Picture it, Italy, Fifteen-0-Something. Somewhere in Florence, brush in hand, Leonardo Da Vinci is on the verge of capturing the perplexing smirk of a silk merchant’s wife, that half a millennium hence will be valued at nearly 800 million dollars, and draw an annual 6 million philistines, tourists and art lovers to the Denon wing of the Louvre. His arch-rival, Michelangelo, is presently to be found in Rome – terminus of the admonishing glare cast by his newly unveiled David, looking thence from its plinth outside the Palazzo Vecchio. What is he doing in Rome, you ask? Nothing too ambitious, just depicting the aching distance between man and the divine on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Incidentally, recent university graduate and future heretic, Nicolaus Copernicus, is at this very moment leaving Rome for Poland to propose that the earth revolves around the sun. Meanwhile, back in Florence, Leonardo’s roommate has just invented the modern system of financial accounting.
It is not for naught that the 16th century is considered the era in which the rise of the West occurred; and while its causes and effects were by no means confined to any national borders, Italy was absolutely central to this ascent. The Renaissance was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in muddy backwaters like England, where beheadings, plague, witchcraft and sheep’s intestines were all that anyone knew. It was a time of unprecedented change; the beginning of the modern era in a century that opened with the discovery of an entirely new continent, and closed with the invention of the flush toilet – transiting, among countless other things, Shakespeare, the Reformation, the great Dancing Plague of 1518, and the introduction of the letter J to the English alphabet.
Life was largely prosperous, with even the average peasant able to afford a chicken or two for the stew pot. People were optimistic about the future and the population was growing. Geniuses were tripping over each other on street corners producing one scientific innovation after another, including technological advances like gunpowder which changed the nature of warfare, and the printing press, which created a media revolution, bringing ideas, political codswallop and how-to manuals to the people.
Now, it is said that in times of great upheaval two tendencies emerge, one embracing the turmoil as an occasion to forge new forms, the other suspicious of it and seeking to control it. In the context of fashion in 16th century Italy, this was certainly the case, and it is in this light that we can understand the emergence at this time of a new mode of thinking about dress that investigated both the possibility of expanding, but also of limiting its potential. Indeed, the origin of what we now know as “fashion discourse”. The thrilling new possibility of being in control of one’s appearance and place in the world, free to self-create, was starkly contrasted by norms introduced to standardise beauty, good manners, taste and style, and the identification of dress with status, modesty and moral decorum. The functional impact of this on the construction of a middle-class society, public conduct, the concern for appearance in aesthetic and social terms, all became significant themes in a wide variety of books belonging to different genres. One such example is Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, the first theoretical investigation into the social and political meaning of dress, and the origin of several of the concepts which would go on to define our prevailing ideas about style in the West. Prime among these, the concept of “graceful restraint”, or sprezzatura – which was to become one of the most powerful mythologies of the modern individual, and a foundational element of the way we came to think and talk about ‘style’ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.