University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Creating an identity through clothing: a Renaissance merchant’s fashion book

For the second year UoP History module, The Hidden Lives of Things, taught by Dr Katy Gibbons and Dr Mary Cannon, for their assessment, students have to produce an ‘object biography’ for a historical artefact.  Sadie White chose a sixteen-century German fashion book.

Mathäus Schwartz by Hans Maler, painted in 1526 when Schwarz was 29, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Described as “The First Book of Fashion,” Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg’s Klaidungsbüchlein or Trachtenbuch or “Book of Clothes” is a fascinating object.[1] This object biography explores Schwarz’s reason for producing this book, entangling ideas of self-reflection linked to the Renaissance, the importance of clothes and the idea of sentimentality. It will explore the book’s lifecycle and how someone’s relationship with an object can change its function and importance. Throughout, Riello’s approach of a “history of things” will be prevalent, placing the object in its cultural and personal context.[2]

The book itself contains over one hundred and thirty-seven colourful self-portraits that reflect upon the clothing Schwarz wore throughout his life.[3] Each page is around sixteen by ten centimetres, produced on parchment paper with vivid watercolour paints, a rarer medium of the time.[4] Also included on each page is a description of the outfit, alongside his age and occasionally the reason the outfit was worn, which Schwarz scribed himself. Schwarz worked closely with the artist Narziss Renner for four-fifths of the book, until Renner died in 1536. [5] Woodward argues that objects are “the material embodiment” of the human effort that first creates them.[6] Meeting Renner when he was just twenty years old, portrays the personal effort involved, Schwarz entrusted Renner to produce something important to him. The personal relationship between the patron and the artist was paramount in the book’s creation: after Renner’s death, only twenty-nine more paintings were produced for the book. [7]

An entry showing Matthias as a young man, aged 21.

An entry showing Matthäus as a young man, aged 21.

This leads to why Schwarz created such an object in the first place, it appears that it was intended as a personal project, that would have probably only been shared with family or close friends.[8] This is interesting as it represents the object as being self-reflective, an idea that coincided with the increase of personal documents such as diaries during the period.[9] The creation of this book started in 1520, the year that Schwarz secured his position working as an accountant to the Fugger merchants, “captains of industry” in Augsburg.[10] This position represented a turning point for Schwarz, restoring family honour after the public execution of his grandfather.[11] This idea lends itself to the book having a diary-like nature as Sangha argues they reflected the way people interpreted important events in their lives.[12] Sangha also argues that self-examination at this time was usually focused on one aspect of someone’s life, for Schwarz, this was clothing.[13] During the early modern period, clothing was intrinsically linked to social status, as Prieto argues clothes were used to “fashion oneself.”[14] Therefore the creation of the Book of Fashion exemplifies the reflection of identity through clothing. Vincent asserts that clothing was a choice of “self-presentation,” Schwarz was choosing to present and remember his life through his clothes.[15] Art and fashion were “imbued with meaning,” therefore the book provides an insight into the way people chose to perceive themselves and reflects how the culture of the Renaissance meant art was just as contemplative as writing.[16]

Matthäus Schwarz painted aged 45 in 1542 by Christoph Amberger, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Matthäus Schwarz painted aged 45 in 1542 by Christoph Amberger, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The Book of Fashion demonstrates arguments that have started to become prevalent in the historiography of material culture, the rejection that objects are inanimate and instead that they can possess agency.[17] If the owner of an object “ascribes meaning” to it, this can lead to an emotional attachment.[18] Schwarz created this book over forty years, exemplifying that there was a relationship between the object and himself, it evoked reflection and memory through the creation of it, hence creating a personal connection.[19] Books and emotions, Downes argues, are intrinsically linked, as they proved the connection between material culture and how people used it to express emotion.[20] For Schwarz, this emotional expression is evident through the remembrance of events in his life, and the remembrance of his love of art and clothing through the object’s creation. Undeniably, The Book of Fashion had agency in Schwarz’s life because it was how he chose to remember his life, particularly key events such as weddings. This is also telling of human behaviour, why he deemed certain outfits and events as important passageways to include. Important events linked to an object are key to building sentimentality towards an object, as Fletcher argues.[21] Therefore as a book, it is an entanglement of nostalgia, passion and emotion that held forty years of life in it.

Portrait of Electress Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), Princess Palatine, ancestress of the British monarchy, who bought Matthäus's fashion book after his death, Portrait by Gerrard van Honthorst, National Trust, Ashdown House, Berkshire.

Electress Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), Princess Palatine, bought Matthäus’s fashion book after his death. Portrait by Gerrard van Honthorst, National Trust, Ashdown House, Berkshire.

The final important analysis when discussing the book is its lifecycle, how it survived and the changing meaning it acquired through the passage of time. Matthaeus encouraged his son to work on creating a similar book, demonstrating his sentimentality towards the book. However, his son scarcely carried the project on, adding to the personal nature of the book, and its specific socio-cultural context. During Matthaeus’s time living in the rich industrial centre of Augsburg, there was a Renaissance trend of increasingly realistic portrayals of both the self and clothes in portraits, seen through the work of artists such as Daniel Hopfer.[22] This links to self-observation and explains why Schwarz created this object the way he did in 1520, and why it is a specific outcome of the cultural context. After Matthaus’s death, the book came into the possession of his granddaughter, who sold the manuscript to Jeremias Steiniger.[23] This shows the loss of personal importance of the book. His granddaughter had no relationship with him and thus no relationship to the object. With no emotional connection, the object lost its agency. In this case, it was sold, considering this was not the original intention for creation, it demonstrates that as a relationship changes with an object so does the purpose of it. It is thought that the manuscript was then sold to Sophie Electress of Hanover and two copies were made, one remaining in the Imperial Library in Paris to this day. [24] Vastly different from its original purpose of self-reflection, it now acts to reflect on the values of the Renaissance and how books are the mirror of the culture that made them.

In conclusion, The Book of Fashion when studied as an object brings to the forefront many ideas surrounding the Renaissance. It shows us the rise of self-reflection and how people carried this out through a myriad of media, whilst simultaneously exemplifying the role of objects in this process. Another salient analysis of the Book of Fashion is the clear agency it had throughout Schwarz’s life and the importance he attached to creating the object. This is why the book held a fascination, it was a personally reflective object, yet it created this reflection through art and clothing, which in turn provides huge insight into the culture of the Renaissance.

To discover more about clothes and the construction of Renaissance masculinity, read our 2017 post on King Henry VIII’s wardrobe by Andrew McCarthy. 

[1] Ulinka Rublack, “Introduction,” in The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthaeus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg ed. Ulinka Rublack, Maria Hayward and Jenny Tiramni (London: Bloomsbury Publishing 2015), 3.

[2] Giorgio Riello, “Things that shape history,” in History and Material Culture: A Students Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources ed. Karen Harvey (London: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 25.

[3] Rublack, “Introduction,” 3.

[4] Rublack, “Introduction,” 3.

[5] Rublack, “Introduction,” 20.

[6] Ian Woodward, Understanding Material Culture, (London: Sage, 2007), 82.

[7] Rublack, “Introduction,” 10.

[8] Rublack, “Introduction,” 3.

[9] Laura Sangha, “Personal Documents,” in  Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, ed. Laura Sangha and Jonathon Willis (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016), 107.

[10] Mark Haberlein and Gerda Schmid, The Fuggers of Augsburg: Pursuing Wealth and Honor in Renaissance Germany (Virginia: Virginia University Press, 2012), 2.

[11] Rublack, “Introduction,” 3.

[12] Sangha, “Personal Documents,” 112.

[13] Sangha, “Personal Documents,” 115.

[14] Laura R. Prieto, “Clothing,” in Approaching Historical Sources in their Contexts: Spaces, Time and Performance ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird, (New York: Routledge, 2020), 184

[15] Susan Vincent, Dressing the elite: Clothes in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.

[16] Vincent, Dressing the elite, 5.

[17] Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway and Sarah Randalls, Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 8.

[18] Downes, Holloway and Randalls, Feeling Things, 9.

[19] Stephanie Triig and Anna Welch, “Objects, Material Culture and the History of Emotions,” Emotions: History, Culture, Society 7 (2023): 7.

[20] Stephanie Downes, “Books,” in Early Modern Emotions ed. Susan Broomhall (London: Routledge, 2016), 132.

[21] Downes, Holloway and Randalls, Feeling things, 13.

[22] Rublack, “Introduction,” 5.

[23] Rublack, “Introduction,” 21.

[24] Rublack, “Introduction,” 21.

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