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Essay: Uncovering Gender In Fashion: Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Drape-Exploration in the 17th Century

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Fashion is ever-changing, devotedly parallel to the society it exists in. Through this observation, the evaluation of certain symbols of garments and their implied significance has become a familiar practice when constructing the history of fashion. Although, during the time these innovations were made, it would be complicated to figure out their inherent innuendoes. It is because fashion often provides commentary on issues in a society rather than just mirroring it, thus predicting and affecting the reactions to problems long before they occur. In the seventeenth century, the rediscovery of Classical ideals was best manifested through the extraordinary variations in the use of drapery, executed by many of the great masters of the time – above all, the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. However, regardless of the aesthetic grandeur, timelessness and beauty that drapery in his work expressed – which was so fitting with the new style of Baroque – it still entailed the critical analysis of the contemporary ways.

In a general sense, the portrayal of drapery in the seventeenth century was a decorative clash between nature and divinity: it was simultaneously a physically correct and an otherwordly construction (Grimes, Rodini & Weaver, 2002). Translating both the intense realism and the metaphysical virtuosity into three dimensions required the help of a specialised drapery sculptor who worked alongside the master artist, for instance, Bernini – much like there were skillful assistants helping out the portrait painters to depict dress (Scribner, 1991). The existance of such jobs could suggest that sculpting drapery was considered to require less skill and therefore did not need direct involvement from the master artist. Another interpretation would be that drapery was considered so important that it justified the hiring of a separate artist who specialised in that one particular style of painting (Reynolds, 2013). The flow of fabric is controlled by different dynamics and movements such as collapsing, tension, just following the flow of action or even by forces like wind and water. Before depicting drapery, one has to be aware of how those factors have varied effects depending on the material and also its weight and texture. The illustrator Burne Hogarth has said that drapery should not be considered as an independent form:

The diversions of wrinkles and folds should be conceived as a part of a coherent system of movement and response and from this premise any garment can be regarded as a new skin […] (that) is responsive to the underlying foundation below. (1992, p. 8)

Gianlorenzo Bernini’s folds are executed with such finesse that it merges the sensual allure with the dramatic theatricality; despite many art historians having labelled his draperies unnatural, irrational and a bad model for young students (Doy, 2002). The sculptor became a great exemplar of using draped fabrics for a purely artistic purpose. Its freedom from the practical rules made it possible to express, for example, power, gender, emotion and taste. As Andrew Wilton has said: “Art must serve a social purpose, or it is useless” (1992).

The increasing popularity of the draped fabrics throughout the history of art had created the desire to use them more than was necessary. Cloth moved beyond its role to cover and protect the human body. It was considered to decorate and frame the figure, making it more appealing, and was employed to add dramatic intensity that was especially fitting with the Baroque ideal (Hollander, 1988). In France, the era had reached its pinnacle under the reign of the Sun King and the contrived use of ornamentation contributed to presenting the court’s commercial and military success to the rest of the world (Breward, 1995). Bernini’s Portrait Bust of Louis XIV (see Fig. 1) from 1665 represents the peak of High Baroque portraiture (Scribner, 1991). The billowing drape is a clever take on ending the bust, but is, in truth, impractical. Nevertheless, the fabric paired with armour indicates regality and the prowess of his forces. The drape appears to be wind-swept, suggesting that he may be portrayed in an outside setting. He is fixedly staring in the direction where the breeze seems to be coming from, which communicates his gallant nature. Additionally, the lightness of the flowing drape clashes with his voluminous serpentine curls and the textural surface of his lace cravat. The cloudlike material, a fitting concept for the Sun King, adds a timeless quality to this ‘celebrity’ portrait; even though his hair and the neckpiece are a direct testament to the time. The Classical reference helped to fulfill the aspiration of depicting a lasting representation of an elegant and powerful ruler. The way of tempering practicality with flamboyance was an approach used frequently by the contemporary artists to demonstrate the elite sitters’ natural and effortless belonging to the higher rank of society (Wilton, 1992). The inessential drape was hence a conspicuous device of establishing hierarchial significance and is a brilliant example of fashion, even if seemingly in such a negligible form that is draped fabric, being the most effective medium of communication without words.

Fashion has been celebrated, as much as it has been ridiculed, over time for its ability to establish and revive social boundaries. Particularly changed are the perceptions of what is considered ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ at a given period (Wilson, 2003). In the seventeenth century, the moralists had taken a resolute stand against the non-binary demeanour, without understanding that one’s idea of gender does not exist congenitally (Hollander, 2016). It is manipulated through various agencies and is largely dependant on the cultural background of the community one comes from. At the time, the distinctive features of the female and the male image were mainly manifested in the cut of the garments, and were not really detectable in textiles. The latter gave drapery the potential to flirt with gender through the mysterious play of covering certain angles of the body and leaving the observer with their own imagination of what might lie beneath. It is important to acknowledge that although eroticism is a recurring theme when discussing the significance of the draped cloth (and will be covered in the next paragraph), it is not currently considered to be in relation with gender. Bernini’s lifesize sculpture Sleeping Hermaphroditus (see Fig. 2) from the 1620s portrays a figure that has already gone past the hide-and-seek phase and expresses the state of discovery after the material has fallen. Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, is a bisexed being who has the breasts and the curves of a woman but the reproductive organs of a male (Lavin, 1980). The laying drape is used to frame the body and bring it into focus by connecting the peaks of the figure. The person is depicted in a vulnerable position: asleep, naked and her feet entagled in fabric. Being intertwined with drapery denotes being exposed to threat, which is usually a circumstation associated with femininity – yearning to be rescued. In addition, the upholstery of the mattress was also equated with females. It was associated with womanly features such as privacy, comfort and concealment – women were in favour of taste, while men advocated for design (Doy, 2002). Bernini has clearly communicated the femininity of the sitter which appears to be more sincere than her masculinity, expressed just by the phallus. To conclude, the ability of the timeless draperies either to rise above the frankness of the masculine and the feminine by shielding the figure, or to take on these qualities by itself, truly suggested a new way of thinking.

Dress has always been related to sexuality. It is often said that the way how the fabric is moving against the skin arouses even more excitement than the nude figure, because it both reveals and conceals the body (Wilson, 2003). Therefore, the prestige of portraying the draped fabric in the preceeding centuries, led it to completely obtain a new role of intensifying the sensual quality of the Baroque figure (Hollander, 2002). The representation of eroticism in the seventeenth century art generally included a posed contemporary sitter depicted in the state of undress. An interesting and an unusual example of eroticism displayed in sculpture is the 1670s Blessed Ludovica Albertoni by Bernini (see Fig. 3). Her entire body is wrapped in waves of cloth, only exposing her face, neck and hands. The lines of her figure, though, are clearly sensible, despite the mountains of the warped fabric that lay on top of her. The body has formed a strange shape for which it is thought that she is having an orgasm (Doy, 2002). A juxtaposition of the rough drapes with the smooth surface of her face results a dramatic impression and obliges the viewer to focus on her expression. She is clearly experiencing immense pleasure. Her eyes are closed and she is in the middle of an intimate moment without being aware of the observer. In a way, she is protected from the viewer by the help of the drapery that also erases the element of shame, because she is not naked. The fabric has been pulled through from between her legs and it forms a strange metaphysical structure above her lower abdomen, perhaps implying that her experimence is beyond physical, which makes the action almost ceremonious. Furthermore, the sculpture’s drapery is a great demonstration of chiaroscuro – the emotionally charged and spiritualised contrast of light and shadow, providing the spectator with even more stimulus (Scribner, 1991). All in all, the mannered arrangement of cloth, that had moved far beyond its role of being just a cover for the body, was fused with the immediacy of the sitter’s emotions, making it possible to exhibit one’s erotic state just by the manner of how the fold was applied (Hollander, 1988).

The changes in aesthetics throughout history could in many instances be measured with drapery because it has been used in all forms of art during all eras. Eleni Varopoulou has noted that throughout history, the use of draped fabrics has always been present:

There is no chapter in the history of art that does not have its own drapes and folds, pleats and creases, used by painters ro render the play of shadow and light, of visible and hidden, of presence and absence. From one period to the next and from culture to culture, the special texture and lustre of fabrics, their quality and wear are projected by the drapery. The fold is also a convenient way of producing mystery, of creating transformations, of revealing the movement of human beings, the eddying of the wind, or the maelstrom of metaphysics. (2004, p. 111)

In the seventeenth century, one of the main significances of drapery was its scenographic quality. Taste had shifted entirely and the new Baroque sense of cloth was fashionable: forming dramatic falls of fabric to add a theatrical quality the subjects of painters and sculptors (Hollander, 1988). Drapery had kind of become an element of interior design in its own right, on which Anne Hollander has commented:

Draped cloth per se accumulated an immense expressive visual power, first from its august origins in Classical sculpture, on through its medieval associations with holiness and luxury, and finally through its emergence as a purely artistic basic element, ready for use in any representational convention. (1988, p. 36)

Perhaps the best example of the setting of such scenes by Bernini is his Emperor Constantine from 1660s (see Fig. 4). The enormous curtain only seems to be there for a visual effect, although it serves a number of aesthetic purposes. If the drape would not be in the background, the pair would not look that heroic and powerful. Also, the effect of the fabrics being wind-swept and the horse without the bridle adds a sense of naturalism. Constantine himself is wearing a spiky crown and is also, in a very grand manner, wrapped in chaotic whirls of cloth. Bernini had traded contemporary dress for drapery, therefore expressing a timeless power and a religious euphoria that were fitting with the ideal of the Baroque (Hollander, 1988).

Fashion is constantly undergoing change, although what is currently considered fashionable could be a reintroduction of a craze from the past. Despite not being the latest creation, such vogues are still always a relevant commentary on the society that they exist in. Drapery, originating from the Greek antiquity, took on whole new meanings during the seventeenth century Baroque. The similarities and contrasts that appear when comparing these revivals are what makes it possible to track changes in techniques, aesthetics and ideologies, thus providing an authentic material for the composition of the history of fashion. The virtuoso sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini was a true visionary of his time. He explored matters long before they reached the minds of the general public and therefore almost unknowingly anticipated the refinement and subjectivity of the romanticism of the succeeding century. The art of his drape proved to be a significant form of conveying various allegorical meanings such as status, gender, pleasure and taste. A manifestation this dynamic is an exceptional example of the achievements of dress.

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