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2018 Publikation: Zeichen und Symbole – Kleidung zwischen Bild und Realie
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    2018 Publikation: Zeichen und Symbole – Kleidung zwischen Bild und Realie

    Signs and Symbols. Dress at the intersection between image and realia

    Introduction to the conference publication

    Sabine de Günther and Philipp Zitzlsperger (ed.)

    The conference “Signs and Symbols: Dress at the Intersection between Image and Realia” took place in Berlin from 18–21 February 2016. Scholars from a range of different disciplines and countries were invited to speak about dress and its depiction from medieval times to the present day. Located directly next to the Tieranatomisches Theater (Veterinary Anatomy Theater), in the large auditorium of the Humboldt University Graduate School on Luisenstraße, the conference attracted a big audience and inspired an animated discussion, once again confirming that dress research is in no way a marginal, auxiliary branch of study, but far more a fully fledged discipline of its own. The still quite young vestimentary studies form a synthesis of the classical disciplines combining sociology, anthropology, history, art history, and cultural studies, with a strong influence from the field of visual studies. The international guests made constructive use of the interfaces, crossing boundaries into neighboring disciplines with ease. The results of this dynamic gathering have been recorded and are now available in the form of this anthology. Not all of the participants were able to contribute texts. Nevertheless, the articles in this volume offer a representative overview of an area of research that has great potential for further development and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. The contributions collected here represent different methodical approaches and have the capacity to produce multi-facetted impulses in multiple directions.

    The methods of dress research oscillate between the disciplines of visual, linguistic, and cultural studies, i.e. empirical and materials-specific analyses and their interpretations. Frequently, we have observed that different scholarly interests generate autonomous research, but that the formation of synergies and syntheses falls by the wayside. An interactive cooperation between the disciplines is still a desideratum. “Cross-reading,” the juxtaposition of different sources, requires particular meticulousness and a thorough knowledge of the different research disciplines. Common to all the disciplines engaged in dress research is the question of how to define and delineate the image-dress-fashion triad. This anthology is an attempt to instigate a reflection upon the methods used and thus a self-positioning of the various disciplines in regard to the study of dress.

    A crucial dilemma in dress research is, among other things, the fact that from the time of Antiquity up to approximately the seventeenth century, apart from a few exceptions, very little in the way of cohesive collections of dress still exists. From the late Modern Era, on the other hand, numerous clothing pieces and ensembles have survived. For dress research, which in some cases must proceed without material objects, and in other cases is able to work with surviving objects, the problems in respect to methodology are very different. A further issue arises when one considers that the visual representation of dress or the descriptions of dress in other sources need to be investigated as to their correspondence to vestimentary reality, a procedure which again entails a massive methodological challenge. Katherina Wittich exposes the construct of the idea of Ottoman clothing and the customs generated by this clothing in her essay dedicated to original drawings from the 1560s to 1570s. She investigates how they were reused and provided with narratives in a publication more than 100 years later. Cuts, materials and forms of Ottoman clothing were described in travelogues as well as in cosmographies, but the predominant system of textual and visual narratives with constantly repeated topoi dominated perception. The way out of this vicious circle was the point of this conference, the record of which is now at hand with this volume.

    The sometimes enigmatic semantics of dress are anything but a superficial, decorative, external phenomenon. Dress is a medium of communication, the roots of which reach back into the evolution of the animal world, in the sense of Darwin’s “selection of beauty.” Textual sources from the age of pre-modern civilizatory processes provide evidence of the insignia character of clothing – no more. It is the images that provide us with clothing’s actual abundance of meaning, far beyond any mere associations with respective signs: they can help decipher the vestimentary symbolic content embedded in the everyday reality of the past. Pictorial evidence widens the horizon of meaning of the clothing that it depicts, in that dress, on the way from realia into the picture, undergoes a medial transformation, sometimes even a metamorphosis of meaning. Signs and symbols, in their medial location between realia and image are an important area of knowledge. But clothing has never been included in the discussion around methodology in the field of image knowledge.

    The transformation of signs and symbols, the significance and interpretation of dress and how it transfers meaning through the pictorial medium has been the focus of different authors in the following essays:

    Tatjana Petzer and Martin Treml, using the example of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, show how – based on Warburg’s “pathos formula” – dress in imagery alludes to affects and bodily transformation. The focus is on the depiction of the transparent fabrics in the picture, where the subtle materiality and rendering of the folds transcends the mere display of fabric quality, dress codes, and artistic finesse, evoking as it does the fluid liminal spaces between the body and soul of the person portrayed. The fold, as a way of organizing objects and relationships, meets the epistemological, interdisciplinary interest in the “order of dress.”

    Similarly, Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink investigates the pictorial history of the habitus of the thinker and philosopher, and approaches the significance of dress from the perspective of cultural studies. Heidegger’s knee breeches, worn almost as a uniform, were a gesture of anti-bourgeois sentiment and became an integral part of the “existential” outfit, according to Kopp-Oberstebrink.

    From the perspective of a designer, Barbara Schmelzer-Ziringer focuses on the principles behind the construction of fashion and on how fashion is presented. In doing so, she traces the present-day difference between male and female fashion back to the seventeenth century. Here, visual sources provide the concrete arguments for developing new methodological approaches with the aim of a critical revision of entrenched fashion history.

    Thomas Weißbrich analyzes the surviving uniforms of Frederick II of Prussia, which have undergone a series of stagings and reinterpretations, caught between their utilization in a profane cult of relics and their significance as evidence of material culture. He hereby illuminates changing exhibition practices and the correlating interpretations of the displayed objects.

    Comprehensive dress research from the perspective of cultural studies is concerned with both sides of the coin, namely, dress as realia and dress in imagery. Dress moves between these two poles as a (body) image in real life and in images. For probing the vestimentary symbolism between these poles, scholars are dependent upon both image and text sources. These can reveal much about social, estate-specific, gender-related patterns of identification that range from individual distinction to conformity within the framework of normative behavioral codes. Such patterns need to be brought to light.

    From this perspective, dress regulations, ceremonial records, and police regulations are points of focus that can generate reciprocal effects. Findings show that ruling authorities’ efforts to enforce social norms required the development of ever more, and increasingly differentiated, regulations and penalties—not only in the area of clothing regulations and sumptuary laws but also for the governance of society as a whole. Seen in this way, the stereotypical complaints of the authorities about violations of the dress codes were of a functional nature: standardization as a process requires the determination of deviance in order to legitimize the amendment of regulations. From the point of view of legal history, the causes and effects of dress codes are of particular interest.

    In a historical study of the court uniform at the Weimar court, Astrid Ackermann und Stefanie Freyer have investigated portraits of scholars from around 1800, with a focus upon vestimentary signs indicating the breaking down of the Early Modern Era estate-based social order. The authors have made use of police regulations, regional dress codes, and other, in some cases, unpublished sources to decode the portraits’ vestimentary symbolism, which in its ambiguity offered room for interpretation and which left its imprint upon a society in transition.

    From a socio-historical perspective, Janine Jakob investigates the reciprocal relationship between the Early Modern Era dress and accessories of the urban elite in Basel, Zurich, and Lucerne and the mandates issued by the authorities there. Through a cross-reading of the surviving objects, pictorial sources documenting individual fashion consumption, and the city sumptuary laws, she she is able to construct a picture of the fashionable urban elite, and provide a description of the Hoffartsmandate (dress codes and sumptuary laws), which were different from city to city, and their interpretation and penalization by the authorities.

    Of relevance as well is the multi-leveled issue of cultural transfer. Dress, or fashion, was an important commodity during the time of French, i.e. Spanish hegemony, and styles were eagerly adopted by other courtly societies – not without reinterpretation and adaptation, however, since competition existed between the courts just as it did between the emerging states of that time.[1] It shaped European culture and gave occasion for subtle distinctions. The transfer of clothing and fashion in the Early Modern Era unfolded between conformity through assimilation on the one hand and distinction through adaptation on the other.

    Also warranting more attention are the designers of hybrid dress, who conceived decidedly inauthentic vestments in early modern painting and sculpture. Anthonis van Dyck’s portraits, for instance, depict women in fanciful garments that are not adequately understood to this day, and the inauthentic costumes depicted by artists from Donatello to Schlüter in equestrian statues and busts of rulers led ultimately to the academic “costume dispute.”[2] The exaggerated forms of fashion found in caricature as a genre are semantically loaded, shifting between nationalisms, social critique, and gender problems.[3] Within this context, then, an important subject of inquiry would be the fundamental question of whether the art-historical approach of iconographical-iconological image analysis does justice to the subject of dress and its cultural meanings, i.e. the reconstruction of a “material culture”

    Art historians have zealously probed the “language of things” in representational imagery. The leading question has been whether the depicted things actually “mirror” a past everyday reality or whether they interpret this reality symbolically. Repeatedly, we have found that the “language of things” alternates between realism and faux-realism and that the analogy to speech is far from being dependable in this regard. Panofsky saw “disguised symbolism” behind the veristically portrayed things of Early Netherlandish artists. Johan Huizinga (1933) as well as Svetlana Alpers (1983) have objected to the hypostatic “riddle-image” iconography that grew out this view: in The Art of Describing, Alpers restores the visual arts’ world of things to a level of truth that gives the descriptive quality of a visual depiction precedence over the narrative in Dutch-Northern Alpine art. Seen in this way, logocentric iconology is often a kind of cul-de-sac. Even if, in the Early Modern Era, certain things such as clothing were not a subject focused upon by humanistic scholars or a topic of theological discourse, they can still lay claim to the construction of symbolical meaning. The symbolical content of things, especially of clothing, – whether north or south of the Alps – can be deduced from the world of imagery and can generate realities that sometimes chronologically preceded textual reflections of the same things. In this context, it would be interesting to re-read textual sources which so far have been subject to vestimentary research’s habitual patterns of interpretation that can now be re-adjusted. Such texts include mainly non-descriptive sources, beyond ceremonial literature, and the systematic evaluation, for example, of court records, wills, or inventories.

    Clare Rose has based her investigation of “quilted petticoats” of the eighteenth century on a parallel reading of textual sources, visual media, and the surviving realia. The examination of about 1,500 merchants’ trade cards, invoices, or court records concerning stolen petticoats, the study of the visual sources, alongside a quantitative documentation of the artefacts have provided a methodical basis for a historical clothing analysis.

    The history of jewelry and its use for particular events is a detail that has often been overlooked in research. Using both textual and visual sources, Sara van Dijk has undertaken a critical comparison of the jewelry owned by Bianca Maria Sforza and the depictions of the pieces in the surviving portraits. For the first time, we have here a documentation of royal jewelry and of the careful use that was made of its inherent symbolic power.

    Periodical media are the subject of two of the contributions: Wilm Grunwaldt has examined the processes of discursive transfer in the moral weekly Der Patriot (1724–1726), in which police regulations and dress code decrees are presented within a moral, entertaining, and informative format. The binding, normative effect of the authorities’ dictation of norms and regulations through legislation seems to have been negligible.

    From a different angle, Anne Reimers investigates the field of „aesthetic phenomena“, of „fashionability.“ What contributed to its creation, what were its dynamics regarding the arts and the artist, and who had to navigate the system of stylistic choices? Through the eyes of art critics for German art magazines of the 1920s, ranging from Der Querschnitt to Das Kunstblatt, she looks at how fashion and fashionability were problematized and employed as discursive devices to stabilize the idea of the “objective value” of art works. Reimers describes how the terminologies of “fashion allures” and those of the “trends of the times” were played off against one another as a motto for visual artists: “confection” versus the impetus of the “authentic” artist and the concept of fashion as an ephemeral phenomenon versus “style.”

    For every reconstruction and interpretation of dress and its vestimentary culture the surviving objects are of central importance. That being so, the various contributions work at the interface between pictorial, textual, and object sources and investigate different methodological options.

    Johannes Pietsch describes how a textile for which a secure provenance is lacking can offer information as to the wearer, their status, and their taste. His subtle examination of the techniques of working with this type of primary source material is followed by a comparison with visual and textual sources, and finally leads to the thesis that the painters in the era under investigation kept very close to the originals in their depictions of dress.

    Juliane von Fircks presents arguments as to the function, use, and wear of the surviving fourteenth century pourpoint of Charles de Blois. The piece is one of the few remaining objects of medieval mundane clothing, and can be traced back to the battle armor of the knights. Based on the realia and the visual sources, she contends that this pourpoint was actually a made-to-measure garment to be worn at ceremonial festivities at court.

    Finally, the often very helpful method of “quantitative art history” is the point of focus. For vestimentary art history, this method can sometimes be imperative, especially when realia are unavailable. Thus, in the plethora of medieval history paintings one can make out clothing types whose frequent or infrequent appearance within certain specific pictorial themes can offer information as to their characteristics and possibly also to the realities of life in that era. Admittedly, a “critical mass” of visual sources is necessary to attain statistically significant results. Leonie Heeger has addressed the issue of a statistical history of medieval imagery.

    Similarly to Clare Rose, she has constructed a dress typology for the early Middle Ages based on a quantitative analysis of the pictorial works from a carefully selected temporal and geographical context. She has then proceeded to compare these with textual sources (Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni). The statistical evaluation of the visual sources and their clothing types, taking into account the provenance of the pictures and the history behind their themes, provides important indications as to what was commonly worn.

    The conference and the publication of this volume have been funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The Ulmer Verein e.V. contributed to printing costs, and the “netzwerk mode textil e.V.,” the interest group for textile, dress, and fashion research in the German-speaking regions, contributed to the costs of translation. Our particular thanks goes to the initiators of the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung, Prof. Horst Bredekamp and Prof. Wolfgang Schäffner, speakers of the Cluster of Excellence, which was funded by the DFG. The research projects that they have generated create a unique space for interdisciplinary exchange with an inspiring diversity of disciplines and methods, options for cooperation and innovation, and the challenges inherent in such interchange. We are especially thankful for the trust that has been accorded to the undertaking of this conference and the publication. Many thanks also to the authors, who willingly provided the texts of their presentations.


    [1] Trauth, Nina: Maske und Person. Orientalismus im Porträt des Barock. Berlin/ Munich 2009.

    [2] Zitzlsperger, Philipp:Schlüters Porträtbüste des „Prinzen von Homburg“. In: Andreas Schlüter und das Barocke Berlin. Exhib. cat., ed. Hans-Ulrich Kessler, Munich 2014, pp. 358–369.

    [3] Rasche, Adelheid/Wolter, Gundula (ed.) (2003): Ridikül!: Mode in der Karikatur 1600 bis 1900. Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

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