Saturday, March 28, 2020

Two Late 15th Century European Clothing Handbooks

At the request of Daniel Serra of ChronoCopia Publishing, I am reviewing the following books.  They are very similar to each other and even contain some of the same content, so it makes sense to review them together:
Malmborg, A. & Schütz, Willhelm, A Handbook for Men's Clothing of the 15th Century: Historical Clothing from the Inside Out. (ChronoCopia Publishing AB 2018).
Malmborg, A. & Schütz, Willhelm, A Handbook for Women's Clothing of the 15th Century: Historical Clothing from the Inside Out. (ChronoCopia Publishing AB 2018).
These books are beautifully produced.  They are printed on thick, glossy paper and are lavishly illustrated with clear diagrams and large, full color photographs showing clothed figures excerpted from period works of art.  But these books are very short (48 pages each).  At $19.90 USD for each on, they are a bit more expensive than the titles in Osprey Publishing's Men-At-Arms series, which are the same length and are of similarly high quality with regard to paper, photographs, and layout.

These books are too brief to be a comprehensive guide to everything there is to know about late 15th century costume.  For example, they are too small to give much information about clothing patterns, or surviving items of period clothing, or to discuss differences in costume from one European country to another.

Are Malmborg and Schütz's  handbooks worth one's money and time?  I think the answer to that question is "yes," but only for people who are just starting to learn about late 15th century costume.

What kinds of information do these books provide?  That can be discerned by scanning through the books chapters and headings.  The book's contents are divided into three chapters:  "The Period;" "A Wardrobe;" and "Accessories."

"The Period" is subdivided into five sections: "Historical context;" "The dress idiom;" "Dyes;" "Fabrics;" and "Sewing Techniques."  "Historical context" briefly describes the political situation in Europe as it existed during the period.  "The dress idiom" describes the physical outline of period costume--what I think of as its "silhouette"--and mentions some of the features of that costume, such as pleats, layers, and the importance of fabric choice in displaying social rank.  "Dyes" describes the substances used to achieve fashionable colors, and images give a sense of how those colors appeared.  "Fabrics" discusses the types of fiber used in most period fabrics and the most popular weaves used, while "Sewing Techniques" illustrates the stitches used for clothing construction.  This chapter appears with substantially the same content in both books.

The "Wardrobe" has a separate section for each item that comprises a typical outfit for a man or woman of the period (depending upon which of the two volumes you are reading), from head to toe and from the skin out.  For each item, the reader is told the fabrics from which each garment is made, the garment's basic shape, and general information about construction, tailoring techniques, and fit.  Though no sewing patterns are provided, good general advice about how to construct each garment is provided.

The "Accessories" section describes non-clothing items that are nonetheless part of a typical outfit, such as pins, jewelry, and belts.  Finally, there is a page listing the sources of the images used in the book, and a separate page listing useful books to consult for further study of 15th century clothing.

The sort of information that these handbooks provide is the information needed to develop an "eye" for when a costume looks "right."  Information that fosters such an "eye" is immensely helpful because it guides the learner in determining which other books to buy or read. Having an "eye" for the costume of a period is essential in learning how to design and construct costumes that make the wearer look as though he or she has just "stepped out" of a period artwork.  It also provides a useful framework for delving into patterns and pattern books and for understanding the clothing of figures shown in period art.  But the would-be 15th century costumer or reenactor will still need to study further in order to learn enough to be able to construct convincingly accurate 15th century clothing.

For that reason, these books would better be described as "primers" rather than "handbooks". The term "handbook" is typically used for a start-to-finish reference guide to all of the essentials of a subject, and as such may be usefully consulted by those with prior experience in the subject.  Malmborg and Schütz's books are not "handbooks" in this sense.  People with experience making or studying 15th century costume will already know most of the information presented in these books and likely will not be interested in consulting them.

On the other hand, a "primer" is a short introduction to a subject, such as the type of short text given to children to teach them how to read.  Malmborg and Schütz's books are more like primers in that they teach the uninitiated how to "read" clothing images in period art and what types of information they will need to seek in order to sew convincing period clothes.

So these handbooks are not for everyone.  However, costumers who are beginning to develop knowledge of 15th century clothing, or historical fiction writers who are looking for enough costuming information to convincingly describe their characters, may find them a pleasant way to learn to visualize how a 15th century man or woman should be dressed.  For people in those circumstances, it would be hard to find an easier and better point of entry into the study of 15th century costume, and I recommend the books for that purpose.

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