sometimes displays of wealth went too far, and the city legislated the amount and type of fabric or jewels worn. They created a fashion police, run by men of course, called the Ufficiali delle donne, the “officers of the women.” Sumptuary laws forbidding ways of dressing were skillfully avoided or worked around by women and men. Women were rounded up not for showing too much skin, but for violations such as wearing prohibited yellow and white silk ribbons braided into their hair. Nonetheless, in a three-day effort fifty-one women were caught for breaching these laws in 1343.
The Dominican monk Fra Carnevale painted The Birth of the Virgin which presents a summation of typical fifteenth century Florentine clothing. Painted about 1467, the monk was a contemporary of Piero della Francesca and fellow monk Fra Filippo Lippi, in whose shop he worked. Carnevale uses architecture to distinguish between the four different scenes. St. Anne lies on a bed in the farthest scene on the right-hand side after she gave birth to the baby Mary. In the middle scene attendants and midwives bath the baby, while in the scene closest to the viewer eight women gather in the piazza with one child. Men mingle and walk about on the left-hand side, one with a rabbit, one with a bird, and a few dogs. Some men move into the interior scene and others stride away.
The artist has represented an array of different fabric colors and dress. The men wear hose, hat, tunics, and cloaks. Note the sheer volume of fabric the women wear with trains on their garments. One woman is dressed to impress with a French style peaked hat in red with pearls and gems and is attired in four different colored fabrics. Her dark velvet sleeve with gold thread design contrasts with the pink and blue overgown. In contrast, the mantello on the other women are modestly made of wool. Wearing the mantello was a demarcation of an adult woman.
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