by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

The regular posting of pictures of his daily, weekly or at least most memorable outfits has become the staple behavior of the modern clothing blogger. It has been satirized by blogs of outfits worn by a Shiba Inu and contributed to a sort of democratization of fashion-setting. A democratization among all men who, to bastardize E.M. Forster, own a Talarico umbrella, for this pursuit, the constant search for an evergreen epic fit, requires a certain amount of cash, even if the wearer trawls the fleshpots of vintage rather than those of the world’s, or virtual world’s most expensive thoroughfares.

I’d long thought such a blogger was a creature of this millennium, evolving, as did terrestrial life, by creeping slowly out of the bog (in the blogger’s case, the urinal-reflecting men’s room mirror selfie) to more or less dry land. A menswear blogger active half a millennium ago? Why, such a thing seemed as unbelievable as Macchiavelli writing a book on how to dress! Yet nonetheless one – rather two – existed, and The First Book of Fashion: The Books of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg, is their stunning record, with echoes and other reflections for the current day.

Collected and exhaustively commentated in Ulrika Rublack’s ad Maria Hayward’s 2015 edition, this lengthy tome sets out 130-odd portraits – literal fashion plates – of the life of Matthäus Schwarz, a prosperous accountant in the employ of Jakob Fugger, whose name I still remember my history teacher pronouncing with profane gusto. The Fuggers, one of the richest families in the 16th-century world, operated a trading network across Europe, with significant presences in northern Italy, Switzerland, Spain and what is now Austria and Germany.  

It’s significant that Matthäus, who commissioned the vast majority of these plates (each with a brief caption describing the occasion), worked for traders in Germany. Like the vast majority of today’s fashion bloggers, he had joined the ranks of a prosperous middle class, well enough off to frequently visit a tailor and order flamboyant outfits in the styles of his time in good, but not always the most exclusive, materials. Those were restricted both by cost and by sumptuary law. And Matthäus was decidedly not of a social class secure enough by rank and income to maintain its invisibility – instead, several plates record Matthäus proudly wearing the attire of visiting rulers’ retinues in order to ingratiate himself with them, the act of someone seeking, rather than enjoying, favor. As the editors point out, access to the Fuggers’ trading networks (including Venice, and from there, the Orient) no doubt allowed Matthäus to obtain different kinds of materials, while his frequent business trips all over the Continent gave him opportunities to observe and quickly adopt the styles of locales he stayed in, most impressively Spain and Venice. It’s easy to think of todays’ bloggers visiting Naples for all sorts of pap, France for suits with the distinctive Parisian lapel notch, or Spain for a teba cloak, all in Matthäus’ virtual footsteps.  

Like the more crass of today’s bloggers, Matthäus was well aware of the seductive possibilities of flamboyant clothing. A plate announcing his early attempts at attracting women features Matthäus’ first appearance in a (quite pronounced) codpiece, like the rest of his attire striped in striking colors. Other outfits from his youth are often pied, each side of them in different colors like those of a henchman to a Batman villain. And, similar to today’s reality, it appears that only much later, and in more sober attire, did Matthäus’ efforts at finding love actually lead somewhere: the outfits in which Matthäus records himself courting and marrying are in sober black.  

Even more startling than Matthäus’ pattern choices is another parallel with the present, in a place where he proudly announces that the fancy cap he is wearing belonged to one of two fashion-conscious Italian dukes, a boast of a stellar secondhand kop familiar to any of us today. How did he not know for sure whose it had been? Because he’d bought it at auction, no doubt the Fugger forerunner to eBay!

And sadly, of course, a final striking parallel with the present is that Matthäus’ family, including his children, do not appear to have shared his love of clothing to the same degree. Following Matthäus’ final appearance, in mourning for the death of one the Fuggers, wizened, weakened and with grey beard, his son Veit Konrad continued the project, but only into his twenties. Veit Konrad had to seize an excuse for continuing the plates, rationalizing them as a historical record of dress that would be of interest to readers twenty or thirty years later.  Nonetheless, his outfits, perhaps in keeping with fashion, were considerably more drab than his father’s.  

Despite these amusing similarities with our present, unreachable distances differentiate these men from today’s fops. Both father and son of course were able to exercise considerably more power over their images than even the most Photoshop-talented of today’s fashionistas, since their portraits were created by artists rather than recorded by camera. Indeed, both Matthäus and Veit Konrad had painters create images of episodes from their infancy and youth long after the fact, depicting and describing not just what they wore but their early education, travels, brawls and first adolescent longings. In fact, Matthäus appears to have been one painter’s sole customer. That artist created immensely detailed miniature paintings for this book for some decades until the portrait of Matthäus during the 1535-1536 plague outbreak in Augsburg, whose caption drily mentions that the artist was among its victims. Artistic license had permitted Matthäus to continue imagining himself pulling off dramatically fitted clothing for some years after noting that he had begun to become “fat and round.”

Such lucidity, too, is another contrast with today’s starry-eyed (and often ether-brained) bloggers. Matthäus didn’t continue too long in his image-flattering delusion. In fact, at 29 he had unforgiving nude front and back portraits painted of him in his “fat and round” form, a decision whose meaning we are still trying to explain. One possibility is an attempt to come to terms with his ethereal form: the editors note that people at the time believed that one’s appearance at 29 was the form they would ascend to Heaven in. Not our most beautiful selves, but the selves that we are humbly bound to.

His later portrait choices, despite continued variety and visual splendor, show his gradually thinning and graying hair and thickening, stooping body. His stroke, bed rest, and slow recovery all feature as well, records of a man not at his best despite the control he could have exercised over his image. Matthäus’ captions betray little hint of any attempt at today’s sort of recovery-through-hashtag effort.

The First Book of Fashion may seem to anticipate our present day self-mythologizers. However, it also suggests the enormous amount of work – time, travel, individual effort and materials – required to record a lifetime. Today, whether we like it or not, our lives are recorded for us in various ways. A cell phone camera can permit us to capture hundreds of moments where we do have control over our image. Yet until the invention of the camera, Matthäus’ 137 images were the most made in a person's lifetime. Even though he abandoned his project several years before his death, he had created a record spanning his youth and his most expansive, sometimes foolhardy, moments to, with less frequency, the responsibility and weight – in all its forms – of early to late middle age. It’s a hint that his relation to the image was not nearly as cavalier as today’s bloggers’ – or as his early forays suggest.

Following the deaths of Matthäus and Veit Konrad, his book eventually passed into the collection of the Duke of Brunswick as a curiosity; in the early 18th century the Electress of Hannover borrowed it and had two copies made, such was its unusual interest. In the years since his death, Matthäus Schwarz was occasionally referred to as the Kleidernarr – the “clothes-fool.” A lesson to us to avoid indulging too foolishly in both fancy clothes and self-fascination? Times have momentarily shifted our judgment, for us to take him, and his work, more seriously as a record of a man who committed himself and his clothes to paper for posterity.His delusions, then, were not the same delusions of flippant and forgetful vanity that I disparage now.