Fashion in the Middle Ages exhibition begins at the Getty

The J. Paul Getty Museum unveils a new medieval exhibition tomorrow, which will examine what people wore during this period. Fashion in the Middle Ages, on display from May 31 to August 14, 2011, explores how medieval artists used costumes to identify people by profession or to place them in a social hierarchy and at other times used fanciful or idealized images of clothing.

“People in the Middle Ages were highly skilled at reading the meaning of clothing,” says Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts. “The way figures were dressed in manuscripts provided the book’s reader with clues to their social status, profession or ethnicity.”


Fashion in the Middles Ages demonstrates how manuscript illuminations often reflected the actual styles and fabrics of clothing in the Middle Ages, as well as the economic factors behind them. Scholars were dressed in red robes that carried the additional prestige associated with the high cost of crimson dye, while peasants at work usually wore cheap, undyed wool in shades of brown and gray. Monks, doctors, prostitutes, knights, scholars, queens, and peasants could all be recognized at a glance by their distinctive clothing. Such distinctions offer valuable insights into the world of fashion, allowing us to see what the books’ makers and owners might have been wearing and why.

While some medieval illuminations provided accurate reflections of the way people lived, other artists provided an edited and somewhat unrealistic representation of dress. In chivalric romances, wealthy patrons sought images of a perfect world, populated with glamorous versions of themselves and even well-dressed peasants.


Since medieval manuscripts were often biblical or historical in nature, certain conventions gradually arose for dressing figures from the past. Costumes for Christ and the apostles were at first based on the classical garments seen in surviving Roman paintings, but were later modeled on fanciful interpretations of the fashions worn in the Middle East and beyond. Included in the exhibition are manuscripts which display early Christian saints clothed in modified versions of the ancient toga, while Jews or Muslims were outfitted in elaborate hats and lavishly embroidered robes to signify their “otherness.”

“Similar to fashion magazines today, manuscripts in this exhibition often present an idealized view of the individuals who are depicted,” adds Collins. “Medieval illuminators used fashion to establish an ideal world that the books’ patrons might wish to inhabit.”

Fashion in the Middles Ages is co-curated by Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Margaret Scott, scholar of medieval fashion and author of the accompanying exhibition publication.

Fashion in the Middle Ages, by Margaret Scott, provides a detailed look at both the actual fabrics and composition of medieval clothing as well as the period’s attitude toward fashion through an exploration of the illuminated manuscripts in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The last portion of the book is dedicated to the depiction of clothing in biblical times and the ancient world as seen through a medieval lens. Throughout, excerpts from literary sources of the period help shed light on the perceived role and function of fashion in daily life.


This is the second major museum exhibition related to medieval clothing that was opened this month. The Morgan Library and Museum has started Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, which  includes more than 50 works of Northern European origin and features four full-scale replicas of clothing. The New York museum will run this exhibition until September 4. Click here to read more about this exhibition.

Click here to go to the J.Paul Getty Museum website

Source: Getty Museum