Fusing biography, art and fashion history, Amber Butchart explores the lives of historical figures through their clothes. She looks at van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait.
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Clothes are the ultimate form of visual communication.
By looking at the way people dressed, we can learn not only about
them as individuals, but about the society they lived in.
I'm Amber Butchart, fashion historian,
and, in the words of Louis XIV,
I believe that fashion is the mirror of history.
So, taking historical works of art as our inspiration...
..traditional tailor Ninya Mikhaila and her team
will be recreating historical clothing,
using only authentic methods.
Oh, look at that, it's changing colour in the air.
And I'll be finding out what they tell us
about the people who wore them...
I'm assuming the King wouldn't be dressing himself, though, right?
..and the times they lived in...
..and seeing what they're like to wear.
The picture that launched a thousand theories,
Jan van Eyck's famous double portrait, painted in 1434,
is considered one of the most complex paintings in Western art.
I chose this portrait for a number of reasons.
It's something that has been written about extensively in art history.
There's a real appetite for new information that can shed light on
this portrait and the sitters.
Now, historically speaking, it's also a very fascinating period.
We've seen the emergence of mercantile capitalism
all around port cities in Europe,
so we begin to see the effects of trade
really heavily on the way that people are dressing.
Now, also, the emergence of the merchant.
This is quite an interesting character.
They challenged the previous, very rigid structures of society.
So there's an element of social mobility here.
You can become very rich through trade,
you don't necessarily have to have been born into wealth,
and I'm really interested to see if this element of social mobility is
reflected in the way that people are dressing.
So there are a number of things going on with this portrait.
Plus, I really love the colour green.
This dress is so alien to our modern aesthetic,
I'm really interested to find out from Ninya just how complicated
it will be to make.
I suppose the thing that strikes you first
is just quite how much fabric there is in there.
And then, as you zoom in, you see these huge hanging sleeves,
which have the most incredible decoration going on
at the bottom of them.
What you're seeing there is literally layers of the fabric,
which have been cut with a special tool, a pinking tool,
to give that very fragile, frayed look.
And so the fabric itself, this gorgeous green fabric, what is this?
What material is it?
It was a kind of cloth that was woven very wide,
so it was called broadcloth.
This fabric today is usually called doeskin or superfine.
But what these very small samples don't really show
is how beautiful that looks in the picture
and that's because you need a larger piece of the fabric.
So this is a piece of doeskin.
So, you can see that once it starts to drape
and actually get the light on it...
-..it becomes a much more silky-looking material.
Yes. People don't usually associate wool
as being a luxury fabric, do they?
They don't, and at this date
it really was one of England's finest exports
and it was bought and used all over Europe.
But it's not just the wool that we're seeing here, is it?
There's this fur trim as well.
Now, where does this fur in particular come from?
We're still thinking about what it might be
and one possibility is it might be an arctic fox.
Wow. Where does one get hold of arctic fox?
Well, for these people, it would have been imported,
it would be Baltic.
It's another expensive, luxury item.
And that's quite helpful in an age before central heating, isn't it?
It would really keep you warm.
-Wool and fur.
Now, we're not going to be using any arctic fox, I'm assuming, for this?
-So what will we be using?
We'll be looking for a faux fur.
So, really, throughout here,
we're seeing quite an opulent display of wealth.
-Literally, wearing your wealth on your sleeves.
Yes, and trailing it on the ground!
Given that this dress seems to be
such a conspicuous display of wealth,
I'm fascinated to find out more about the couple in the portrait
and why they might have chosen these clothes to be painted in.
I'm hoping art historian Jenny Graham
can shed some light on the subject.
So this portrait, one of the most contested, most debated
in the history of Western art, who do we think these people are?
They're a very wealthy couple.
We know that they come from the Arnolfini family,
who traded in luxurious fabrics and exotic items,
such as the four oranges that you can see.
This really represents their conspicuous consumption of wealth
and splendid things.
This picture has become ensconced within popular culture,
even Charles Dickens refers to it as "that strange mirror picture".
Why do you think it's got such an enduring appeal?
I can't think of another painting in, sort of, Western art history,
whereby we know so very much about how it's been interpreted
in different ways over the years.
It seems to be a painting which triggers all kinds of detective-like
attempts to solve the enigma, the riddle.
One of the overriding theories that's now been discredited is that
she's pregnant. But that's not the case, is it?
No, the pregnancy theories first crop up in the 19th century.
But a modern reading of the painting is very much that she is holding up
the green wool dress - very, very heavy -
and so the painting now is much more understood, I think,
as a display of opulence and wealth.
And it's more than that as well -
it's very, very interesting in terms of gender politics.
If she were to let go of the folds of the dress,
it would pool out all around her
in a way that would make it almost impossible to walk.
And we know, for example,
that there were lots of ways that women at this time
signalled their social status,
the fact that they weren't going to be moving around
or undertaking anything manual.
Everything seems to signal restraint.
So the dress we're seeing here represents
a number of different things.
It can speak to us about the position of women in society,
it can speak to us about the couple, the status as merchants.
Really, there's an awful lot going on here, isn't there?
Yes. I mean, interestingly, the green dress is made of wool,
which was very much associated with trade between Bruges,
where Jan van Eyck paints the portrait, and Italy.
We know that the Arnolfini family traded in cloth particularly,
so there's a sort of familial significance there.
But green itself was a colour
associated with high finance and banking.
When one made a trade in Italy during this period,
one would place down a green cloth,
so I think there's a real significance,
given the trade in which they've made their money.
Just as the painting's complexity
provides continual debate for art historians,
so the dress's design is proving a challenge for Ninya.
I'm trying to work out how the sleeves on this Arnolfini gown
actually work because they're incredibly complicated.
-If you go to the bottom of the strips...
..see, look, isn't that the bottom edge of a strip?
And that's the bottom edge of a strip,
so it's like there's layers.
It's like tiers, isn't it? It's got a sort of fold at the bottom,
That's a point - maybe it's not a raw edge, maybe it's folded.
I don't think that is a raw edge.
Look, it's not pinked, the edge.
The edge is...
..definitely different. That's not a pinked edge, that's a fold.
How about it's one piece that's really long
and it's folded up behind itself and pinned, so that it's behaving...
So the long things would come down to there and then fold back up?
Yes, and that would give it more body so it would stay...
It would give it that sort of flat front thing.
I think that's worth a shot.
We need to do another twirl in something thicker.
Yes, how about if I cut it in wool
-and then we can cut into it and see how it behaves?
Yes, it'll have more body, won't it?
-Twice as big.
-..back to the drawing board.
As we've seen, everything about this portrait screams status.
Just the sheer amount of fabric in the gown could have caused offence
at a time when strict sumptuary laws
dictated what different classes of society could wear.
As merchants, the Arnolfinis may have been rich,
but they weren't nobility,
and their ostentatious display of wealth was at odds
with the rigid hierarchical society of the time.
In Flanders, where they lived,
one chronicler even blamed the outbreak of civil war
just over 50 years earlier
on the audacity of city dwellers who were better dressed than the nobles.
And this attitude wasn't confined to Europe.
In England, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote...
"May not a man see, as in our days,
"the sinful, costly array of clothing,
"and namely, in too much superfluity,
"that maketh it so dear, to the harm of the people.
"But there is also the costly furring in their gowns,
"so much pouncing of chisel to make holes, so much gagging of shears
"with the superfluity in length of the aforesaid gowns
"trailing in the dung and in the mire."
Wool was the primary fabric for clothing in the Middle Ages
but quality varied, depending on whether it was for a peasant
or a prince.
English wools in particular were considered to be very high quality
and some could even be more expensive than silk.
Our gown would have been made from the highest quality broadcloth,
nowadays called doeskin.
To find out more about the processes involved in making this fabric,
I'm visiting a company that has been making doeskin for over 200 years.
So you've got a bail this size,
-that when you unroll it will actually expand...
-Oh, my God.
After arriving in tightly compacted bails,
the wool is pulled apart and aerated in the blending process.
This is what it looks like when it comes out of the machine.
So you can see how different it looks, how aeriated
and how pulled apart it is.
Next, the aerated wool is sent to carding.
-This machine is going to take all of this...
..to make it look like this.
OK. How does it do that?
Carding is where the wool fibres are broken up and aligned into strands.
That really does look like clouds or something.
You can really see it starting to take that shape now.
-This is what you get out at the end.
-Wow! Look at that.
This is what we call slubbing.
If you pull it apart, you can see that there's no strength in there,
but if you take the same piece and put all those twists in and turn it
and turn it and turn it, and then try and pull it apart...
..you can see that you've got more strength in there.
So that's the spinning process that we have to go through next
to make it into the yarn that we can put through.
The yarn is spun onto spools and then woven into cloth.
The next process is what makes our wool so special.
It's washed and beaten, which shrinks the cloth,
meshing the fibres together, giving it its felt-like texture
and enabling it to be cut without fraying.
-So, you know the saying 'tenterhooks'?
'To be kept on tenterhooks.' That's where the saying comes from.
It would have been carried out into a field, it would have been pinned,
actually, onto a wooden A-frame, and left out in the sun to dry.
Obviously, it would have taken a very long time and, therefore,
-being kept on tenterhooks.
But this is the modern-day equivalent.
-So you see these holes?
-That's where your tenterhooks are.
-So, this is your doeskin.
-Oh, my God.
So this is it? It's so beautiful.
-Look at the colour.
-It's the sheen.
It's the face of the fabric
that gives it that beautiful, beautiful sheen.
How exciting! I can't wait to see it made up.
It's just incredible how many different stages this fabric
has gone through to get it into this beautiful, finished state.
And it's even more astounding to think that in the 15th century,
each of these different stages would have actually been done by hand.
It really goes to show just how expensive
this fabric would have been.
It was a real status symbol and a real show of wealth.
Come and see how gorgeous it looks.
It could just make you cry it's so beautiful.
That is gorgeous.
Look at it. It's like liquid, isn't it?
Yes, it's just what we wanted.
It's so perfect.
And I did have to think quite carefully
about how to cut such a wide pattern piece from the wool
and it had to have pieces,
extra pieces sewn into it.
So we've got those pieces at the sides here.
-And you can see how where they're upside down,
the light falls completely differently on it.
-And nowadays that's something we wouldn't find acceptable at all.
-But, of course, in the gown,
you just don't see it with the way it falls.
Yes, it just gets lost in the pleats and the folds.
The real complex features of this gown are not there yet.
So, we've got the pinking in the sleeves and also
there's all this very tight pleating in the front and back,
I suspect, of the gown.
I've done quite a lot of samples of the pinking
because it's quite scary to go,
you know, you can only cut once.
So I've done one strip here.
-It's quite effective, isn't it?
It's really effective.
It's so exciting.
It is exciting. It's all such experimental archaeology,
You don't make these things all the time
and you can't possibly know all of the answers without just doing it,
which is what we're doing. Would you like to have a go?
Yes, I would.
That sounds like it might not have been hard enough.
I don't think I feel like it isn't hard enough!
Oh, there we go.
-That worked! Well done.
I think what this also really illustrates
is it's the nature of the cloth
that allows you to do this kind of technique and it...
-And it not fray.
-..and it not fray and fall apart.
-I was just thinking that.
-Got to the end.
-Got to the end!
-You start to get a real feel for how delicate
and yet how complex it looks, doesn't it?
-And then Harriet is working on a very exciting piece.
This really is so exciting.
It is exciting. It doesn't look so exciting, a bit of drab linen.
You know, one of the features of these gowns
is the way they've got all these pleats in the middle.
We know from having tried to make these reconstructions in the past
that you can almost achieve that look
and then as soon as the person moves, all the pleats move.
And we've experimented with things like stay tapes
and sewing the insides
-and nothing's ever been quite as effective as we want it to be.
Linen, especially a sort of rough, canvassy linen like this,
has got a lot more control about it.
-It's very stiff.
-Yes. What we're doing
is just lightly stitching the linen down onto the wool.
We don't credit tailors this early with such ingenuity
and it's slightly embarrassing when you discover these technologies
and you think, "They knew a lot more than we did!"
-They knew their fabrics really well, didn't they?
-Really knew the fabric.
It's incredible, the number of different techniques
-that go into it.
-We haven't even got to the fur yet.
There's quite a lot of it.
-And it's heavy.
-Oh, my gosh.
this is something I hadn't really considered,
is just how heavy this whole thing is going to be.
-Because the fur on its own, if you lift that
and see how heavy it is, and then we've got the wool on the top.
So is this... The full amount of this is going to go into the dress?
Yes, because we've decided that the whole of those big sleeves
-must be lined in fur.
-And then most of this gown.
Which is probably why she's standing there like this...
She's just going, "Get it off me!"
Dyeing was perhaps the most important of the finishing processes
to give woollen cloth its final appearance.
Blue dye had been common since the 14th century
and even peasants were likely to own a coloured gown.
Deep shades like those in our portrait, though,
were still hard to achieve.
The colours in the Arnolfini picture are really important.
You've got this real richness to the colours
and I think that it's all kind of bound up
with the wealth and the status
that's really on display in this picture.
So, I'm really keen to see if we can replicate those colours
using the techniques that would have been around in the 15th century.
I think it's going to be a really interesting experiment to find out.
Debbie Bamford specialises in traditional dyeing techniques.
So, how common was green as a colour in the 15th century?
Not as common.
Green is a much more expensive colour because it's two dyes.
It's the yellow and the blue.
The yellow dye is made from a plant called weld, or dyer's rocket,
which is dried and broken up.
If you'd like to take a string and tie that tightly round for me.
-So this goes in here?
-That just goes in there.
Yes. Just drop it in.
-Oh, yes, yes.
-Oh, yeah, look.
Look at that.
Now, the crucial bit. Weld responds very, very well...
..to the addition of a little glug of this.
So, hold your nose.
Could you explain, I have a feeling that I might know what this is,
could you explain to me what this is?
This is stale urine.
This is minimum three-week-old urine.
And I'm using it to modify the colour.
OK, so you can see this pale yellow, there.
-If I pour some of this in...
This isn't giving the colour, it is now drawing the colour out of that.
That makes so much difference.
So if I put that in there with that now...
..you can see the yellow much more clearly on the cloth.
Now that's got to be heated up for a while -
for about a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes.
And that should then start developing the colour.
For blue, another plant called woad is used,
which is dried and made into balls for storage.
-We have to dissolve it in an alkaline...
..so that's where the stale urine came in.
And so the dye of that is actually
made up with stale urine and the woad mess.
That's, kind of, a dyer's best friend, really, stale urine, isn't it?
Yes. So, we take the yellow piece out now.
OK. Look at that. That's a really, really lovely colour.
That's really quite a vivid yellow, isn't it?
That's lovely, that's one of my favourite colours.
Would you like to put it... slide it in, very carefully?
Oh, you like the smell of that one, don't you?!
That really smells unpleasant, doesn't it?
The more times it's gone back in the dye bath,
the more expensive the colour gets.
You want a dark green, you've got to go in two or three times.
If you want a green like you're wearing
or like we're talking in this particular painting,
then, yes, that is, "I've got some status and I've got some wealth."
That's so interesting,
I didn't realise that the strength of the colour
sort of determined the price.
I mean, it makes perfect sense.
Do you want to take the yellow out of the blue?
Yes, so this, we're hoping that this is going to be green.
Oh, my God.
It's just so horrible.
It looks gorgeous.
Look at that, it's changing colour in the air.
It's pretty much getting to the same colour as my top.
I did not realise that it had that kind of reaction to air.
That's really exciting.
It is, isn't it?
That is an amazing colour.
That's gorgeous, isn't it?
It's a beautiful green, isn't it?
And you can see how that is getting you the colour for the Arnolfini.
-You can, can't you?
It's so interesting. I think if it wasn't for the smell...
..I would've been very happy being a medieval dyer!
While 15th century dyeing techniques still produce incredible results,
Ninya's finding not all traditional methods
fit quite so well with modern life.
What we've now got to do is wait for the hotplate to heat up
and then the hot plate to heat the iron up.
In the tailor's shop in Arnolfini's time,
his apprentice would have set all this up, the coals and the brazier,
early on in the day
and one of his tasks would then be to maintain that heat
and make sure the heat of the iron never interrupted
so the tailor wasn't inconvenienced.
So that... You know, we're doing everything by hand,
as it would have been done in Arnolfini's time,
and this is really the only real inconvenience of early tools
because all the other tailoring tools that we use
really haven't changed very much since the 15th century.
There we are. I can hand it over to Hannah, who's preparing,
at the moment, the edging for the sleeve slits.
-Yeah, it's good.
That is the last slit.
Oh, that's really nice.
-It's gorgeous, isn't it?
It's ready to put the furry linings in.
-Yes, they're not ready yet, sorry.
If we didn't steam it,
because the nature of the wool is that it's very bouncy,
which is what's really beautiful about the nature of the fabric,
means that it wouldn't stay in the place, fanning out like that
that we want it to. As soon as the wearer moved around,
the pleats would shift.
Whereas because they're stitched to this canvas
and then they're steamed into place
so the fibres have moulded around those pleats,
that lovely fan shape that Harriet's actually arranged should stay.
Just sending the steam down into the pleats, aren't we?
Look at that. It's like a peacock's tail, isn't it?
-Yes, it is.
-It's exactly right.
Reach for our hands.
It's so soft in here.
Oh, my God!
Oh, look at that!
The sleeves are just amazing.
When they move, they're even better.
They are, it's great seeing them moving.
It looks so much like the painting.
I can't get over... It's just incredible.
And it's so heavy, it feels insanely luxurious.
So, can you actually walk, do you think?
If you grab a handful of the stuff, so that you can actually not tread... That's it.
Oh, it's very elegant.
That's really exciting.
And it gives you that stance that she has in the painting as well,
-Which is really interesting.
Maybe part of that stance is to do with the weight of the fabric...
-Balancing it, yes.
-..that's being held.
It's, you know, you have to kind of
lean back to be able to get purchase on the weight of the fabric.
-It's a constant reminder of your wealth...
"This so heavy, I've got so much money."
That's good, that's a good thing!
The sleeves are just absolutely phenomenal.
It didn't occur to me that they would...
-Make you want to do that?
That they would be so kind of fluid.
It's that sort of fluidity that the whole thing has.
But that's what you just can't get from a portrait. I mean, a portrait,
as a maker, you always want to say, "Could you just lift your arm?
"Could you just do that?" And then you would see what was going on and
we can't do that. It really gives it life, doesn't it,
to have a real, human person in it?
-And not too hot?
-I mean, it's quite hot.
The thing is, in this period, in the 15th century,
it's basically the period that's known as the mini ice age.
This is a time when the River Thames regularly froze thick enough that
you could have whole frost fairs on it.
It makes a lot more sense when you take away central heating
-and reduce the temperature outside by a few degrees.
-A lot of heat being generated.
-And you are a lady of leisure.
If you were a labouring woman, you would keep a lot warmer,
but you're spending a lot of your time just sitting
or standing, and so you would definitely need these kinds of layers.
And swishing. I would just spend all of my time swishing!
If you needed to warm up any more you could just do a bit of swishing and sit down!
It's just fantastic.
This experiment has been really fascinating.
What surprised me about seeing the gown, I think,
is really how bulky it is,
how much fabric and how much fur there is.
It must have cost an absolute fortune.
This idea of wealth and status is really rammed home.
She really becomes a symbol of these new types of wealth,
these new types of people who are buying and selling,
who are trading at this time.
It also is incredibly fascinating in terms of the female body ideal as
well that was prevalent in the 15th century.
So having an idea and understanding of what this feels like to create
this is just invaluable.
Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, Amber Butchart explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Here, she looks at Dutch painter Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait.