From collar to codpiece: power dressing in the 16th century

Christie’s Old Masters specialist Jonquil O’Reilly explains how men dressed to impress in the 1500s, pointing out the exquisite sartorial details in two splendid portraits offered in our Old Masters Part I sale on 19 April in New York

‘In the 16th century men’s fashion was actually as important, if not more so, than women’s fashion,’ says Jonquil O’Reilly, Christie’s Old Masters specialist. ‘It was a way of showing what rank and position in society you were.’

Examining an opulent portrait from the 1530s by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) of John Frederick I (1503-1554), the fourth and final Elector of Saxony, the specialist points out that the sitter is wearing the most stylish clothes of the decade. Comprising a feathered bonnet, a white silk doublet with slashed red banding to reveal the embroidered designs underneath, and gold collars accented with pearls and sapphires,  this is an outfit designed to dazzle.

John Frederick’s clothes would have been just as costly as his jewels. The thick volumes of his crimson velvet cloak, for example, would have needed to be dipped in crimson dye repeatedly to get such a depth of colour, explains O’Reilly.

In the picture — whose restitution to the heirs of the Gutmann family was facilitated by Christie’s subsequent to its loss during the Second World War — Cranach has closely cropped John Frederick to enhance the monumentality of his torso. ‘The fashion in the 1530s was to have very broad shoulders and a very broad, barrel chest,’ says the specialist. ‘In showing that physical imposing presence, Cranach is making a point about how powerful John Frederick is.’

‘The silhouette that was ideal for gentlemen at this time reflected what people were wearing on the battlefield’

Around his neck hangs what seems to be a gold pomander — a type of perforated container for spices and perfumes which was designed to bounce on the wearer’s chest when they walked, ‘giving off a nice scent at a time when people probably didn’t smell that good’. Suspended from a long, gold chain, this example is held between the jaws of a 16th-century interpretation of a dolphin. The pomander — which might otherwise be a toothpick — was clearly one of John Frederick’s favourites, since he can also be seen wearing it in a portrait also by Cranach the Elder, now in the Louvre.

O’Reilly’s guide to 16th-century men’s fashion continues with a full-length portrait of a 16-year-old Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592), the great-grandchild of Pope Paul II and nephew of Philip II of Spain, who would one day become the Duke of Parma and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands.

Painted in circa 1561 by Anthonis Mor (1516/20-c.1576) and his collaborator Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531/2-1588), Farnese is the epitome of 16th-century sartorial splendour. ‘Just below his chin you have that ruffled collar, and that’s to give you a nice, clean, crisp edge next to your face,’ O’Reilly explains. His full corselet of blue-stained and gilt-steel armour, with crimson piping to indicate his allegiance to the Spanish army, was probably made in Italy a year or so before this picture was painted. ‘The silhouette that was ideal for gentlemen at this time reflected what people were wearing on the battlefield,’ the specialist says.

Despite having what look like ‘the legs of a ballerina’, Farnese’s build would have been considered particularly masculine. ‘The idea was to show that you were always on your feet. You would be riding, you would be fencing, you would be dancing at court,’ explains O’Reilly. ‘So it was important to show that you had really good legs.’

The highlight of Farnese’s outfit, however, is his silk codpiece. Designed initially to fill a fabric void between the hose covering the legs and the hemline of a doublet, codpieces offered men protection from the elements — as well as their own weapons. ‘It was completely normal in the 16th century for men, particularly noblemen, to walk around with a sword at their hip,’ says the specialist. ‘If you have a nice little padded cushion then really, you’re fine — you’re not going to run into any embarrassing or painful difficulties.’

By the time this painting was created, codpieces had become symbols of virility and masculinity. Over the decades they had grown in volume, and were used to emphasise rather than conceal. ‘Even at the age of 16,’ O’Reilly observes, ‘Farnese’s codpiece is very much a symbol of manliness and of adulthood.’ 

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