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Judith's Turban to Hagar's Pearls: Clothing in Art

We can deduce a lot about a person from the clothes he or she wears: a Yankees cap often indicates you’re from New York, while scrubs suggest you work in a hospital.

The same is true in works of art: figures’ clothing can be an important indicator of social rank, of origin, or even of moral status. If you look around the museum, you’ll see a lot of interesting garments.

 Judith's TurbanHead of Holofernes

It’s hard not to notice Judith’s headdress in Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Francesco del Cairo. The interlaced blue and yellow fabric contrasts starkly against the black background. The huge headgear seems somewhat at odds with Judith’s delicate frame. However, such a hat was actually in style in seventeenth-century Italy, which was interested in eastern aesthetics.

This turban, a style likely derived from the Ottomans, lends Judith an air of exoticism and mystery. Moreover, the eastern association of the turban would be all the more appropriate for a seventeenth-century representation of a Jewish woman; at the time, Jews were believed to be a distinct race from Asia. With this elaborate hat, we can imagine Judith as the seductive heroine willing to risk all to save her people.

Hagar and the Angel

Hagar's Pearls

A turban also figures prominently in Pietro da Cortona’s Hagar and the Angel. Like Judith, Hagar is cast as a refined yet exotic heroine. Moreover, Hagar’s headgear is woven with pearls, giving her an aura of wealth and sophistication.

The pearls also highlight Hagar’s otherness, as the precious jewels were imported to Europe from distant lands.

Portrait of a Family Group

The Brother's Red Stockings

Giovanni Fasolo’s Portrait of a Family Group uses clothing in a slightly different manner. Here, garments allow the viewer to map out familial relations and to distinguish among the three siblings.

Whereas the elder brother, at right, is attired in bright red hose and an expensive doublet and shirt, the younger one, at back left, wears only black apparel.

This contrast alludes to their distinct positions: one is the heir to his father’s fortune, the other a spare. Meanwhile, the boys’ sister shows off a beautifully tailored dress and a string of beads and pearls; her attired advertises her father’s fortune, already evident in his massive fur-edged cloak. 

Portrait of Pieter JacobszPieter's Black Coat

Although black in Fasolo’s painting signals that the younger brother will not receive the same inheritance as his brother, the same color plays a very different role in Frans Hals’s Portrait of Pieter Jacobsz. Here, the sitter’s black clothing signals his position as a wealthy citizen of the Dutch Republic. In seventeenth-century Haarlem—Olycan’s hometown—ostentation was frowned upon as it clashed with the ideals of a Protestant society.

Instead, wealth was expressed in more subtle ways, such as the high quality of fabric or the width of a white lace ruff, both in evidence in this painting. Moreover, black was the most expensive color at the time and is often used to clothe rich patrons in such portraits. Thus, Hals offers us a painting of Olycan’s prosperity while adhering to the values of contemporary society.

 

Find more significant items of clothing on your next visit to The Ringling, or peruse the American and European Art in our online collections 
 

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