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Edition #5
Growth and Power
Amalia Pascual del Riquelme Verdejo
Edited by Laurine Heerema

The Emperor's New Clothes : The legitimation of the Hapsburg dynasty through the use of clothing

During each moment in history, the human necessity of covering, identifying and expressing oneself has been approached differently. One of the tools that the new Habsburg dynasty used when Charles V inherited the crown in 1520, creating their image of power, which simultaneously reinforced and legitimised the new monarchy: their clothing. The Hapsburgs hereby distinguished themselves from all other European monarchies, creating a new aesthetic that reflected very particular values, which was also appreciated in the rest of artistic disciplines. 

The Renaissance, with its exaltation of individualism and love for magnificence, granted dress a privileged status. During the Middle Ages, despite certain peculiarities of some regions, a common clothing existed within the higher levels of European societies. Consequently, it was not until the fifteenth century that a process of diversification was initiated that culminated a hundred years later. Parallel to this phenomenon, the reverse took place. The fashion created in one country crossed its borders, and therefore the influences in this field were continuous. Within these coordinates, some influences were more dominant than others, and the sixteenth century saw the Spanish Golden Age, and with that, their way of dressing was imposed in every European court. Nevertheless, in spite of being the most relevant within the European panorama, the Spaniard's dress was indeed influenced by other foreign fashions. It is imperative to take into account that said influences were mostly present in the masculine dress, considering that the female dress had a more national character. In fact, two of the Spanish garments that had the most impact in the international scene are the farthingale (verdugado) and chopine (chapín).

Additionally, the rise of the portrait entailed a display of power and sophistication that placed humans as the core of the universe in a society dominated by social hierarchies and lineage. The democratisation of the portrait, in its origins exclusive to the most privileged, ended up encompassing the whole scope of the social spectrum, creating the imperative need for those in power to create new iconographies that quenched their yearning of differentiation. 


According to Dr Patricia Fumerton, the faces in the miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard are in fact the background, made to support the variable encompass representation of hair, jewels and other objects. The heads could be painted far more rapidly  than the meticulous job that pearls, frills and diverse clothes. The more time spent, the bigger the relevance. Clothing brings a specification that people cannot give, and its importance is proven by the way that portraits were put into inventories during the Renaissance. If in fact, the name of the model, often misspelt,  is  a common method of categorising, and clothing of itself is one as well. For instance instead of saying Isabelle, the name would be spelled Isobel, but the dress would be described accurately. If the character and psychology of a person can be shown exclusively through their factions, why bother with the complex decorations of portraits? In the majority of cases, the identity is clearer in objects than in people, which have a symbolic and iconographic charge. 

With the ascension of Charles V to the throne, but most specifically with his arrival to the Iberian Peninsula, the Flemish and French influences on the Spanish way of dressing became more apparent, as shown by the ordinances of Seville’s guild of tailors when demanding that the aspiring candidate to the apprentice position knew how to cut una saya francesa y un jubón a la francesa de manga ancha. If the French fashions, open at the front with a big collar, were seen as an international garment used by European elites, the Spanish national style was increasingly reaffirmed and was implemented in foreign courts. In spite of the Italian triumph of the Renaissance, its influence on Spanish garments came deferred through the Netherlands, and soon short hair, especially accompanied by a small cap, and for men, leg-of-mutton sleeves along with open necklines, came into fashion.

After the Middle Ages, a nationalist sentiment started to consolidate among different European territories. Rather quickly the universal aspect of the Gothic style was pushed aside in favour of an individualism brought on by the Renaissance. The Spanish dress during the period of Charles V was indeed the result of this nationalism in conjunction with the continuous influx of foreign fashions, especially pronounced throughout the fifteenth century. Christianity may be interpreted as a common denominator. Fashion can adhere in varying degrees to climatic conditions, however, it is always going to answer to aesthetic values that also translate into particular morals. The conscience of a national fashion was already present during the beginning of the sixteenth century in the Hapsburg court. When Charles V entered the Iberian Peninsula in 1517, he was a foreigner, not only because of his education and tongue, but also his way of dressing. In 1520, the Bishop of Badajoz defended the new Emperor by saying “en la cual determinación está y estará mientras viviere, e así aprendió vuestra lengua e vestió vuestro hábito, tomando vuestros gentiles ejercicios de caballería”.

With regards to the Spanish government, the national aspect was more accentuated, possibly explained by the isolation of women and their lack of liberty in dressing. It is expressed through the little details, in the use of certain garments with very peculiar characters. Since the beginning of the Middle Ages, the variety of coats and capes had been the biggest originality of the Spanish suit due to its replacement in the rest of Europe, as it is precisely the first Spanish garment that Charles V wore upon his arrival. Other elements to mention due to their transcendence are the aforementioned verdugado and chopines, the transado or ribbon-bound braids and a type of coif called de papos

The Spanish verdugado [Figure 1], from which "farthingale" derives, was a hoop skirt originally stiffened with esparto grass; later designs in the temperate climate zone were stiffened with osiers (willow withies), rope, or, from about 1580, whalebone. The name verdugado comes from the Spanish verdugo ("green wood", or the more modern meaning of “executioner"). In the court dress, it was a type of undergarment that gave a flared shape to the skirts. It appeared in Castille in around 1470, and at the end of the fifteenth century, it was imported to the Italian Peninsula. Consequently, with the reign of Francis I, it travelled to France, and by the second half of the sixteenth century, it was adopted by ladies across Europe.

When it comes to footwear, the chopines [Figure 2] are made of extremely thick cork soles. They were already in use in mediaeval times in the Iberian Peninsula due to their islamic legacy. Further on, during the 16th century they travel to Venice, becoming characteristic of this city, and soon some parts of Europe follow suit. Their morphology made them a complicated shoe to wear, becoming a recurrent element in popular theatre as the women who wore them would fall in the arms of the knight. The transado [Figure 3] were a type of ribbon-bound braids that appeared at the end of the 14th century and remained in fashion until the middle of the 16th century, imitated in Flanders, France and Italy.

During the first third of the sixteenth century, the human figure flattens and widens itself, with the dominance of horizontal lines, the silhouette consequence of  a reaction against the Gothic taste, based on angular shapes and slenderness. Fashion loses liberty and variety, characteristic of the previous movement, and becomes increasingly uniform. The headpieces become smaller and the garments tend to imprison the neck and tighten around the arms and torso.

The ideal of flattened shapes is exchanged for one that tends to create triangular silhouettes. This new ideal of beauty, pleased by full and robust shapes opposite of Gothic fragility, translates into the fashion of a silhouette with wide hips. During the 1520s, the Spanish dress became more experimental and eye-catching due to the foreign influences; however it still favoured the contrast between the upper bust and waist. After 1530, the court dress was created, inspired by the motivation of hiding the female body. The trunk was elongated artificially, the waist was not marked in its natural place instead of using a type of corset that made the torso be rigid and flat; the body of the petticoat is joined to the skirt forming a pronounced peak. The only thing to value of the feminine form under those rigid shapes and smooth surfaces, was the narrowness of the waist. The woman appeared as something inaccessible, enclosed in a rich case. 


The necklines widen progressively, as in 1526 there are examples of rounded ones that exposed the shoulder nine, covered by the upper part of a thin chemise or a transparent gorget. The latter being one of the most relevant novelties of the 1530s, especially the ones that covered the whole neck, that in the next decade would start being finished off by ruffles. This new fashion announcer is the end of liberty that women enjoyed from the fifteenth century to show off the skin of her necks and even their bust. The dresses now are completely closed with high necklines and collars to keep the head straight [Figure 5]. This characteristic of Spanish fashion would soon be imitated by the rest of Europe.


The surprising diffusion of the Spanish dress in Europe in the fifteenth century was a direct consequence obtained by the prestige of the Americas, thereby establishing Spain as a key location in the traffic of precious metals, a sort of luxury during the Renaissance. The most distinct characteristic of the Spanish dress was its temperance, its austere elegance. In spite of its delicacy, the textiles are contained within a dark chromatic scheme. Even the buffoons at the Escorial didn't wear garish colours. The fashion of black travels to Italy and France, and soon to the rest of Europe. The Spanish dress stylises the lines of the body, and the feminine realm's main transformation was the abandonment of flexibility to the benefit of straight shapes. The stiffness is a formal aspect that agrees with the values and Spanish pride, as owners of half of the world. It gave whoever chose to take part in it, a sense of monumentality. Through solid fragments of brocade, one could obtain volumes that juxtapose in an angular way, a volumetry that brings a sobriety and a severity. The hefty jewellery talks more about power than sensibility. 


Even though luxury and ostentation were permitted, the Spanish dress implied the embodiment of the new Catholic values that the Hapsburg court showed at the core of their politics. Furthermore, not only did they use clothing as a unifying element of the territory, playing with timid nationalisms, and creating a common identity, but also empowered whoever chose to adhere to these fashions. Another aspect to take into consideration is the political and social implications brought by the type of costume and the origin of the textiles. 


One of the direct consequences, which is often overlooked, of the relevance of clothing is the creation of a new jurisdiction. The generalised economic wellness implied a new clientele with more expensive taste, as demonstrated by Ann Rosalind Jones y Peter Stallybrass, when looking at the registry of the Office of Wardrobes. In the Iberian peninsula, the nobles were forced to express in their garments their privileged category. In that century, the uncontainable wish for luxury resulted in excessive spending that worried the government who tried to impose laws to contain opulence. In 1515, Joan I of Castile forbade her vassals, even if they were dukes, to wear brocade and restricted the use of silk to certain garments and ornaments. 


Although history of fashion is increasingly getting more attention, it’s a field that should be held in higher regard. The Renaissance conception of which the importance of portrait lays upon the face and therefore in the psychological study of the subject is not completely true, taking into account the multitude of material elements employed in the construction of an image, person, or alter ego. As it was something that the monarchs kept in mind, they would employ a never ending range of tangible and luxury elements with a very distinct iconography to differentiate one another from the rest of the world. Within the Habsburg court, this new dynasty used and created new garments to legitimise their power and unify their territory that went on beyond their borders. They were the owners and masters of the world, and through ostentatious yet modest clothing, ensured their recognition and dominance.


1. A french kirtle and a french doublet with wide sleeves.

2.  In whose determination is and will be while he lives, that is how he learnt your language and dressed in your attire, taking your gentile exercises of chivalry. 

3. (2000, pp. 21-22)






Figure 1. Herod’s banquet (detail), Pedro García de Benabarre, circa 1445-1485, tempera, sutco reliefs and gold leaf on wood. Image courtesy of Museu National d’art de Catalunya.


Figure 2. Chopines, circa 1550-1650. Image courtesy of the MET


Figure 3. Eneas Silvio, bishop of Sienna, presents Eleanor of Portugal to Emperor Frederick III (detail), Piccolomini, c. 1502-1507, fresco at the Piccolomini Library. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Doña Catalina de Austria, mujer de Juan III de Portugal.jpg

Figure 4. Catherine of Austria, wife of king John III of Portugal (detail), Anthonis Mor, 1552-1553, oil on panel. Image courtesy of ©Museo Nacional del Prado .

The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia.jpg

Figure 5. The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, 1598 - 1599, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of ©Museo Nacional del Prado .


Bernís, C. (1962). Indumentaria española en tiempos de Carlos V. Instituto Diego Velázquez. Boucher, F. (1967). Historia del traje en occidente desde la antigüedad hasta nuestros días




Cadiñanos Bardeci, I. (2019). Ordenanzas de los sastres de Cuenca (siglo XVI). Cuadernos de Historia del Derecho. Ediciones Complutense. 


Currie, E. (2016). Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence. Van Haren Publishing. Jones, A. R., & Stallybrass, P. (2000). Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge University Press. 


Descalzo Lorenzo, A. (2007). Apuntes de moda desde la prehistoria hasta época moderna. Dialnet. Consulted 10th of May 2022, de

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