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Who Wore What, When, and Why: 'Fashion in the Middle Ages' @ The Getty Center

"Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius," about 1460-1470 by Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) (French, active about 1450 - 1485); Image courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 42, leaf 2v
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What we wear every day has meaning--just ask any host of all those reality shows about fashion, makeovers, and style. "Fashion in the Middle Ages," a manuscript exhibit at the Getty Center opening Tuesday, May 31, focuses on how clothes made the Medieval man and woman.

"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."

The exhibit, which runs until August 14th, "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."

In manuscripts of the era, fashion could be used as a practical clue to help readers make quick distinctions about those depicted, and the clothes in the illuminations "often reflected the actual styles and fabrics of clothing in the Middle Ages, as well as the economic factors behind them." Basically, what the illustrator drew enabled manuscript readers a way to tell on sight who was a prostitute and who was a scholar.

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On the other hand, much like the high-fashion magazines of today, or fanciful movies and TV shows, some medieval illuminations featured "an edited and somewhat unrealistic representation of dress." Think of the allure of a romance tale, where not only do the wealthy characters dress sumptuously, but also the peasants dress pretty snazzily.

From this period of illuminated manuscripts, we see stereotypical or conventional garb come to popularity. Says The Getty: "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.'"

To see how style was translated in illuminations hundreds of years ago, check out the exhibit, curated by Collins, May 31 to August 14th at The Getty Center.