Costume in Saxony

The region of Saxony lies just to the south and east of Westphalia, though borders and region names were somewhat fluent over time. For our purposes, we'll be considering the dress of the ladies of this region in the 16th century. This is one of those styles that is pretty easy to recognize on sight. It's fun, over the top, and has a lot of small variations to consider as well.

elderwomanA lot of people know this regional style as "The Cranach Dress." This is because Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, both painted many ladies in this style. Their workshop was fairly large, and it wasn't unusal for them to put out many copies of a work. The quality of some of the copies is pretty variable. I've occasionally heard the theory that Cranach had a single dress in his studio, and he painted all of his models in it. I tend to regard this theory as fairly unlikely. There are too many variations on the gown style for that to have been the case, and the Cranach portraits are hardly the only examples we have of it.

In addition, the style also has elements that are similar to other nearby regional styles. I think it's safe to take the Saxon portraits as real gowns, worn by real ladies. (As always, use care when taking dress elements from any allegorical painting). So let's start with Cranach the Elder.

This lady is wearing a black dress with elaborately puffed and slashed sleeves. Her bodice shows one of the defining charcteristics of the Saxon style - it's open across the center with laces crisscrossing a white underlayer. The skirt, on the other hand, bridges the gap and appears to be evenly gathered all the way around. While there is a small degree of goldwork on the shirt and pearls on the caul, this ensemble is positively understated by Saxon standards. Even her hat (not a ubiquitous element at any rate, so long as the caul is present) is small and has a mere two plumes.

Some of the best known portraits by Cranach are those of the princesses of Saxony. One such portrait is of three daughter of Henry IV, Duke of Saxony,sibyllaEmiliaSidonia together. Sidonia, Emilia, and Sybilla are all dressed in variants of the style, decorated as befits their rank. The sisters are wearing gowns that vary markedly in their level of decoration. Sibylla, on the far right, wears a gown with black trim that has been pearled extensively and has considerable goldwork. Her had is dripping with expensive ostrich plumes. Emilia, in the center, wears a slightly less elaborate gown. Her hat has fewer feathers, but she, too, wears a pearled caul. The term "goldhaube" will turn up regarding this caul. Possibly Sidonia, on the far left and the youngest of the three, is the only one of the sisters who is not married or betrothed at the time of the portrait, and thus the only one shown with her hair uncovered. Her brustfleck (the modern term for the decorative gold inset at the top of the bodice) has no pearls and her outer gown has now gold embellishment, and only very simple sleeves.

Cranach was a noted portraitist whose style influenced the whole genre in 16th century Germany. In fact, another PrincessEmiliaKrellportrait was painted of Emilia by Han Krell - likely her betrothal portrait. Cranach's influence can be seen, but more of Emilia's own personality seems to shine through in this portrait. Her necklaces are similar to those shown in the portrait with her sisters. And, difficult though it is to see in this version, her hat sports a profusion of black ostrich plumes.

We'll skip right over the portraits Cranach painted of Anne of Cleves. They belong in the Westphalia section, as they are more in keeping with that style. Ah, but her sister, Sybille! Portraits of Sybille by Cranach (or sometimes others in his studio - some of them are of quite poor quality) abound. The first prominent one is her betrothal portrait. And, since Sybille was to be wed to John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, she was painted in the Saxon style. Though in this case, her bodice is closed over the front of her gown, and her chemise is high necked. The elaborate gold brocade trim is present, as well as excessive use of puff and slash. Her hair is loose, as befits a maiden, and her head adorned with what some consider a bridal wreath.

Perhaps it's fitting that so much attention was lavished on Sybille'ssybilleRed betrothal. She was the only one of her sisters to actually wed. (Anne, being rejected by Henry VIII, and Amalia never having married at all. In fact, Sybille found herself in the heart of the struggle between Protestantism and Catholocism in Germany. Her husband was a staunch Protestant, enduring imprisonment and the loss of his position because of it. Yet Sybille is never painted in the stark black that marks later rejection of personal adornment by the Reformation.

The second portrait of Sybille appears to be the same dress - but in sybilleGreengreen. The color doesn't seem to have any relationship to either her own family or the one she was marrying into. Perhaps Cranach was unsure which color would suit her best. All the other elements are the same as the red gown, though the shading of the green gown suggests a velvet fabric a bit more strongly.

Sybille was painted by Cranach at least once more, this time after her wedding. This time all of the familiar Saxon elements are present, from the open bodice laced over the white under layer to the goldhaube. This dress is black, but the decoration with gold brocade fabric is extensive. Pearls are apparent on both the brustleck and the goldhaube. The treatment of the puff and slash elbows is particularly interesting, with gold brocade trimming the bridging elements, instead of being found only on either side of the slashed segment.

This gown has a high neck, similar to the silhouette on the Cleves partlet. Yet another sign that the regions were closely tied together and that neither dress style existed in a vacuum.

Another artist who painted in the style was Hans Baldung. Like Cranach, he painted a large number of allegoricalsybille_von_cleve_1531 and religious scenes, in addition to portrait work. Baldung's portrait of a lady gives greater promience to the patterns on the trim and brustfleck of the gown. It's difficult to tell, however, if this lady is wearing a high necked chemise, or simply a gold collar. Dress, hat, goldhaube and jewelry are all consistent with the gowns that Cranach painted. Ergo, it's not Cranach's gown - it's the local style.

Still not convinced? We'll move on to another portrait. Hans Krell again, this time painting a wealthy patroness. Even the Saxon princesses have a hard time competing with the sheerconspicuous consumption displayed in this portrait.

baldung2One wonders briefly how she can keep her posture under the weight of the gown and jewelry. Even her gown is encrusted with pearls. The two-piece sleeves are rather unique, however, in that the lower portions are striped, and a completely different color than the upper sleeves. Again, no chemise appears to be visible at all, but this time the entire upper chest is covered withHanKrellLady jewelry. The overall effect is, in fact, somewhat dizzying.

And just when you think the Saxon style has gone as far over the top as it's possible to go, it finds yet another pinnacle. Yes, my darlings, that does indeed appear to be patchwork sleeves that you see. This is another portrait patchworkladyby Cranach. Her lapels are turned back, giving an almost jacket-like effect to the bodice. That effect is amplified by the solid upper sleeves giving way to the patchwork. Small bands of pieced triangles bracket a puff and slash elbow, are followed by a short expanse of solid fabric, and then a wider cuff of taller pieced triangles. Her gold collar is nearly as wide as her brustfleck. A wreath of metallic flowers sits atop her goldhaube. (Personally, I think the wreath is the precursor of the later flinderhaube, but I get rather a lot of argument on this point.)

The next portrait is one that, on my first encounter with it, I took to be a bit of pop art - a modern reworking based on Cranach's style. However, at auction it was authenticated as genuine - in spite of thecranachYoungerLady hat that looks like it would not be out of place on a hip-hop star. Still, it's another delightful version of the Saxon style. It's also unique, in my experience, in that the front of the overskirt is open. There appears to be a bit of a gold band that crosses at the waist, below the lacings. Under that, however, it appears she's wearing a closely pleated white skirt or petticoat. Possibly this is simply the evolution of the style, as this portrait is by Cranach the Younger. Puffing, slashing, lavish use of gold brocade and dripping in jewelry and pearls, she's certainly a Lady of Quality.

Of course, all of these ladies, whether we know their names or not, are certainly of the upper classes - they could afford to commission portraits. Since the trend for market scenes and other genre paintings hadn't yet reached Northern Germany, finding any images of women of other classes is more difficult. Even the trachtenbuchen, like this one from Augsburg, often are filled with sketches and paintings of upper class women. This trachtenbuchSachsen1lady wears a gown with slashed sleeves, a capelet, a caul and a hat. Both the gown and her petticoat have decorative guards on them.

The "Cranach" gown, therefore, is really an entire regional Upper Class style. Silhouette elements of the Kleves gown and decorative elements of the OstFriesian style both make appearances. The variations, however, are a little obscure in there meaning. Therefore, if you intend to recreate one of these lovely outfits, be very careful about recombining elemets. For instance, the pieced or striped sleeves don't seem to appear with any of the hats - both are pictured with the goldhaube only. Pearls, however, seem to be appropriate in any instance.

Photo credit: Hans Ollerman. I invite anybody with an interest in either German costuming or the art of the period in general to take a look at his delightful photostream on Flickr:

He also moderates a number of image sets that are pertinent as well. Enjoy, and thank you, Hans!