The Shape of a Mans Breast: Breastplate Construction and Fashion in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Changes in the shapes of breastplates in the 16th century

Wade Allen

Abstract

This presentation will provide a discussion of changes in breastplate shapes during the 16th century. The presentation format will be a series of images of civilian costume and corresponding examples of breastplates that illustrate the parallel development in the shape of armor. This will focus on breastplates designed specifically for military use, not the "costume" armors which could very specifically immitate civilian fashion. Note that in many cases these were also perfectly useful protective armors. The primary sources will be existing breastplates from the Allen Collection and some of these physical items will be made part of the presentation, allowing participants to get a feel for the details of the shapes and the changes illustrated. Since the items in the Allen Collection are representative of armor used by ordinary soldiers or men at arms, the information offered will also allow for comparisons between high end and more typical armors.

The information presented will include detailed discussions of the elements of the design and construction of each of the breastplates.

The Presentation

 

Changes in the shapes of breastplates in the 16th century

The Shape of a Mans Breast: Breastplate Construction and Fashion in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Changes in the shapes of breastplates in the 16th century

Wade Allen

Tiger Team in Mosul book of fashion Henri II of France Negroli armor

Tiger Team in Mosul

Illustrates different body armor types

The First Book of Fashion

48 Recto

Armor for Henri II of France

Giovanni Negroli

Sotheby's 5 May 1983

Introduction

Modern armor and military uniforms are designed for utility. No one would think "fashion" when they see the "bullet proof" vests worn by the police. The vests with shock plates worn by the military are, if anything, even less fashionable. They are intended to be functional, but nothing more. This was not the case in the 16th century. Armor was not just a way to protect from injury in battle. It was a way to convey the status and role of the wearer. It allows him to show off - to display his wealth. At the high end, we see polished, embossed, etched and gilt decoration. This is all built on top of a fashionable shape. As we move down the social scale, the decoration is simplified or eliminated, but the form is similar. The shape is still fashionable. Keeping your armor up to date is a form of conspicuous consumption - it shows that you can afford to "keep up with the Joneses," or better yet be the person that the Joneses want to emulate.

The images illustrate this contrast in perspective. On the left we see a US military combat team from the early 2000's in Iraq. They wear camoflage uniforms, vests and helmets. Practical, but if anything trying more to blend in than show off. At the center we see a page from "The First Book of Fashion" showing Mattaus Schwartz of Augsburg in 1521. He was a head accountant for the Fugger merchant firm. He built a book illustrating his fashion during his life. Here he is wearing flashy, flamboyant clothing and practical, but stylish armor. The goal of the look is nicely summed up in his hat - over the top display. On the right we see an armor made for Henri II of France by Giovanni Negroli. The overall shape is the same as many armors at the time, but the decoration takes it all the way to 11. The embossing and guilding sets the wearer apart from and above the normal man.

On to the show

 

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An external image Bottom plates from a pair of German Tassets

Amor of Wilhelm von Rogendorf c. 1525

KHM A374 - S.227. Photograph by Tom Biliter.

Bottom plates from a pair of German Tassets circa 1520-30

inv. num. A-29

This is the famous Rogendorf armor which is displayed in the KHM in Vienna. This is probably what leaps to mind when someone talks about armor mimicing fashion. It shows what we often think of as a "parade" armor that might have been built purely for decorative use.

In fact, this was a perfectly useable armor which provided protection - and for that use it included "exchange pieces" for the arms and legs that have the same decorative scheme, but where the form of the armor is much more similar to the typical armor in use at the time. Alan Williams has performed analysis of some of the elements of the arm armor and determined that they are built from a heat treated medium carbon steel - very much the "cutting edge" of good armor for actual use in warfare. The tasset terminal plates we see on the right are decorated in a similar fashion. When you look at them closely, you can see that the decoration would not significantly affect the protective quality of the pieces. The embossing is formed in low relief. The lines accent the shapes and make it look deep and crisp, but the surface is actually smooth and it would not catch weapons or interfere with the movement of the plates.

I mention this to help our understanding of armor style, this type of armor is not the subject of this discussion. Instead we will be looking at normal armor that most people would see as armor for use in battle, and include lower end pieces for use by ordinary soldiers or men at arms.

 

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An external image An external image Breastplate

Portrait of a youth

c. 1495/1500 National Gallery of Art accession number 1939.1.294

Armor of Henry VIII

c. 1515. Royal Armouries object number II.5

Breastplate circa 1500

inv. num. A-321

We will start out with an example from the very end of the 15th c. which will set the stage for the discussion. On the left we see a youth in a fashionable outfit. The outer garment has a high neckline that fits closely around the neck. The doublet fits closely to the body and has generally rounded form. The accompanying breastplate adds a nice central crease and rolls at the neck and arms, but the form closely mimics that of the clothing. This style of breastplate is most common in the very late 15th c. and up until about 1510. There are some examples from a little later, including Henry's.

For comparison, I have included an illustration of a very similar breastplate that forms part of one of Henry VIII's armors from earlier in his life before he gained weight.

While we have this breastplate in front of us, we can illustrate some other aspects of armor design.

 

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An external image Image of a man in fashionable clothing from the First Book of Fashion Breastplate

Maximilian and his Armourer Conrad Seusenhofer

From "The Armourer and his Craft" by C.J. Ffoulkes.

The First Book of Fashion

Page 103

Manuscript page 52 Recto

Breastplate circa 1510-20

inv. num. A-281

The woodcut on the left and central image illustrate fasionable clothing in the early 16th century. The shape of the clothing has changed from what we saw in the previous image. The neck line on the doublet drops down and squares off and the shape becomes bigger and rounder. Some styles include a number of pleats, others are puffed and slashed. On the right we see a breastplate from the same time period. This general silhouette remains fashionable from after the turn of the century well into the 1530's. The neckline on the breastplate is lower and straighter. The shapes get larger and rounder. Sometimes the breastplates are plain as illustrated in this example.

This breastplate also illustrates some changes in construction. The neck roll is now turned inward instead of being turned out. The visible shape is very similar to the previous roll, but much of the hard work is eliminated because the edge doesn't have to close perfectly, and the edge tends to be where the big problems happen. We also see an early example of a "gusset" at the arms. This is a separate plate that carries the protective flange instead of it being part of the breastplate. This becomes more common during this time period and is often present for the rest of the century. This allows the breastplate to be wider while still allowing the wearer the same amount of movement.

As a side note, this woodcut also shows us a nice view of the tools used in the fabrication of armor.

 

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Image of Maximilian armor from The First Book of Fashion Maximilian Breastplate Breastplate

The First Book of Fashion

Page 99

Manuscript page 48 Recto

Maximilian Breastplate circa 1505-15

inv. num. A-170

Breastplate circa 1510-20

inv. num. A-216

At the same time the plain, rounded form was in use, more decorative styles were also used. These add one of several different styles of flutes radiating from the center of the waist up and out over the chest. These flutes can mimic pleats, slashes or other styles of decoration that was common at the time.

The illustration shows a breastplate with fluting in use and the separate breastplates illustrate two different intermpretations of the same idea. In the middle we see a typical example of an early German breastplate of this style and on the right an Italian interpretation of the same style. The one of the left really accentuates the waist, showing that it was made for someone specific, allowing the wearer to look really good. The one on the right isn't as elegantly shaped, indicating that it was probably made for use by one or more people of lower class, someone for whom armor was issued, not custom ordered. Making the waist of the breastplate fit the waist perfectly (which actually compresses the body at the sides of the waist) not only enhances the wearer's look, it also allows much of the weight of the cuirass to be carried by the waist instead of all of it hanging from the shoulders. This works like the waist/hip belt on a modern backpack. The same amount of weight is much more comfortably worn when the weight is distributed this way. On the other hand, making the waist a little looser allows the piece to be worn my more people.

Both show the same lower neck line and somewhat rounder form as the previous breastplate. Both also include gussets at the arms. The one on the left shows us thow they are done when they are done right - with full rolls, the one on the right uses a simplified flare with the edge folded back. This seems to have been common on lower end pieces. The look is the same, the function similar, but construction is easier.

 

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Breastplate with fauld

Breastplate with fauld circa 1530

inv. num. A-225

There are some variations in the general pattern of "rounded with a straight upper edge" that exist in parallel with the more typical shapes. The most common is a shape that has an inward sweep in the lower part of the center. This shows a particularly aggressive example. Different collections assign different dates to breastplates of this style, but they are probably generally from the 1530's.

This piece also illustrates a style change - the earlier breastplates had angular rolls, here we see rolls with a more rounded form and roped decoration. Roping becomes common for the rest of the century.

There were a small number of gorgets used in the late 15th century, but they become common in the early 16th century. In these early examples where the breastplate has a straight upper edge, the division between the breastplate and gorget mimics the line between the doublet and shirt. During the rest of the century, the line separating the two changes. It can be straight, or it can curve forming a line roughly concentric to the neck.

 

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An external image An external image Italian, Flemish or English Three-quarter Suit Italian, Flemish or English Three-quarter Suit

Henry VIII

Hans Holbein (the Younger) workshop c. 1537 Walker Art Gallery WAG 1350

Armor made for Henry VIII

Italian, Milan or Brescia c. 1544

Metropolitan Museum of Art accession number 32.130.7a-l

Three-quarter Armor

circa 1550-60

inv. num. A-1

Armor for Henr II of France

Sotheby's 5 May 1983

In the mid century we can illustrate the connection between clothing and armor in a very direct way. On the left we see a picture of Henry VIII and an armor made for his personal use. Both images display the same new body shape which begins in the 1530s, but comes into its own in the 1540's through the 1550's. The sides are straighter and the waist is starting to dip down at the center. This was probably a lot easier for someone like Henry VIII to wear, but this style is not exclusive to men of a larger size. On the right we see a piece from my collection and then a painting of Henri II of France. Each represents this same change in form, but worn by people who aren't as large.

First this lets us see three different levels of decoration on armors of similar form. My example is about as plain as you can get. The surface was left rough from the hammer and blackened. here the black would have been oxide from the heating process or paint. Henry VIII's armor is much, much nicer. The surface is still (partly) rough from the hammer and dark, but the remainder is etched and gilt and the dark surface is more even and would have been heat blued. Henri II's armor takes this to the next level entirely. Technically the surface is still black and rough from the hammer, but it was embossed by one of the best embossers of the time and gilt.

My parallel example is not nearly as nice as the armors of either of the Henrys, but it illustrates the same atypical form that was used for a very short period in the mid century. This is the one time where the waist of the cuirass dips down below the natural waist of the wearer (all the way around, not just in the center front). In order for this to work, the waist has to be made wider and there is usually some flexibility provided in the waist of the armor to allow for some movement by the wearer that would not otherwise be possible.

 

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Breast and back plates Breastplate Breastplate

Breast and back plates circa 1560

inv. num. A-291

Breastplate circa 1550-80

inv. num. A-279

Breastplate circa 1550-60

inv. num. A-241

In the third quarter of the century there are several competing breastplate shapes in use. These are examples of a style that rises to a point approximately one third of the way up from the waist. Sometimes this point is actually a point, other times it is more rounded - the latter shape commonly associated with Innsbruck. These three examples illustrate very different decorative styles on breastplates of very similar overall shapes. The first would have been black when it was new - the rough hammered surface has not been ground smooth. The second illustrates a common lower end decorative style where much of the surface was left rough and black, but bands have been ground smooth and polished. The last shows a higher end example of "black and white" decoration.

 

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Image of mid century clothing from The First Book of Fashion Image of mid century armor from The First Book of Fashion Image of mid century armor from The First Book of Fashion Breastplate

The First Book of Fashion

Page 178

Manuscript page 133 Verso

The First Book of Fashion

Page 170

Manuscript page 125 Verso

The First Book of Fashion

Page 171

Manuscript page 126 Recto

Breastplate circa 1550-60

inv. num. A-158

The other common shape in the third quarter of the century hints toward the common shape that will follow. Images from The First Book of Fashion illustrate the new shape in clothing and armor directly. The central point has dropped down closer to the waist and the waist line has a consistent, pronounced dip at the center.

As a side note, the second image illustrates an uncommon style of face protection for a burgonet where the buffe is secured to the breastplate. The rectangular hole at the top of the breastplate on the right shows that it was originally designed in the same way.

 

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An external image An external image Breastplate

Robert Dudley

National Portrait Gallery c. 1575

NPG 447

Armor of Robert Dudley

Greenwich c. 1570

Royal Armouries object number II.81

Breastplate circa 1580

inv. num. A-306

Moving on to the last quarter of the century, we see the typical form often called a "peascod" doublet. The body shape built by the doublet has broad shoulders, a tall neck, narrow waist (at least side to side) and the waist dips significantly at the front to a relatively sharp point. The hips then sweep out wide.

Again, we can illustrate the connection between clothing and armor with pieces for the same person along with a similarly shaped piece made for someone of lower rank. Here we see Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was a a favorite of Elizabeth I, and he dressed the part in his clothing and his armors. The portrait and armor are from about the same time (the 1570's) and we can see the very direct translation of the doublet into the breastplate. The collar is reflected in the gorget, the shoulders in the pauldrons, and the overall shape of the body directly translated to steel. The idealized hip flare in the clothing is then reflected in the tassets.

 

Changes in the shapes of breastplates in the 16th century Main Page Previous Page

An external image Waistcoat Cuirass

Robert Dudley

National Portrait Gallery c. 1575

NPG 447

Waistcoat Cuirass circa 1580

inv. num. A-240

Bringing us almost full circle, we again have a cuirass where the construction mimics civilian fashion directly. This piece opens at the front, not the sides. The join is decorated with a series of false buttons copied directly from the civilian garment.

Many of the examples of this style that we see in museums are elegantly decorated with etching and sometimes also gilding. This leads people to believe that these were something different - a style of "costume" or "parade" armor or maybe they would be worn as protection in a civilan context. This example, and many that we find in the Graz arsenal are very much designed for use as protective equipment and for use in war. They have not been decorated. This one has a proof mark on the left side. It is thick, and definitely would have been proof against at least pistol, if not also harquebus shot.

 

An external image Image of Maximilian armor from The First Book of Fashion Italian, Flemish or English Three-quarter Suit Image of mid century armor from The First Book of Fashion An external image

Armor of Henry VIII

c. 1515. Royal Armouries object number II.5

The First Book of Fashion

Page 99

Manuscript page 48 Recto

Three-quarter Armor

circa 1550-60

inv. num. A-1

The First Book of Fashion

Page 171

Manuscript page 126 Recto

Armor of Robert Dudley

Greenwich c. 1570

Royal Armouries object number II.81

The examples of clothing and armor we have seen have provided a high level overview of the changes in fashion for men through the 16th c. in western Europe and how it is reflected in the style of the breastplates worn as part of contemporary armors. The clothing illustrated was all worn by the upper classes. The wearers included kings, high level members of court and a non-noble, but one who was closely associated with the court of the Holy Roman Empire. Armors included those for the same people, and much plainer armors for use by more ordinary people. Examples were drawn from England, France, Iberia and the Holy Roman Empire. What we have seen is that fashion was important. It allowed people to display their position in society. This was important in armor as much as it was in civilian wear. And this mattered not only to the very powerful, but also to people of lower standing.

Overall: