Dating Fashionable Middle-Aged People

By Werlin, Katy | Humanities, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Dating Fashionable Middle-Aged People


Werlin, Katy, Humanities


Iluminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 13251515 is like many medieval storybooks. It has knights and ladies, kings and castles, fantastic and fearsome beasts, pageantry and romance. It tells a story of two hundred years, drawing the reader into an exciting world that is both familiar and foreign. But the story is not one of heroic deeds or epic romances. Actually, it's about clothes. And behind its sartorial history is another story, a fairy tale nearly thirty years in the making, about perseverance, heroic dedication, and the triumph of love.

Once upon a time, Anne van Buren, a scholar of medieval art, received a grant "to support the completion of a book on costume dating in late medieval art, primarily French and Flemish, focusing on illuminated manuscripts, painted panels, and incunabula." Using only art that was firmly dated or datable to within five years, she aimed to use the fashion portrayed in these artworks to create a tímeline that could be used by scholars to date undated art. The project focused on a tiny niche of the historical spectrum, but van Buren's meticulous work had the potential to clarify a period that is quite muddy, creating a precise timeline to guide scholars in several disciplines. From this apparently modest seed her project grew like Jack's beanstalk, resulting in a book, an exhibition, a prestigious lecture series, and an enormous contribution to fashion history and art history.

Van Buren was born in 1927 in New York City. Her early interests were far from the obscure reaches of medieval art history. She focused on mathematics and science, two fields requiring objective and precise work, perhaps influencing her later research methodology. It wasn't until the early 1960s that her interests took a more artistic bent. In 1964, she received her master's from the University of Texas, after writing a thesis about portraits of Paul Cezanne's wife. While working toward her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College, van Buren met L.M.J. Délaissé, a scholar of Belgian manuscripts, and became fascinated with medieval manuscripts.

She became a professor at Tufts University in 1975, and in the early 1980s began the enormous work that later became Illuminating Fashion. Her first step was simply to locate medieval imagery either firmly dated or datable within a five-year period. With the help of her research assistant - a young scholar named Roger Wieck, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the world of illuminated manuscripts - she pored through every resource she could find, looking at books, catalogs, and traveling the world to visit archives. Before even completing this inventory, they began to edit the collection. Van Buren and Wieck were seeking the very best contemporary representations of medieval fashion. With this selection, a timeline began to form, yielding not only a chronology but an illustration of how the evolution of medieval fashion mirrored the evolution of medieval society.

Wieck left the project in 1985, while van Buren continued to work on her own, her database growing ever larger. In 1986, she received a second grant, but even after those funds ran out, she kept working on the project. As the years went by, scholars in the field of medieval manuscripts continued to hear about the proposed book. Always extremely active in her field, van Buren would attend conferences and lectures and question the dates of the manuscripts presented, saying they were wrong because of the clothing and adding, "You'll read all about it in my book!" But the book did not materialize. "It took so long to do it, people began to doubt it actually existed," remembers Wieck.

In the 1990s, an old friend rode in to help the book finally come to fruition. Wieck, now working at the Morgan Library & Museum, wanted to bring this research out of its tower and share it with the world. It would take a king's ransom to fund publication, but money came from the Franklin Jasper Walls Lecture Fund, a prestigious grant established in the late 1940s to promote lectures representing the highest scholarship and their publication in book form. …

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