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When real men wore feathers

“We’ve all heard the phrase ‘to put a feather in your cap’ but Schwarz took this to another level”

The recreation of a Renaissance headdress reveals how European men harnessed the seductive power of ostrich feathers.

From burlesque dancers to catwalk models and Hollywood stars, ostrich feathers have helped countless women steal the limelight. But this wasn’t always the case. In the sixteenth century, it was Europe’s men who wielded the sensual plume to increase their fame and fortune.

Now, for the first time, the University of Cambridge and London’s School of Historical Dress have brought this forgotten moment in fashion history back to life by recreating a lavish headdress worn by Matthäus Schwarz, a 24-year-old German fashionista, on 10 May 1521.

Ulinka Rublack with the headdress

Jenny Tiramani (left) and Ulinka Rublack (right) with the recreated headdress. Photo credit: Graham CopeKoga

The completed masterpiece measures more than a metre in width and 45 cm in height. It comprises a split-rim bonnet made of felt, satin and velvet; and the feather headdress itself, which sits on a light-weight wire frame.

Thirty-two long ostrich feathers, sewn together to form sixteen magnificent plumes, cover this structure, complete with gold spangles which were individually stitched with metal thread onto every spine.

Recreating every element of this luxurious edifice occupied five highly-skilled British milliners, felters, costume-makers and their assistants for weeks.

Led by Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History at St John’s College, and Jenny Tiramani, Principal of London's School of Historical Dress, the ambitious project sought to investigate how this complex object was made, but also how it behaved when worn and what role it played in advancing Schwarz’s ambitions during a period of dramatic cultural and economic change in Europe.

The well paid German accountant commissioned this headdress for a life-changing introduction to Ferdinand of Austria, brother of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

1521, the year that Schwarz wore this headdress, was the moment that feathers became a craze in Europe

“We’ve all heard the phrase ‘to put a feather in your cap’ but Schwarz took this to another level,” Rublack says. “He had to make a statement and this amazing ensemble clearly achieved that.” Tiramani adds: “When he was standing in that open field crowned with these huge feathers, you could have spotted him half a mile away.”

Bild in the headdress

Matthäus Schwarz wearing the headdress on 10 May 1521 , as depicted in his Book of Clothes

Schwarz wanted to stand out but also to honour Ferdinand so he demanded white and red ostrich feathers to match the heraldic colours of Austria. This strategy seems to have paid off because Ferdinand eventually made him an aristocrat.

Like so many fashion epiphanies, Schwarz experienced his in Milan – it was here that he first wore ostrich feathers. Francis I of France had just conquered the city and compelled anyone who was anyone to wear a new style of beret topped with his favourite plumes.

After leaving Milan, Schwarz rose to become chief accountant to the hugely powerful Fugger merchant-bankers of Augsburg. With his new-found wealth, he started to commission paintings of himself wearing the latest fashions.

The result was a unique sartorial autobiography known as The Schwarz Book of Clothes which is now considered one of the most important documents in fashion history. It contains 137 images of Schwarz, the latest painted in 1560 when he was sixty-three.

The feather headdress appears in image 48 and together with other visual clues and captions in the book, this gave the London team a wealth of information on which to base their recreation.

1521, the year that Schwarz wore this headdress, was the moment that feathers became a craze in Europe. Charles V and his conquistador, Hernán Cortes, were gifting feather headdresses and clothing from the Americas to VIPs and they caused a sensation.

The artist Albrecht Dürer saw examples in Brussels and he was amazed by the artistry involved. At the same time, there was growing interest in the Ottoman Empire which had also cultivated highly sophisticated feather arts.

"The result is magical. Ostrich feathers are sensuous, they weigh nothing, they are very soft and their movement is titillating”

Headdress in a garden

Schwarz's headdress recreated. Photo credit: Graham CopeKoga

The rise of the feather in Europe was a conspicuous sign of expanding trade and imperial conquest. Ostrich feathers reached the continent – via camel routes and merchant ships – from the sub-Saharan region spanning Timbuktu and Darfur, where the birds had been hunted for centuries.

For both Rublack and Tiramani, the experiment proved a historical and creative revelation. “I had no idea before I saw this recreation how it commanded space and how many hours of labour and what skills went into creating it,” said Rublack. “It helps us to understand why this kind of adornment meant so much to men like Schwarz and how they used it to show off their knowledge of new technologies, crafts and global cultures to make their way in the world.”

Tiramani added: “Featherwork is such a delicate and secretive trade. You can’t see the work that goes into it but ostrich feathers start off a bit messy on the animal. They have to be bleached and then dyed in a way that retains the fluffiness of every filament. The result is magical. Ostrich feathers are sensuous, they weigh nothing, they are very soft and their movement is titillating.”

Wearing feathers only became fully feminised in Europe in the seventeenth century, at which point male usage became increasingly restricted to military displays and parades.

Watch the full film about the recreation and discover more about the history behind it.

From 9 May to 4 August 2019, the recreation will be on display in Germany, alongside The Schwarz Book of Clothes, as part of the exhibition ‘Matthäus Schwarz – A Sixteenth-Century Fashion Diary’ at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony.

Published: 14/02/19

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