A Cultural and Historical Investigation of Cloth

The first part of this task involved reading an excerpt from Lou Taylor’s book “Disentangling Textiles” (Schoeser and Boydell, 2002) about decoding hierarchy and status from textile objects. We were then to visit the National Gallery, choose 6 images; looking at the textiles in the image and analysing it based on Taylor’s model.

After reading the excerpt I understood that Taylor proposed a 12 stage model which lay out the 12 main areas of focus when looking at cloth and trying to understand its historical and cultural background. Obviously the type of cloth can then tell you about the person wearing it and vice versa.

To summarise, the 12 areas are:

  1. Rarity of fibre/cloth – silk and cashmere are precious (1800’s)
  2. Novelty – middle class and masses. Is there a shock in design or fabric e.g Lycra. Bright colours used?
  3. Elitist Social-Ritual function – Worn by royals? Or people associated with royals; prestige
  4. Elitist status of wearers – designers wanted to get their fabric on famous people. Anyone with influence / in the public eye. Not cheap fabric
  5. Country of Origin – France produced lots of original designs. Copied by the British. Poorer countries of origin brings down status e.g. India
  6. Known Designer / manufacturers name – artists began to design. Economic panic. Hard to name designer, designs were sold very freely and all around the world – not always sold under the designer’s name.
  7. High level of aesthetic quality – taste. Differing ideas of taste in different cultures. What “goes together”? Taste can bring similar minded people together but can also be a way of division
  8. Unusual / Costly manufacturing process – what is the complexity? The longer or more labour intensive = status. One off fabrics, hand beaded; all time consuming.
  9. High Price – the more costly an item was the more status the wearer had – Silks. The more durable and cheap a fabric was the more it developed a negative status.
  10. Newness of pattern / colour – bi annual fashion cycles. Yellow was popular in 1817, replaced by dark green, crimson and orange.  Scottish blues in 1822. Rarer a colour = more status
  11. Tactile qualities / delicacy / softness – delicacy is heaven whilst durability is the “graveyard” Cotton muslin and silk chiffon. A fabric did not have to be costly but needed to be delicate to still achieve status. Mass production of Nylon / Rayon versions of silk or chiffon produced a negative status.
  12. Elitist Orientated Marketing – Jean Revel, sold silks to European Royalty – business and practice. Enhancing his marketing to sell to more upmarket people / places. There were no vulgar images of commerce / trade. Negative marketing includes: using words such as; durable, economical, good value for money. This was only for the poorest consumers.

The first image I chose was;

Portrait of a Young Man – Moretto De Brescia – 1540

The sitter in this image is clearly dressed very lavishly. The coat is lined with snow leopard fur – a costly and unusual manufacturing process (No.8), that in itself shows off the wealth of this man. We can infer that he is some kind of nobleman / humanist. He is also surrounded by expensive items, the coins and oil lamp, which add to his high societal status. His under clothes have been embellish with gold thread, another signifier of wealth because embellishment is a lengthy and costly process. His headgear (including the feather) imply a softness to the outfit. A soft, delicate texture (No. 11) is also very desirable in clothing. The sitter in this painting would be seen as fashionable for his time (No. 7) which would make him have some kind of importance / influence over others at the time.

Holbein the younger, Hans, c.1497-1543; Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')
Jean De Dintville and Georges De Selve – Hans Holbein the Younger – 1533

The two men in this painting are ambassadors. Immediately we know that they are at the top end of society. The crimson and black coloured overcoat implies wealth (strong, unusual, new colours for the time No. 2) The velvety looking fabric would also fit the criteria of having good tactile qualities (No.11). The coat is fur-lined which again shows both No. 8 – unusual and complex manufacturing and No. 11 – soft fabrics, which are both indicators of wealth and status. Also fur would be a rarity (No.1) At the time, expensive to buy, thus only people with money could afford this types of clothing. These men are highly fashionable for the time (No. 7). The objects in the paintings also allude to the fact they are well-travelled men. The man on the left is wearing a patterned robe which would have added to the novelty factor, improving his status.

A comparison has to made at this time from menswear in the 1500’s compared to nowadays. This is something I noticed straight away when looking at these paintings. Men showed off their wealth by the clothes they wore;they were more flamboyant, exciting and different. Menswear today, I feel has become a lot more muted and understated. It is not common for men to dress so eccentrically.


Paolo Veronese – Happy Union – 1575

This painting portrays an allegory of love. The woman is the focus of the painting. She represents fertility – a common depiction for this time. A woman’s role was to bear children. The woman is dressed in a pink silky fabric. Showing her femininity as well as suggesting a good tactile quality to the fabric (No. 11). The fabric is also pattered which would have added to the novelty to the outfit (No. 2). She also has beading on her dress, which would have been very time-consuming which again adds to the status of the wearer.


Edouard Manet – The Execution Of Maximilian – 1867-8

In this painting Archduke Ferdinand is being executed by Mexican Republicans. Only his hand is visible which creates a very powerful image. I focused on the military outfits in the painting. These outfits are much more contrasting to previous I have looked at. The model talks about how fabric creates status but these outfits question that model. As these uniforms were fit for purpose – they’re durable, long-lasting, cost-effective – everything that the model suggests brings down status. They would have negative marketing, however the men in the military; certainly the higher ranking staff would have had status. So despite their clothing suggesting otherwise, this could be one example where the textiles suggest something different to how society actually viewed these men. (They were made for comfort, dull colours, not soft – all things that go against the model).


Pierre-August Renoir – Dancing Girl with Tambourine – 1909

A woman on display. Captured in a moment of dance. Not typical English dress, borrowing styles, colour, pattern from other cultures. This adds novelty to the outfit. Beading used on the clothing, this also add to the status of the cloth.  We are unsure of the country of origin, possibly an imitation piece.

Edouard Manet – Music in the Tulleries Gardens – 1862

Flaneur men pictured above. Men of leisure, wanderers of the street. We know they are wealthy. This is a gathering of the elite. The poet Charles Baudelaire is also in the painting, this can be seen as elitist marketing(Only a certain type of person could attend these gatherings; they all have status. Another sign that they have wealth is the headdresses; men in top hats and women with lace veils – lace was expensive as it would have been handmade. The children can also be seen as dressed in their best clothes; wearing white as a sign of purity and vulnerability. There is a high level of aesthetic quality (No. 7) these people were very fashionable. The would have led the way in terms of fashion that the lower class’s would have looked up to. They are in seasonal dress – brighter colours (creams and white) (No. 10).

The second part of the task was to go out into shops and compare the textiles nowadays to what we have just seen in the paintings. Also, looking at Taylor’s model and seeing which elements apply to the clothes today. I decided just to focus on the fashion element but this could have been applied to interiors as well. I visited Liberty’s in order to find high quality fabrics / clothing that I could compare with the clothing in the previous images.

Immediately when arriving onto the womenswear section of Liberty it was obvious that every garment had some feel of luxury to it. I started by look at the collection of Rick Owens; who had a very natural, muted colour palette. The first item which I was drawn to was a soft mohair jumper. Beige in colour, it is made from a very expensive fabric and has a soft, delicate tactile quality to it. This compares to some of the other fabrics we have seen in the paintings. It was priced at £545. Obviously the price of the jumper would make it clear that the wearer would have some kind of wealth and status but this differs from the past as then fewer people would have been able to afford such things. Also, nowadays it can be difficult to tell a fabric / persons status because such jumpers are so easily replicated with a lesser quality material. As part of his collection he also included very soft velvet trousers – tactile. As well as a gold sequined, embellished jacket – time consuming process.


The next item I happened to see was a black floor length dress by Temperly London. This dress was completely embellished in beads and diamante from head to toe. It was beautiful. It just oozed luxury; the wearer of this dress would definitely be seen to have status. The amount of time and skill involved in the making and embellishing of the dress would have been exorbitant. It had all been done by hand. To finish it off, the dress had a long silk ribbon draping down the back, tied at the neck. It cost £6325.


The next thing I saw was a sign that hung on the front of a dress. It was a liberty sign stating “Exclusive to Liberty” which again adds to the status of the store. It gives an elitist, exclusive feeling to the wearer. They feel special in the clothes, knowing that the items are only available in one place – not being mass-produced all over the world. This type of shopping is an experience in itself. Liberty’s appeal to a richer, more influential type of person. They want celebrities  / people in the public eye to wear their clothes and encourage others to do the same. Like in Taylor’s model; it is important to get their clothes out into the real world, on the backs of famous individuals.



The next item I decided to look at was a pale blue macrame lace shift dress. In contrast to the lace made in years past, this lace would have been manufactured by a machine and they would have used a chemical dye to colour the fabric. This shows how technology has moved on, but it also lessens the quality and status of the materials. (Macrame = pattern made from knotting).



Another garment was a grey feathered skirt.  It was made of cashmere – a very expensive fabric in the 1800’s (Taylor’s model mentions rarity and cost of fabrics) as well as nowadays. It has a very soft, delicate nature to it. The skirt was actually quite thick, the weight of it implied it is very good quality. The floaty design of the feathers also gave a soft, tactile quality to the skirt.



The Alice Olivia trousers I came across were also magnificent. Every inch had been embellished in delicate, tiny bead work. A very time-consuming and labour intensive process. Marcel embellished pattern, highly decorative – high aesthetic quality.



Courreges had a coat made of thick, green canvas with black vinyl sleeves. These fabrics are both newer materials – especially the vinyl. These would not have been around / widely used in the era of the paintings above. It is sheep fur-lined, adding to the cost and status of the piece.

Black and white geometric patterned wool coat. Silk lined. This type of pattern is abrupt; would be shocking and create a buzz. Gives the wearer status according to Taylor’s model. The element of shock / surprise and novelty all work in the wearers favour.


That concludes this investigation into cloth. I have looked at they types of cloth used in the past, why they were used and what this says not only about the cloth but also the person wearing it. I have also contrasted this with today’s fashion; why we wear certain clothes and if Taylor’s model can still be applied to cloth and the wearers of cloth today.

Schoeser, M. and Boydell, C. (2002). Disentangling textiles. London: Middlesex University Press.
De Brescia, M. (1540). Portrait of a Young Man. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=MORETTO+DA+BRESCIA+PORTRAIT+OF+A+YOUNG+MAN&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjpneGU3orQAhVKOMAKHXbfDLYQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=fQm81mAGodkBAM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
De Dintville and De Selve, J. (1533). Hans Holbein the Younger. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=jean+de+dinteville+and+georges+de+selve+hans+holbein+the+younger&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjQka-n3orQAhXoCMAKHUDCAEMQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=u0qfrj6zNDovbM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
Versonese, P. (1575). Happy Union. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=happy+union+paolo+veronese&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjAwYqx3orQAhXEI8AKHb_pCUUQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=bzYjRTZymlXhVM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
Manet, E. (1867-8). The Execution of Maximillian. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=the+execution+of+maximilian+edouard+manet&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjku4rC3orQAhWBJcAKHTvwATMQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=5LitGFcLLh4xtM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
Renoir, P. (1909). Dancing Girl with Tambourine. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=dancing+girl+with+tambourine+pierre+auguste+renoir&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG1JXc3orQAhWJJMAKHTAQAy8Q_AUIBigB#imgrc=Evr0u9oNv_qCtM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].
Manet, E. (1862). Music in the Tulleries Gardens. [image] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=music+in+tuileries+gardens+edouard+manet&rlz=1C1VFKA_enGB714GB716&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=662&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwimhYXr3orQAhXsBcAKHcLQAHsQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=Yf3Lbcd504-_ZM%3A [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].

*All other photos my own


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