The First Book of Fashion

University of Cambridge historian Dr. Ulinka Rublack, author of the excellent Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, and Maria Hayward have published a unique 16th century manuscript documenting one German accountant’s daring and elegant forays into personal style. The Klaidungsbüchlein, or “book of clothes,” is the ancestor of every fashion blog, Instagram and Tumblr and it slays them all.

Matthäus Schwarz was born in Augsburg on February 20th, 1497, the son of a wine merchant and innkeeper. Even as a teenager Schwarz showed an interest in fashion, realizing how quickly trends came and went. That understanding would inspire him to meticulously record what he wearing, when and why, noting his age down to fractions of years. After learning bookkeeping through apprenticeships in Milan and Venice, as soon as he returned to Augsburg in 1516 he got a job as a clerk with Jakob Fugger, the head of one of the richest, most powerful mercantile, mining and banking firms in Europe. Schwarz quickly worked his way up, becoming head accountant by the age of 23.

That same year he began to document his outfits, keeping a style blog in the form of illuminated manuscript. He commissioned local artist Narziss Renner, then just 19 years old, to reconstruct 36 images of him from birth through his early 20s based on detailed descriptions and old drawings. Renner then made tempera portraits of each important outfit going forward, while Schwarz made notes on the date, his age and the occasion.

Schwarz took pleasure in gorgeous, expensive clothes, but they were also an important form of self-expression for him. He was successful at his job and made good money, but he wasn’t rich. He was a middle class burgher, but he spent all of his discretionary income on clothes and was involved in every aspect of the design. There was no prêt-à-porter and if there had been Schwarz still would have gone for the couture. This wasn’t just a foppish indulgence. He put on a sartorial display as a means to better himself socially. His grandfather Ulrich had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, rising from common carpenter to guild leader to mayor of Augsburg only to be charged with corruption by opponents of greater wealth and status. He was convicted and hanged in 1478, a stain on the family reputation that Matthäus, like his father, felt keenly. The right kind of clothes were essential to Matthäus’ hopes that he might regain the ground lost by his grandfather’s disgrace.

It worked. He caught the eye of Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who invited Schwarz to his wedding. When Charles returned to Germany after a nine year absence and he and Ferdinand were in Augsburg for the Imperial Diet in 1530, Schwarz commissioned six extremely intricate outfits he hoped would please them. Schwarz’s employer Jakob Fugger was very close to the emperor, having spent huge sums to help secure his election to the office, so Schwarz wasn’t just a nameless face in the crowd. A devout Catholic in a region rent by the religious conflicts of the Reformation, Schwarz telegraphed his support for the emperor and the Church by his choice of colors. In 1541 he and two of his brothers were ennobled.

Renner and Schwarz worked together for 16 years. After that, Schwarz kept going, employing other artists, including one from Christoph Amberger’s studio, to paint his looks until 1560 when he was 63 years old. By then he had 75 pages of parchment with 137 portraits of himself, including the first secular nude since Albrecht Durer’s. It was a bold nude, too, with both front and back views and an unstinting self-assessment: “That was my real figure from behind, because I had become fat and large.” His son followed in his father’s footsteps, although he was less prolific and his styles less colorful.

Schwarz had the manuscript bound in 1560 and while it was basically a personal account, he appears to have shown it to a select audience. Over the years word got out because in 1704 Sophie of Hanover, granddaughter of James I and mother of George I of England, borrowed the manuscript and had it copied by scribe J.B. Knoche. She kept a copy and gave another to her to her niece Elizabeth Charlotte of Orléans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV of France. Sophie’s copy is now in the State Library of Hanover.

The original is in the collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, one of the oldest museums in the world. The book is so fragile that even scholars very rarely get to see it, and then only with two trained curators gingerly turning each page. Before now, most of the color photos of the manuscript were taken from the Hanover copy. The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg is the first, and given the caution with which the manuscript is treated very possibly the last, edition to publish all the original images in color. Since the copies have notable errors in coloration that Schwarz would have been appalled by, having a full color record of the delicate original is a precious thing.

The First Book of Fashion is available in hardcover and EPUB eBook from the publisher and in hardcover and Kindle from Amazon. If delayed gratification is not your bag, you can peruse Mr. Schwarz’s analog Instagram in this pdf which is a scan of the Hanover copy. The picture quality isn’t great, though.

Two years ago, Dr. Rublack collaborated with Tony award-winning costume designer and dress historian Jenny Tiramani, who also collaborated on the book, to recreate one of Schwarz’s most dramatic and politically significant outfits: a gold and red silk doublet over a fine linen shirt with yellow leather hose he wore for the 1530 return of the emperor. Watch this video documenting the recreation because it’s awesome. Even just putting on the outfit is crazy complicated. Oh, and killer codpiece too.


The First Book of Fashion includes a pattern for the gold and red outfit, just in case you want to try your hand at recreating such a glamorous Renaissance look.

25 thoughts on “The First Book of Fashion

  1. Beware of us Accountants. Most of us close the ledgers at the end of the day, then go home and do something interesting. I was a pistol instructor when I was still in the UK.

    This chap Schwartz is another of the breed.

    1. I had not seen it and I’m gobsmacked by it. Dr. Green makes a persuasive case. No matter how much I read about ancient trade networks, it never ceases to amaze me just how far they ranged.

  2. Wow, what a great book! The video was fascinating (but didn’t let me look at the outfit long enough). I was quite interested in the linen blouse that she was describing as an unusual cut, with the sleeves going up to the neck. That neck is smocked! The design is still in use today, and it’s called a bishop design (presumably because of a historical connection to bishops’ wear). I have made smocked bishop dresses for little girls that are just like that. Just like in the video, the sleeves go all the way up to the neck and you gather a whole lot of fabric tightly in to the neckline, smocking it to get it into the right shape.

    Smocking is a very old form of embroidery that functions as elastic. Various stitches do different jobs, holding the fabric tightly gathered, or letting it stretch and come back. It was most functional on working shirts (smocks, in fact) that let you move easily.

    1. How cool, dangermom. Thank you for the details on the smocked design. The neck on the shirt from the Aragon collection in Naples (at about the 5:05 point) seems insanely complicated to me. From my entirely inexpert perspective it looks like chevron-shaped stitching keeps all the gathered fabric together. And there’s so much fabric squeezled in there! Really, I’m amazed it’s even possible without actual elastic.

  3. This is so cool!!! :notworthy:
    I’m a seamstress myself, I have a blog and I like a bit of dressing up (although nothing impressively historical so far) so I am in a perfect position to be absolutely in awe of this book…
    I once made a reproduction of a 16th century slashed doublet and it was so different from any other sewing I had ever done. And I didn’t even have the time to really get the construction right (because that slashed surface took so much time). I would have loved a much longer version of that video, showing many more details of the construction of that outfit.

    Dangermom is absolutely right about the smocking on the neckline. I was thinking the same and it would be a functional detail: It would mean that neckline could be high and look tight but it would still have a bit of stretch and give so it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable to wear. And the fact that it is smocked is also responsible for those complicated shapes you see on the Aragon shirt. Smocking is done by first gathering the fabric in straight pleats and then stitching those together in a pattern. To make the end result stretchy, the pattern can’t be in straight lines.

  4. Oh, and I did just link to this post from my own blog, so if you notice a sudden rise is geeky sewing and fashion remarks, you know where some of them came from 😉

  5. I know absolutely nothing about fashion or sewing, but I do know that the outfit is fantastic! Love the colors and design…the woman who recreated it is extremely talented. Wonder how an outfit like that was cleaned back in the day?

  6. It is amazing how much fabric you can gather in with the right stitching. I made an 1850s dress once, with that tight bodice and enormous skirt, and it’s got yards of stuff gathered in tightly with a technique called cartridge sewing. I couldn’t believe how well it worked.

    Yep, that chevron stitching is the smocking, as Lauriana says below. It’s actually more simple than it looks; a bishop design takes four very basic pieces, the front/back/sleeves, and relies on the neck gathering for most of the fitting. That’s what makes it a popular style for small children–it takes forever to grow out of it!

  7. The drawings in the copies are indeed not quite comparable to the ones they were copied from in 1704.

    Of remarkable quality, however, are the 1542 Amberger portraits of Matthäus and Barbara, even if their outfits are slightly more plain on those.

  8. These fashion trends are pretty viral these days and I was literally taking those idea to try for few of the upcoming events. It sure is going to be suitable dressing for my body type.

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