Dress in Mediaeval France

Dress in Mediaeval France

Dress in Mediaeval France

Dress in Mediaeval France

Excerpt

It is a tribute to the quality of French mediaeval art that we rarely have to date its sculpture or painting from the details of the dresses they represent. All great art is better dated by style than by costume. We do not date a portrait by Rubens or Rembrandt, Manet or Renoir, by the costume of the sitter but by the place of the picture in the history of the artist's development: it is only for the work of minor painters and engravers that the detailed study of costume is necessary to set them in their right ambience.

The great majority of mediaeval artists remain anonymous, and it is rarely possible to trace the development of a single master's œuvre. None the less, mediaeval style is so clear and organic in its growth that its art can be better dated by style than by costume. Yet mediaeval dress is a subject not only interesting as a mirror of social history but also as a part of the story of mediaeval artistic creation. Its study may have less practical interest for the historian of art than that of the fashion-plates of the nineteenth century, but its aesthetic and historical significance is far greater. Mediaeval literature shows the Frenchman of the Middle Ages to be more interested in clothes and personal appearance than in the beauties of nature. Both must have gained dignity and depth from the broad shadows of rooms with thick walls and small or windows; both must have gained beauty and impressiveness from a background of tapestries or wall-paintings.

My interest in the subject is historical; I follow in the path trodden by Viollet-le-Duc and Quicherat, not in that of those who design mediaeval dresses for the modern stage. Several reasons justify me in my attempt to supplement and recapitulate the work of my predecessors. Viollet-le-Duc, though a pioneer in the subject, was not always accurate in his dating, and did not sufficiently distinguish who were the people portrayed in the monuments he illustrated; for example, he included the Jews and foreigners of the Vézelay tympanum, who are deliberately portrayed in fantastic dress, among his illustrations of ordinary people. Quicherat's book, admirable though it remains, is inadequately illustrated; in 1877 the tradition of engraving was decadent and half-tone plates from photographs were not yet in use. Even the work of my friend the late Camille Enlart is not . . .

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