Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tips for Renaissance Clothing Research

Finding out what historically accurate Renaissance clothing looks like can be a bit difficult. There are thousands of resources available on the internet and no doubt thousands of books on the subject as well. Knowing which of these resources are accurate can be difficult. This post includes some things I have learned while trying to find information about clothing worn during the Renaissance period.

#1: Primary sources are always most important. These sources are first hand accounts by the people actually living during the period. Look at artwork, sculptures, and effigies created during the Renaissance period to see what people of the time were wearing. (1) Even original writings may refer to clothing, if you can decipher them. Keep in mind that artists may have added fantasy elements to the costumes their subjects were wearing. Thus, not all artwork will show historically accurate Renaissance clothing as it was being worn at the time. Keep in mind that the color of the clothing in artwork may not accurately reflect the actual color of the clothing worn. For example, Amy Butler Greenfield notes in her book, A Perfect Red, “Peasants sometimes appear brightly dressed in medieval and Renaissance works of art, such as the duc de Berry’s lavish Très Riches Heures. This is less a reflection of peasant wardrobes than of the fact that wealthy patrons could afford precious pigments and expected their artists to use them.”(pg 9)

So how does a person know whether an artist’s renderings are accurate? By looking at other paintings during that time period it is possible to see the trends in clothing worn. So if a particular style is depicted multiple times by different artists, then it seems more likely that it is accurate. Keep in mind information about colors, status, and social traditions.

Also, some knowledge of a particular artist is useful. Knowing the country and city where the artist worked and grew up may provide information about the elements and style of clothing in a geographic region. For example, say you want to know what men wore in the early 1500s in Florence, Italy. Then look at pictures painted by artists working in Florence, Italy in the early 1500s. In addition, knowing whether the artist frequently indulged in fantastical imaginings and depictions will indicate the trustworthiness of the clothing depicted.

Now the question arises of where to find and view these primary sources. The library is always a good place to start. Search in art history books and magazines, books about museum collections, and books about the Renaissance. They usually feature pictures of artwork completed during the Renaissance and thus show Renaissance clothing. Period artwork can also be viewed on the internet. Search for Renaissance art, English Renaissance art, or whatever area strikes your fancy. Searching for websites about Renaissance clothing will also result in references to period artwork.

#2: I’ve also found secondary sources interpreting the primary sources to be very useful. The reason is that once I started looking at the primary sources, I still didn’t really know what I was seeing. Are the people depicted upper class or lower class? How are their clothes put together? Is it a summer or winter fashion? Is it everyday clothing or party clothing? Interpretations are always useful. For example, in 1510 Vittore Carpaccio painted a picture called Two Venetian Ladies on Terrace. When I first looked at this picture I thought the sleeves were made of puffy white fabric sewn to the darker patterned upper fabric. It wasn’t until a week later when I actually saw a present-day renaissance costume showing the sleeves ( did I realize that the puffy white fabric is the separate underclothing or chemise and that the darker patterned sleeves were tied over the chemise. Suddenly, references about detachable sleeves that I had vaguely comprehended earlier in other secondary sources made perfect sense. What gives me confidence about the costume’s accuracy at is how the Renaissance paintings from which the dress is designed are shown as well. A good secondary source will refer back to the primary source from which assumptions are drawn.

Evaluating the accuracy of secondary sources can be interesting. One method of evaluation is to review the opinions of other people about a source, while presuming in a hopeful manner that they know what they are talking about. For example, many books on the subject of Renaissance clothing have been reviewed by consumers at I would be inclined to trust most of the information in a book with twenty opinions giving the book a top rating over a book with three mediocre opinion ratings. Also, popular books that are referred to by multiple costuming sources as accurate increases my perceived value of the historical accuracy of those particular books.

The websites for re-enactment organizations, like that of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. (, contain links to pages about Renaissance clothing and other historical costumes. A source referred to by the SCA gives me greater confidence in the accuracy of the information. As with all research, viewing a large variety of sources will improve the researcher’s ability to evaluate information accuracy.

Secondary sources are pretty easy to find. Again, go to the library and look for Renaissance clothing, historical clothing, and historical costumes. Run an internet search on the same key words. If you are looking for a particular type of clothing, then run a search on that topic specifically.

That’s all for now and as always – thank you for visiting my blog about Renaissance clothing.


(1) In this case an effigy is the sculpted likeness of a person placed on the top of his or her grave.


Amy Butler Greenfield A Perfect Red (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005).

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