Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The best and worst of Renaissance fashion

Every period of fashion has its good and bad trends. The Renaissance is no exception, as we can see in portraits and paintings of the time. I’ve collected what I think are the best and worst of Renaissance fashion.

Best Renaissance fashion moments

Serious bling for engagement gifts

Bastiano Mainardi, portrait of a woman (engagement portrait)

Bastiano Mainardi, portrait of a woman (engagement portrait)

Archival records and visual records exist of the gift-giving tradition that took place during bethrothal in noble and well-to-do families. This portrait of a woman by Bastiano Mainardi shows the bethrothed with the jeweled brooch, ring and coral necklace, and wearing another elaborate necklace.

Flowy dresses with a gathered stomach pouch

Filippino Lippi, detail from the Banquet of Herod, Prato Cathedral

Filippino Lippi, detail from the Banquet of Herod, Prato Cathedral

I am all for this moment that Filippino Lippi seems to love too. A double belting thing going on with the long flowy dresses that makes way for an ample tummy, perfect to hide when you’ve eaten too much pasta.


Titian, Isabella d'Este (idealized portrait)

Titian, Isabella d’Este (idealized portrait)

Isabella d’Este is said to have introduced the turban into European fashion. It’s not an easy accessory to pull off, but worn with appropriate glamour I think it’s a great way to cover up a bad hair day. Considering that in the Early Modern age they didn’t wash nearly as often as we do (weekly was considered too frequent by some), I’m surprised the turban wasn’t more popular.

Men in tights

Mantegna, ducal family in Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

Mantegna, ducal family in Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

Should this be in the best or the worst fashion moment section? It depends on who is wearing them. However I would not really be for the return of the short tunic that goes with them.

Worst Renaissance fashion moments

The Henry VIII look

Hans Holbein the Younger, portrait of Henry VIII

Hans Holbein the Younger, portrait of Henry VIII

The early 16th-century English King Henry VIII was known around Europe for his fashion prowess. He reportedly spent 16,000 ducats on clothing annually, which would be about $3,140,000 today (source). His big shoulder pads were slightly toned down and brought back in the 1980s.

The plucked forehead

Rogier van der Weyden, portrait of a lady

Rogier van der Weyden, portrait of a lady

Renaissance women were tweezer happy, plucking their eyebrows a lot but also the hairline to create a higher forehead! Eyelashes were not particularly desirable either: the opposite of today’s mascara, some bleached or plucked eyelashes to create a more vacuous look!

Slashing and puffing

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a woman with drawing of lucrezia (1530-2)

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a woman with drawing of lucrezia (1530-2)

Sumptuary laws in major Italian cities during the 15th and 16th centuries sought to regulate vestiary excess. When expensive brocade and silk cloth was outlawed, costumiers found a way around it by “slashing” outer fabric to reveal other fabric underneath, creating even more expensive outfits. Slashing was outlawed in Venice in 1472 but a lot of good that did.

All photos: Google Art Project via Wikipedia, images in the public domain

ArtSmart Roundtable

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Jenna Francisco

    I love this. I never would have thought of most of these fashion details from the Renaissance, and I think it gives people something new to look for when viewing Renaissance art. By the way, what’s up with that thing coming out from between Henry VIII’s legs??

  • Lizzie @ Wanderful World

    I’d never considered the fashion trends of the Renaissance period before, so thanks for this insight! I can’t believe women used to pluck their hairline… it makes me cringe thinking about it!

  • arttrav

    I know!! I mean, doing my eyebrows is bad enough…

  • Christina

    I had no idea “slashing” was a thing and designed to get around sumptuary laws. I just thought it was another (err) questionable Renaissance fashion choice! Also, the dress in that Lorenzo Lotto is hideous.

  • Murissa

    Ugh – plucking hairlines! But you know what? I like the turban most of all these trends. The slashing I cannot understand at all – was it an attempt to make one look less excessive with the luxurious fabrics and brought them down a humble notch?
    Love your post!

  • arttrav

    Ha ha, I don’t know, the dress has a strange appeal. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen it on the cover of a few good books… I think she was supposed to be a model of contemporary beauty and virtue, believe it or not.

  • arttrav

    Hi Murissa
    I think the slashing was a clever response (what the italians call “furbo”), basically a way to get around a rule or law by coming up with something that is even more flagrantly against the law, but where the law doesn’t say so in so many words. Ie it cost more to slash than to use the fabric in the first place – to the point that it became a style in its own right. It was born out of necessity to get around a rule, but then it evolved.

  • arttrav

    Why, it’s a codpiece, of course :)

  • arttrav

    which leads me to this fascinating book: “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis”

  • Jenna Francisco

    Whoa! A cultural encyclopedia of the penis?! But yes, now that you mention “codpiece,” i remember this term from my childhood. My mom was (and is) really into British history and I remember this term from something I was exposed to through her. :)

  • Pal

    When I saw the heading I just couldn’t wait to see what trend spotting tips I would be able to pick up from here for my next shopping outing :-) And then there it was! Men in tights! Maybe one day, maybe one day, if I’m patient enough luck might hit me in a near future:-)

    (But I think I’ll pass on the codpiece for now.)

  • arttrav

    Ha ha! I guess there are more options here for women to be inspired by…

  • Lydian

    Oh boy, those worst moments .. ! Plucking your four head fashionable .. arggghh.. Together with bleaching and all it makes me think a bit of zombies ;-) I wonder who came up with this in the first place!

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