|RH501 – Saxon (Cranach) Gown
Many people are intrigued by the beauty of the Saxon court dresses of the 1530s. The richness of the velvet, the sumptuousness of the gold brocade guards and robings, the fine pleating of the linen and the visual appeal of the lacing make these gowns a perennial favourite among costumers. Indeed a search of 16th century costuming websites will produce any number of Cranach Gown dress diaries and reproductions.
Layers of Meaning
When approaching the historical reconstruction of a gown purely from pictorial sources, it is important to remember to build the outfit from the inside out, not start from the outside and simply make it “look the part”. Of course in order to start from the inside, we need to know what was worn under the gown. That’s not information we know for certain with Saxon gowns.
I know that many people make this gown with a kirtle or even corded corset underneath, but I cannot agree with their reconstructions. Stringent analysis of the paintings has given me no reason to believe that there is any kind of corsetry of stiffening in either the bodice of these gowns or underneath them.
The gowns are only ever seen on young women of slight build with very small breasts. We can see the shape of one of these women in Cranach’s amusing 1530s painting “Cupid Complaining to Venus” at left. This young, slim, long-waisted type of girl with golden blonde hair and round face is typical of the subjects of Cranach’s paintings. We do not know enough about Cranach to know if this was his favourite model — his “muse” — or an ideal he invented with all the attributes he liked best. As Court Painter to the Electors of Saxony who had painted both Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Charles V as a young prince, his choice of subject may not have been his own. But a remarkable number of his nameless subjects share these attributes. Even his painting of Saxon Princesses Sibylla, Emilia and Sidonia from 1535 (shown at the top of this article) shows three remarkably similar girls of the “Cranach type”.
Cranach’s nudes only give us the first step — they show us the common body type of his subjects and help us to understand how much support (or lack thereof) is needed to make the shapes we see under the gown. In this case, Cranach’s nude subjects very closely resemble the shapes of his subjects when clothed. So we begin with the assumption that no corsetry or stiffening is needed to mold their bodies into the desired silhouette. But to explore the possible layers of clothing, we must start putting clothing on these bodies.
Cranach’s multiple paintings of the Suicide of Lucretia give us a glimpse of the first layer of clothing next to the skin — the smock or Hemd. A very full-sleeved Hemd is pulled so low in front that Lucretia’s torso is exposed to the floating ribs. On closer inspection, however, is the Hemd simply pulled down? Or is this a piece of the dress that is disconnected and folded down. In the Aschaffenburg Staatsgalerie, another “Suicide of Lucretia” from the second quarter of 16th century by an anonymous master of the Cranach school shows what might actually be going on here. Like the picture to the right, the white piece at the bottom of Lucretia’s torso is rather square in shape. Upon closer inspection of the painting in the German museum, you can clearly see yellow and black hatchmarks (matching her gown colours) on the white, indicating that we are seeing the wrong side of something normally fastened to the body. On the upper right corner, a cord or fabric tab for attachment can almost be discerned. The upper left corner is obscured by the left arm. The gown is falling off the shoulders and the Hemd is not visible elsewhere. Indeed it may be posited that no Hemd is worn under this gown.
The next paining shows us a little more. This 1540 version of “Christ and the Adultress” by Lucas Cranach shows a woman in deshabillé. The adultress wears a diaphanous Hemd gathered or pleated into a scoop neckline with something white over her abdomen. If you look closely, you can trace an edge of white all the way up her left shoulder, so this may be a complete Hemd. But it is also possible that it is the placket seen on Lucretia. However the bit of Hemd seen around her elbows shows that she is wearing a white smock and not just the see-through one we see over her breasts.
Another painting called “Christ and the Adultress” shows a black lace crossing an unbroken expanse of a scoop-necked white Hemd. The gown sits in its proper position without being laced and the front of the body is smooth. The immediate question is whether this is respresenting reality or not. It does not seem likely that the fronts of the dress would stay in place or the bust compressed as seen without some kind of fastening. Perhaps Cranach painted this one as if the laces were there or painted it with laces and removed them later.
In any case, this leads us to a question at the heart of the construction of this gown: what holds up the bust? As mentioned earlier, this particular style of dress is only seen on young, small breasted women so it may have not been an issue. But it is possible that the decorative band called the Brustfleck is more than just an embellishment. Perhaps it is a kind of proto-bra.
The pen sketch at left depicts women showing possible breast binding. Click it to see a larger version.
To relate this possibility directly to the gowns as painted by Lucas Cranach, we have a painting by one of Cranach’s contemporaries, Hans Baldung Grien. Baldung Grien in his painting “Unequal Lovers” shows a young woman wearing a front-laced gown of a rather medieval style. Over the top of her bust, however, she has a band in exactly the position the Brustfleck sits in the paintings of these gowns. If you click on the image, you will see a larger version where two garments are clearly apparent. The sleeves of the white Hemd appear to be almost falling off the girl’s shoulders. But a transparent Hemd can be seen higher up her shoulder. The black line around her neck appears to be a cord, not the edge of the Hemd. The strange thing about this painting is that we never see a Hemd with lacing in the front like this. However, the girl is wearing an apron. So perhaps this is not her Hemd at all but an underdress. It’s hard to say for certain. However, this painting argues strongly for the Brustfleck being a true bust-binding band that travels under the arms rather than a decorative placket on the front only that serves no real function.
(I did not discover this picture on my own. It was first shared with the German Ren Costuming Yahoo Group a few years ago. If the original poster will contact me, I would like to thank her and put her name in the credits.
But what of the abdominal area. Is there nothing between it and the world but a smock and laces? Or is there another covering? An intriguing possibility is presented by Cranach’s “Portrait of a Woman” from 1522. A red, possibly boned placket is clearly visible under the lacing of her gown.
I can hear you. You’re saying, “But I don’t have little breasts and a long torso. How can I wear a Cranach Gown without a corset or an under-kirtle? I can’t just allow my Double Ds run loose!” Well, I’m afraid I don’t have a very good response to that.
You see, one of the aspects of historical costume that we most often ignore is age-appropriateness. We fall in love with a style in a painting that is shown only on teenagers and we disregard that it won’t fit someone in our time of life. We are in a “dress up” hobby after all. Who wants to dress as a middle-aged woman (or man)when we could pretend to be young and without love handles!?
Unfortunately, friends, it seems that Cranach’s Saxon Gowns are one of those youth-specific gowns. Cranach even uses them in some of his works to depict old women who are dressing too young for their age and inappropriately courting young men. Below are some pictures that make my point. These are three detail shots from Lucas Cranach’s 1546 painting “The Fountain of Youth”. On the left we see old women being wheeled to the fountain of youth, presumably because they are too old and infirm to walk there on their own. Note the gown they are wearing.
In the center are women who have emerged youthful from the fountain and go into tents to dress. Some dressed women can be seen in the background. On the right we see the women fully dressed in presumably youthful clothing. Now they’re wearing Cranach Gowns! More than anything else, this example demonstrates that the style of gown painted so often by Lucas Cranach was the fashion of young ladies and if more mature, more fully-developed and well-fed bodies will not fit into it, I do not find this to be a surprise.
Another thing we often ignore is body shape. Some types of clothing aren’t shown on all types of bodies. It could be argued that the subjects of portraiture are like fashion models — there’s an ideal body type and the painters make everyone look like that. But a survey of the same style of gown painted by different artists will often belie that idea. However, the fact that we never see long lanky women in some of the Venetian styles nor big-breasted women in Cranach Gowns is a fact that cannot be ignored.
I’d like to thank the German Ren Costuming List on Yahoo Groups and especially Katherine Barich for her plethora of information and translation of the Textiler Haussrat.
I’d also like to thank the delightful lady of German origin who gave me a CD of her costuming images two years in a row at Known World Costuming Symposium. There is no doubt that I would have missed out on many images had it not been for the collection she so selflessly shares with everyone she meets.