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Clothes mean more than bodies




If we are not to judge books by their covers, can we judge people by their clothes? In anticipation of the fashion competition to be launched by the British Library andBritish Fashion Councilin this new year, here are some thoughts on the importance of fashion. For those looking for inspiration, it can be found anywhere: mythology, paintings, even literature.

In mythology, Strife threw an apple marked To the most beautiful among three goddesses: Juno (queen of deities), Pallas Minerva (goddess of war and knowledge) and Venus (goddess of love). , they surrendered to the Paris shepherd, who reasonably said he couldn’t judge their beauty with their clothes.

For Renaissance artists like Rubens, it was a great excuse for nude studies.

The judgment of Parisby Peter Paul Rubens

But not everyone thought like Rubens. A contemporary critic said that Rubens made the goddesses look too naked.

Among the poets, Ovid has no description of the goddesses. Fifteen hundred years later, the Valencian poet Joan Ros de Corella wrote his version of the Judgment of Paris. Corella (or probably her sources) tells it as follows.

Paris says, it will not be possible for me to judge this case unless I can contemplate your persons without any veil

The first is Pallas Minerva, who says:

As the vanity ambition of human praise has captured us and submitted us to the judgment of this young man, we are forced to obey the laws he determines as a judge.

And, while speaking, she began to untie the belt of a dark red damask skirt, the decoration of which was chosen with great skill in emeralds, which, mixed with sapphires, dazzling human sight, transported her from this world. And the skirt was dotted with fertile green olive foliage; the olives, covered with black and green enamels, which invited the spectators to stretch out their hands to take the fruit of the painted tree. And on her shoes, of purple satin, were embroidered thistles with pointed flowers, which revealed real points, so that you would not dare to pluck the olives lifted from the wide skirt. And a motto in gold letters among the thorns read clearly: Open your eyes to the evil that can ensue. And the excellent queen wore a sparkling anthrax on her breast, which hung from her neck on a cord of gold thread, so thin that human sight could only perceive its color and not its quantity.

The other goddesses follow suit. Juno believes that as Queen of Olympus, she shouldn’t have to put herself down in front of younger women: but she still wants to be the prettiest. Venus locks her eyes with Paris as she drops her cloak. You will recall that Venus cheated by promising Helen of Troy in Paris. And that led to the Trojan War.

Detail of a miniature of the Judgment of Paris, between Athena, Juno and Venus, in Christine de Pizan Lptre Otha.Harley 4431, f. 128v

So it is clear that even though Paris believed that the beauty of the goddesses was in their bodies, for Corella their clothes deserved much more attention. I think this is not unusual in medieval texts, probably because medieval people believed that clothing could have social or symbolic meaning that bodies could not. Corella says nothing about the body, he says little about the cut of clothes (which incidentally is medieval rather than classic), he says little about the fabric that makes the clothes, but says a lot about metals and jewels that adorn them, and even endows each garment with a chosen verbal message in gold.

So that’s the importance of fashion.

Barry Taylor, curator of novelistic collections

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Photo credit: The judgment of Parisby Peter Paul Rubens

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