Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review--"The Dress of the Venetians"

My regular readers may recall that, back in 2005, I was caught up in designing a lavish, early 16th century Venetian gown for a role in a live-action roleplaying game.  Since I knew almost nothing about the costume of that place and period at the time, I was interested in obtaining a copy of this book:
Newton, Stella Mary. The Dress of The Venetians--1495 to 1525 (Pasold Studies in Textile History 7, Scolar Press 1988).
Durer's Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman
Unfortunately, Ms. Newton's book had long since gone out of print by 2005, and copies were, and are, selling for three-figure prices (in U.S. dollars) on the secondhand book market on the Internet (and I have never heard of or seen mention of a copy of the book outside of the Internet). I might have tried to obtain a copy by interlibrary loan ("ILL"), but I was concerned that I'd need the book for longer than the time period for which I could have obtained it by using ILL. So I turned to the Internet, and found that the Realm of Venus website contained more than enough information to aid me in making the gown I made for the LARP.  But I remained curious about Newton's book, and resolved to obtain a copy if I could ever do so for a modest price.

Carpaccio's Two Venetian Ladies
About two weeks ago, my opportunity came.  I found a decommissioned library copy of Dress of the Venetians on AbeBooks that was selling for $7.76 USD--with free shipping!  So I  bought it, and am eagerly reading it.  Since many of my readers might want a copy but be reluctant to pay a high price for a used copy, I figured I'd share my observations and conclusions about the book here in case they might be useful.

A couple of caveats are in order before I proceed further with this review.

First of all, this may not be the best book for you if you are looking for images of costume in Ms. Newton's target period. There are relatively few photographs in the book. Worse, most of the photographs there are are in black and white, and reproduced at scales that make examination for costume details difficult. On the other hand, the book identifies a number of artworks from the period quite clearly artist and title, so it should be easy to obtain better copies of the images for detailed examination (or perhaps even go to the relevant museums to examine them in person, if one can afford to travel).

Bellini's Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan
Second, Ms. Newton limits her study very strictly to the time period in the title--1495 to 1525 CE.  This is not the book for you if you are interested, say, in the 1560's, ladder-laced style of dress people often associate with Venetian courtesans. 

That being said, what Ms. Newton does explore in her book is fascinating.  She observes that there are not many pieces of artwork that both depict costume worn in the 30-year span in which she is interested, and can unambiguously be documented as showing a specifically Venetian fashion.  So she has primarily consulted period written sources relating to costume--primarily regulations, and texts discussing regulations--and read them in light of the few paintings that she believes do depict Venetian fashion.  I have located images of some of the paintings used as illustrations in the book  and added them to illustrate this post.*

Carpaccio's Arrival of the English Ambassadors
Because her primary sources consist of Venetian laws relating to what may and may not legally be worn, most of Ms. Newton's book focuses on clothing worn by men--particularly men over 25, since only men older than 25 could be citizens.  Citizens were subjected to a number pf regulations requiring a particular civic dress (depending to some extent upon the rank of the citizen).  Such restrictions applied even to the Doge, the supreme leader of Venice.  Bellini's portrait (left) illustrates the Doge's official costume.  Newton's text gives a very clear idea of the limited range of costume allowed to Venice's important men (citizens could wear only black, crimson or scarlet; the Doge, only crimson or cloth of gold, with the possible exception of pavonazzo, the exact hue of which is unclear, for mourning), and provides an entertaining discussion of what took place when some enterprising man sought to stretch the statutory fashion envelope.  Young men--adolescents, and men under the age of 25, wore extreme, German-influenced styles that emphasized a trim waist, tight buttocks, and powerful lean legs, as the detail from Carpaccio's Arrival of the English Ambassadors demonstrates.

Titian's Sacred and Profane Love (detail)
Clothing regulations for Venetian women took the form of sumptuary laws restricting the use of clothing elements that were deemed excessively or inappropriately luxurious.  Many of those laws related to the amount of fabric that could permissibly be used for sleeves, or the types of fabric that might be employed in a costume.  Unsurprisingly, Venetian women were even more inventive and bold in challenging these restrictions than their men.  It is possible to get a good idea of how the lines of women's clothing and hairstyles changed over the 30-year period of Newton's survey--from high-waisted gowns with narrow, segmented sleeves worn with buns on top of the head to a more normal waistline, worn with huge sleeves and hair held in a net towards the back of the head.

Overall, despite the modest number of illustrations, I think that Newton's book has a wealth of information for the costume historian interested in the period she covers.  I think that anyone interested in the costume of the period should read it, and that anyone seriously interested in the period should study it.  A historian specializing in the period would be well-advised to have a copy, even at a three-figure price.

* All images in this post obtained from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. OT but in case you haven't seen it and are interested:

    1. This *does* look interesting! Maybe I'll blog about it after I've read it. Thanks!