Fashion in Art: Social Status and Nationality

Featured Image: Master of Mary of Burgundy, Mary of Burgundy (in foreground and background praying to the Virgin), Book of Hours, 1470. 225 x 163 mm, National Library of Vienna. 

Camp: Notes on Fashion, currently on view at the Met, is a fascinating visual sprawl of Susan Sontag’s seminal essay and book, Notes on Camp, published in the Paris Review in 1964. In Notes, Sontag considers the various ways in which the keys elements of this aesthetic style manifests in culture and what they mean. I will admit that I am not adequately equipped to discuss camp (a forthcoming post by someone more versed in discussing this style is on the horizon), but it did make me think about the various ways in which fashion can be used to convey ideas such as social status and nationality. This post focuses on Hans Memling’s exceptional double portrait of a Florentine couple from the Met’s permanent collection to illustrate how fashion can be used to bring these ideas to life.

Social Status and Nationality

Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428–1501); Maria Portinari (Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, born 1456), c. 1470. Oil on wood, 17 3/8 x 13 1/4 in. (44.1 x 33.7 cm) each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hans Memling’s double portrait of Tomasso Portonari and his fourteen-year-old bride, Maria Maddalena Baroncelli was commissioned to commemorate the couple’s marriage in 1470. Tomasso and Maria had been living in Bruges, where he served as a representative in Bruges on behalf of the Medici Bank. Despite hailing from prominent Florentine families, Tomasso and Maria’s Italian identity are suppressed in favor of an image by Memling visually cementing them as a Burgundian couple, both in pose and dress. The choice of clothing was made perhaps as a way to ingratiate themselves to Duke Charles the Bold, the future head of the House of Burgundy, and the source of Tomasso’s fortunes in Bruges.

detail of Maria Portinari from Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428–1501); Maria Portinari (Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, born 1456), c. 1470. Oil on wood, 17 3/8 x 13 1/4 in. (44.1 x 33.7 cm) each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Looking closely at the portrait of Maria, the tension between social status and nationality begins to reveal itself. Memling’s choices of fabric, trimmings, and jewelry operate within the notion that “in the static medieval world ‘every costume was to some extent a uniform revealing the rank and condition of the wearer’” As the wife of a prominent banker, Maria’s dress lacked no expense. Memling expertly creates rich textures—a deep and rich, almost black velvet, a translucent veil and an ermine trim that accentuates her bust. These textures push the boundaries of the real by extending past the frame and into the space of the viewer. Her costume of heavy, dark velvet (a contrast to the gold brocade and floral silk gowns favored by her Italian contemporaries, see some examples below) explicitly links her to other female contemporaries at the Burgundian court, stripping her of any outward associations to her Italian heritage.

The Hennin: the Ultimate Fashion Accessory 

The ultimate signifier of Burgundian style is, of course, the hennin– the most extravagant of all headpieces in the 15th century.* The gable-shaped hat and long gossamer veil that hangs from the back was a staple of any high-ranking Burgundian woman and can be seen worn by Mary of Burgundy (1) and Margaret of York (2). The shape of such a headdress worked to accentuate the egg-shaped look of the face, enhanced by the plucking of eyebrows and the hairline. While this aesthetic was also favored by Italian women, the exaggerated hairline would have either been a net, a silk cap or elaborate braids coiled with ribbons, cords and decorated with pearls (see below).

So while Tomasso and Maria were Italians by birth, they presented themselves aligned to the Burgundian court for the sake of business through the clever use of dress.

United in Velvet: The Portinari Altarpiece

Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, 1476-1478. Oil on wood, 99.6 in × 55.5 in (253 cm × 141 cm). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The couple continued this visual allegiance to the Burgundian style in their most well-known commission, the Portinari Altarpiece, executed by Hugo van der Goes in 1476-1478 for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. In the right panel (3), one can see that Maria is wearing the same sumptuous black velvet gown with ermine trim, jeweled necklace, and elaborate hennin as she did in the double portrait by Memling. In the left panel (4), Tomasso can be seen outfitted in a black velvet coat lined with fur, similar to his attire in the Memling portrait.

Maria Portinari
(3) detail of right panel of Maria Portinari and daughter Margarita from Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, 1476-1478. Oil on wood, 99.6 in × 55.5 in (253 cm × 141 cm). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
(4) detail of left panel of Tomasso Portinari and with his two sons Antonio and Pigello from Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, 1476-1478. Oil on wood, 99.6 in × 55.5 in (253 cm × 141 cm). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Tomasso Portinari, in the end, proved to be a terrible banker, engaging in large, risky unsecured loans to Duke Charles the Bold which went mostly unpaid after to his untimely death. These delinquent loans led to the decline of the Bruges branch of the Medici bank, which went under in 1480. Tomasso and Maria returned to Florence in 1497 where he died in 1501.** The couple remains a part of visual history due in part to Memling’s remarkable double portrait and van der Goes’ impressive altarpiece, uniting them in fashion for all time with their Burgundian clients.


Further Reading:

J. Anderson Black and Madge Garland,  A History of Fashion, 1975.

Gabriele Mentges, “European Fashion (1450–1950),” European History Online, Mainz: Institute of European History, 2011, retrieved: June 16, 2011.

Anne H. van Buren, with the assistance of Roger Wieck, Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515. New York: Morgan Library & Museum, 2011.

Désirée Koslin and Janet E. Snyder, eds.: Encountering Medieval Textiles and Dress: Objects, texts, and Images, Macmillan, 2002.

Burgundian Costume 

15th Century Female Flemish Dress: A Portfolio of Images

Margaret L. Koster. “New Documentation for the Portinari Altar-Piece”. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 145 no. 1200, March 2003, pp. 164–79. JSTOR 3100633.


*Burgundian fashions and the Burgundian influence throughout Europe in the second half of the 15th century

**Paula Nuttall et al. in Till-Holger Borchert. The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting, 1430–1530. Exh. cat., Groeningemuseum, Bruges. Ghent, 2002, pp. 85, 180, 199, 201–2 n. 9 and Raymond De Roover. The Medici Bank, Its Organization, Management, Operations, and Decline. New York, 1948, ill. opp. p. 22.

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