Just like fashion’s house shakeup right now what with Dior and YSL (or SLP, rather), the world’s major powers were in confusion and division. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the remaining countries split up into multiple, new empires including Byzantium and Constantinople. With these and the rise of theocracy, new religions formed strongholds on people’s everyday lives, affecting art and of course, fashion. Christianity, championed by Charlemagne, defined a large part of the culture and art movement during this moment. A shift from the depiction of gods to God hugely influenced the medieval period. Men and women had a different relationship with their religion, which impacted their lives and culture. While their everyday dress still retained Roman influence, the representation of human in art especially affects the modern fashion world today. If fashion is a religion, the Middle Ages provides the biblical text providing for massive new interpretations upon themes and images that many can understand. Not only encompassing the time from the end of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance, the Middle Ages encompasses design and style for today’s fashion dream makers.
As the basis for most early Byzantine Christian art, the icon was surrounded by heated debate and laws were passed in order to forbid their existence or further production. These images of saints, God, or any other religious figure could confuse outsiders or weaker followers to believe they were worshiping the image rather than the actual being, and that created controversy. After the main enforcers of iconoclasm (the deletion of images from Christianity) died, many chapels and people restored their use of icons. These controversial images have made their way onto fashion’s landscape through many a gilded gown. The medieval style and byzantine icons clash most notably in Alexander McQueen’s final posthumous collection for Fall/Winter 2010, Angels and Demons. Through sparkling filigree embroidery and digital prints of chapel paintings and architecture, the collection expressed a literal exploration into the medieval period while delving deeper into his own dark ages. Sharing in an equally dramatic and theatrical flair, John Galliano’s explosions of fantasy onto the Dior catwalk often looked back into fashion’s history. For Fall/Winter 2006 Haute Couture, the knight in shining armor came in the form of an iconic saint like glittering gown.
The intense embroidery of Dior Haute Couture and couture-like detail of Alexander McQueen are no strangers to the gilded creations of the sixth century. From purse covers to jewelry and pins, cloisonné often covered accessories during the early middle ages. This technique requires the soldering of gold strips to a background covered in colored glass or gems. The result is a unique opulence that fit the time well, and was essentially a transportable form of art, wealth, and beauty in a time of movement and uncertainty. Much of the decoration on the jewelry employed the use of a style called Animal Interlace that interweaved abstract fantasy animals with undulating lines and florid design. In the 11th century, eastern decorative art transformed clothing and higher quality fabrics were used, including luxurious silks.
Beauty and the Battleground
If life is a battlefield then fashion is the armor. Fashion’s place as a projector and protector gives clothing the strength of a metal plated suit and chainmail. The architectural avant garde of Viktor & Rolf for Fall 2011 and Gareth Pugh’s seminal Spring 2009 collection take on the royal court and, more specifically, medieval knight as inspiration for fashion. In creating these sculptural styles, the folds and pleats remind us of another important aspect of the Middle Ages, Spain’s Islamic architecture. Fitting, because the revolutionary scalloped x-crossed arches, hypostyle halls and creative use of materials were architectural feats, in ways never been seen before. The graphic, bold prints of a knight’s coat of arms inspire a baroque styling seen in not only Viktor & Rolf’s black and red runway, but in Versace, Prada, and other major designers. A longtime friend and patron of Gareth Pugh’s art, Daphne Guinness shares this fashion-as-armor sentiment. Her wardrobe consists of shining metals and chainmail jewelry, some of which is currently on auction for the Isabella Blow Foundation.
The young Hollywood set’s favorite designer for modestly maximal glamour gowns is Valentino underneath the direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli. The long sleeve length, lace skirts, and gilded bodices work for an easy sophistication that reminds us of medieval palatine chapels and the iconic Madonna and royal family mosaics that grace their walls. Chanel tapped into the Byzantine excess with Pre-Fall 2011. A favorite length for Karl, the tunic was an essential piece of the medieval wardrobe. For Fall 2012, the tunic dress over pants proved to be the standout trend. Lagerfeld explored the tunic and covered leg in jewel tones for Chanel, Miuccia went full-on prints for Prada, and Marc Jacobs did them at Louis Vuitton. In the 6th century, upper-class men and women wore paludamentum, which were cloaks and tunics that resembled Roman garments. In the Dark Ages, the fashion combined the Roman tunic with Barbarian style leg wrappings… sound familiar?
Hotly debated, many in the industry argue that fashion is art. While that’s another article in itself, the concept still remains important when thinking about fashion and the middle ages, more often than not, supports fashion’s artistic stature. Even if the common person dressed simply in that time, the art and legacy of stylistic choices made in art greatly affect the fashion we see walking down today’s catwalk. No matter your position on the art-argument, fashion undoubtedly has helped create our modern iconic images. Kate Moss graces our main image with an editorial shot by Steven Klein for W Magazine’s Spring Fashion Bible issue made up to portray medieval religious imagery. Fashion’s favorite Brit lookin’ flawless at middle age? Now that’s an icon.