Boys Keep Swinging

Five hundred years ago, a fashion conscious young man kept a visual diary of all his clothes that reveals a touching, entertaining and unique view to flaunting it in the 1600s. Five hundred years on, we celebrate that birthday with George Elliot.

Words George Elliot

Images taken from Klaidungsbüchlein, 1520.

Matthäus Schwarz was precocious. He imagined himself well dressed in his mother’s womb, and at 15 was ‘flirting in the streets … the doublet was [black and white striped] silk satin, the [ditto] hose taffeta.’ He became an accountant. But whatever his bourgeois beginnings, he aspired to a world of sartorial expression. His narcissism was not unusual at a time when men’s clothes could be as decorative as women’s, but what is interesting is that there is an equivalent self-glorying in male jungesfleisch in Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait of 1497 and his portrait of (his reputed boyfriend) Oswald Krell in 1499. Clothes were a glorification of the body and reflected the human mind, were emblems of Humanism and civilisation. Schwarz collaborated with a 19 year old artist, Narziss Renner for 16 years, after which other artist were involved.

The book details the noteworthy occasions in his life like birthdays, marriages and funeral and consists of 137 watercolour portraits and accompanying diary-like entries. It also includes some candid nudes in the spirit of Lucien Freud’s Fatfest portraits of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, and a portrait of the Schwarz as vulnerable, recovering from a stroke.  


Schwarz was an innovator of dress who took great pleasure in playing with vivid colours, cut, fabric and embellishment, and as such it was his exquisite wardrobe that took centre stage in every one of these richly coloured pages. Currently housed in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany, the book, which measures 16 X 10 cms is priceless.  


Schwarz’s dazzling all-white doublet and hose ensemble is a shining example of this; constructed from linen and cotton, it may have been simple in colour, but 4,800 intricate little slashes or “pinks” – a hallmark of German tailoring at the time – made his outfit anything but simple. Ever the parading peacock, he’d wear such novel ensembles around the streets and squares of Augsburg, his home that was then one of Europe’s centres of art, culture and learning. There he could carry-out gentlemanly rituals and truly amaze. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Schwarz’s performance of style being right at home today in front of Fashion Week cameras, him parading elegantly around the streets and stopping occasionally to describe his outfit with the utmost pleasure. He was a true man of fashion. 


For Schwarz clothes were very much an extension of his body and a way of communicating with the world around him without having to utter a single word. That’s because clothing was – and in some ways still is – something of a coded language. He was able to assert his virile masculinity by wearing protruding codpieces and carrying what was then seen as the finishing touch to any truly on point outfit: a longsword. Carefully staging an image could express aspirations and allegiances too and as the son of a wine merchant who sought something of a societal promotion, the accountant certainly knew how to take advantage of this. For the return of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Germany in 1530 after a nine-year absence and a rise in Protestantism, Schwarz wore a pair of yellow leather hose and a doublet constructed from vibrant panels of luminous red and yellow silk – colours symbolically associated with joy. He impressed onlookers but also vitally sent a clear message of allegiance to the Emperor and Catholicism. His Majesty thoroughly impressed, the accountant was later ennobled, a spectacular achievement that Schwarz later recorded in his book. Now whoever said fashion was frivolous? 

It doesn't take much imagination to envision Schwarz's performance of style being right at home in front of Fashion Week cameras

Matthäus Schwarz by Christoph Amberger, 1542.

While The Book of Clothes may have been an hubristic project, it remained a private one, shared only with close friends. Because very little clothing from the sixteenth century exists it now stands as a supremely valuable time capsule. Could Schwarz’s intention have been to produce a record for posterity?


 Perhaps. He confessed that he was obsessed with the clothes and fashion details from the previous century. “All my days I enjoyed being with old people", he wrote. “We would talk about clothing and styles of dress, as they changed daily. And sometimes they showed me their drawings of costumes they had worn 30, 40 and 50 years ago, which greatly surprised me and seemed a strange thing to me in our time”. 


Today this historical first makes one reflect on their own relationship with clothes and how Schwarz’s fervent relationship with fashion still resonates five centuries on and much has changed. Yet the love of clothes for aiding the art of self-expression, the visual record, almost as if he was caught in an instant mirrors the function of the selfie. Fashion and attiring oneself are not only a fundamental part of being human, but a way of becoming truly alive. There is real bliss to be found in dressing up; and it is something I share with him. Thank you, Matthäus. 

Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward, eds: The First Book of Clothes, (2015), Bloomsbury Academic Publishing PLC.