Fashion in the time of Rubens

Rubens’ attention to the minutiae of dress, deportment and etiquette served him well not only as an artist but as a diplomat. Before Rubens, art was seen as mere craftsmanship - a trade - yet this elegantly attired and erudite Antwerp artist exuded nobility, and by his bearing and deportment transformed art into a practice suitable for a gentleman.

Costume at the time of Rubens was fretted with political overtones. Through the quality of fabrics and complexity of its confection a garment proclaimed social status and aspiration, through its structure and silhouette it could announce political allegiance, through its colour it could reflect religious observance and through details such as headdress, suggest geography and origins.

As Spanish power waned in the first half of the 17th century, the lead in fashionable dress was taken by the Dutch, not only because they had the economic sophistication, trade and expertise, but also an intense hatred of the Spanish; there is poetry from Antwerp in the period that upbraided women for their adherence to the Spanish style. Clothing in this period became more relaxed and given to ease of movement. It was characterised at its finest by rich billowing silks, soft brimmed hat in the chevalier style for men and lower cut, less rigid garments for women. The stiff millstone ruffs of the Spanish were gradually replaced by soft lace collars and trimming.

Beyond the voluptuous use of colour and dynamic surface texture of embroidery, rich silks, steel and fur, the costumes in Rubens’ paintings would have communicated a great deal of information to the contemporary viewers. They would have noticed the stiff tight corseting and high neckline that indicated adherence to the custom of Spanish nobility or the austere dress of the Calvinist. In Rubens’ early self portrait with his wife Isabella Brant, they might have noticed the artists’ modish adoption of a floppy lace collar in favour of a stiff millstone ruff which hinted at his modern and open sensibility, the sword hilt suggesting that was is the chivalric protector of Isabella, and the silk clothing worn by both, which displayed their worldly success.