Exhibiting Early Modern Fashion: 16th-Century Grave Clothes

Clothes belonging to Pietro of Aragon, mid 16th century, on display in San Domenico Maggiore, Naples

Clothes belonging to Pietro of Aragon, mid 16th century, on display in San Domenico Maggiore, Naples

One of the great frustrations of life as an early modern fashion historian is the relative lack of surviving objects, especially compared to both clothes from later time periods and other types of early modern material culture. Some kinds of garments and accessories have a higher survival rate than others: I’ve viewed nearly a hundred pairs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gloves over the course of my PhD so far. But in relation to doublets – another key focus of my research – far fewer objects remain, and there are far more extant seventeenth-century examples than there are sixteenth. The V&A has a brilliant and sizable collection of doublets, for example, but they all date from 1600 onwards.

            The paucity of surviving early modern dress is partly due to the nature of textiles (they are more likely to wear away, disintegrate or be eaten than other types of materials), partly due to the fact that clothes were frequently reused and recycled rather than being put away for posterity, every possible scrap of use squeezed out of them. This means that one of our main sources for early modern clothing has been ‘grave clothes’, an issue which was discussed in the exhibition ‘In Mode’ at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum last year. Some people were buried fully dressed, and consequently when their bodies have been exhumed for various reasons, their preserved clothes have been removed and conserved.


The room next to the sacristy in San Domenico Maggiore, Naples

            One such cache of grave clothes can be found in the church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, which I recently visited. An upper gallery in the church’s sacristry contains a series of coffins in which various members of the Aragonese nobility and royal family were buried. The clothes removed from their bodies can be seen in an adjacent room, housed in large wooden cabinets, some pinned up vertically behind sheets of glass, others laid flat in drawers. There is an array of sixteenth-century men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, including hats, stockings and shoes.

            What does it mean for early modern clothing to be on display like this in a church rather than housed in a museum? In the church they are actually accessible and on view, whereas in a museum they would most likely be hidden away in stores for conservation reasons, although the format of their display is less than ideal, the glass making it hard to see all their details, the drawers not quite pulling out far enough, and the clothes themselves looking in need of a bit of TLC. In the church the only interpretation is a diagram to tell you which person the contents of each drawer belonged to. There also seems to be a real lack of awareness that the clothes are there. I only found out about them because a number are illustrated in Roberta Orsi Landini’s brilliant book Moda a Firenze 1540-1580: Lo stile di Cosimo I de’ Medici (2011). The signs at the entrance to San Domenico do mention that the sacristy contains historic clothes, but there was only one other visitor to the sacristy (which admittedly you do have to pay to enter) in all the time I was there (which was a while). Maybe it’s just that few people share my interest in or passion for bits of sixteenth-century cloth, but I did want to shout ‘Don’t you realise how rare and exciting this stuff is?’.

            The garments in San Domenico Maggiore are kept alongside ecclesiastical vestments, religious sculptures, and relics, amalgamated into the church’s treasury of possessions. Does that impact on the way we view and respond to the clothes? Do they themselves become relics of former lives, or are these items of contemporary fashion strange secular incursions into a religious setting?

            A contrasting display of sixteenth-century Italian grave clothes is that in the Galleria del Costume in the Pitti Palace in Florence. The clothes that Cosimo I de’ Medici, his wife Eleonora of Toledo, and their son Don Garzia were buried in have been conserved, placed on permanent display, and shown alongside Janet Arnold’s drawings of the garments and interpretative panels discussing them. They are therefore in a better condition than the clothes in San Domenico and so look more impressive at first glance, although both sets of garments are equally interesting in the details they possess. But the Medici clothes too are tucked away in an unmarked room in a corner of the Pitti Palace that gains a lot less traffic than some of its other sections. The Galleria has not marked out the route to take through its series of rooms and temporary exhibition, and so had I not determinedly peered through every open door, I would have missed the Medici clothes. Incidentally, its main exhibition contained some lovely garments, but arranged in a way that was not conducive to being able to adequately view them, overly conceptual room panels, and seemingly no introduction to the exhibition as a whole, so that I came out not exactly sure of what I had just seen or what it’s aim was.

            Having the opportunity to disappear off to Italy for a few days and see some examples of sixteenth-century clothing has been really beneficial for my research and my understanding of early modern dress. It would just be nice if the places holding these objects made more of the fact they possess these amazing remnants of another era.