The wealth and sophistication of the Southern Netherlands in the Middle Ages was due in no small part to the cloth trade and the region’s sophistication in weaving and dying. As an important trading port, Antwerp became a hub, buying wool from England and Persian silks from Venice.

The city was also the source of many of the chemicals used in cloth dying, some of which were produced locally and others traded with Italy.  When alum – a valuable compound used in dying and tannery – was discovered in the Papal lands outside of Rome, Antwerp was chosen as the point of distribution north of the Alps, for a while holding a monopoly. So important was the city’s chemical and technical expertise that, until the middle of the 16th century, English cloth was sent to Antwerp to be dyed and finished for export. During its ‘Golden Age’ (around 1520 to 1585) Antwerp was one of the world’s most important economic hubs, renowned for weaving and finishing, lace making, tapestry work and dying; in particular the difficult and expensive process of dying fine black cloth.

Black cloth was essential to the fashion of the Spanish Empire, which at its height under Charles V (1519-1556) covered the Netherlands, Austria and Spanish possessions in Africa and the Americas. Spanish courtly dress was strict, stiff, dark and confining, discouraging of change and difference. The body was shaped through corseting and padding, and the head held stiffly in place above high collars and ruffs. These high collars made it necessary for women to wear their hair up, and the fashion for padding lead to the introduction of the farthingale at the end of the 16th century, a hooped and padded underskirt.

To the Spanish, proper dress was seen as a counterbalance to decadence and moral decline, and clothing laws were a way to exert control within their empire – by conforming to the laws of dress, the subjects of the empire were conforming to Spanish will.