Matthäus Schwarz: The Original Menswear Guy

Christoph Amberger portrait of Matthäus Schwarz 1542
Image credit: Christoph Amberger / Public domain

This site has often featured posts on pioneering menswear figures throughout the ages, stretching all the way from Beau Brummell to the likes of Miles Davis and beyond. If you were going in search of the very first Menswear Guy, however, you might cast your eye back even further. Specifically, to the 1500s in the unlikely figure of a German accountant by the name of Matthäus Schwarz.

Starting in 1520, Schwarz took on an unusual project that took him forty years to complete. He set about creating a meticulous record of the clothes he wore throughout his life via a commissioned series of 137 original watercolour portraits painted by three different artists. The project began in his 23rd year (although some paintings were based on his memories of what he wore in childhood) and ended when he was 63, at which point he gathered up all of the parchment sheets he had accumulated, each of them measuring 16 x 10 cm, and had them bound into a book that has become known as the Trachtenbuch — literally, the ‘book of clothes’, also known as the Schwarz Book of Clothes. It survives to this day and is housed in a small museum in Brunswick, Germany. 

Schwarz’s portraits of his daily ensembles offer us a unique and extraordinary record of Renaissance style. They depict both his sartorial successes and his failures, and are animated by a series of frank and forensic captions. In one case, for example, on 23 November 1523, he records his age as ’26 ¾  and 1 day’ while of a later picture, he notes plainly, ‘I had become fat and large’.

Matthäus was born in Augsburg on the 20th of February 1492 as the son of a wine merchant and innkeeper. His interest in dress apparently dated back to his early teenage years, when he proved keen to engage older people in conversation about clothing. In 1520, at the age of twenty-three, he secured a position as head accountant for the Fugger family, one of the most important and wealthy German merchant and banking families of the time, at which point he started work on his clothing book. 

Jakob Fugger with Matthaus Schwarz
Matthäus Schwarz with his employer Jakob Fugger
Image credit: Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum / Public domain

To fully appreciate Schwarz’s singular contribution to the history of fashion, it helps to better understand the historical moment in which he found himself. Historians Ulinka Rublack’s and Maria Hayward’s book on Schwarz, which has done much of the heavy lifting in bringing him into public consciousness in recent years, contextualises its subject as follows:

‘Painting, architecture, and sculpture often dominate our sense of the Renaissance. Yet this cultural movement became visible to many through a new world of fashion fueled by a passion for innovative ideas in dialogue with classical traditions. In daily life, dress possessed immediate visual appeal and increasingly offered choice. Clothes were immensely colourful as well as multi-textured, which made them attractive to look at and touch. New materials, cutting, and sewing techniques transformed tailoring. Shrewd merchants created wider markets for innovations and chic accessories. Art depicted humans on an unprecedented scale, paying tribute to real world experiences. Mirrors enticed more people into trying to imagine what they looked Iike. Dress could be as arresting as a face.’

Matthäus Schwarz fully embraced this new world of clothing and all its attendant possibilities. While his elaborate garments seem outlandish to our eyes today, in Schwarz’s Renaissance surroundings they spoke a vivid social language.

His use of colour, for instance, often carried particular significance. One outfit used white to represent faith and humility. Another — a particularly memorable red and yellow ensemble from 1530 which was painstakingly recreated a few years ago — demonstrated his Catholic allegiances. He had the outfit made for one of the most important events of the era: the return of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Germany after a nine year absence during which many parts of the country had converted to Protestantism. Schwarz’s red and yellow get-up was expressly meant (in his own words) ‘to please Ferdinand’ and its vivid colouring suggested a sense of happiness, pride, and beauty, not to mention considerable effort and personal expense. He had dressed to impress and it worked: In 1541 Schwarz was ennobled, meaning he had accomplished a massive leap in social status for a man born the son of a lowly wine-merchant.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Schwarz, however. During his lifetime there were strict social rules and conventions in place surrounding one’s dress. Sumptuary laws, intended to curtail luxury or extravagance, stipulated the clothing and jewellery appropriate to a person’s station. An employee was not allowed to dress more extravagantly than their employer, for example, and there were certain items that were entirely verboten based on one’s social class. This meant that while Matthäus regularly pushed at the boundaries of what was considered appropriate, he had to be careful not to cross the line.

In practice, however, these limitations only made him all the more inventive. While he took great care never to break the rules, this often meant cleverly going further in some other unrestricted direction — indulging in an elaborate set of sleeves when fancy hose were forbidden, for example, or taking a given trend to some new extreme. There was at one point a fashion for a technique known as ‘pinking’, for instance, which involved the use of a sharp chisel to create slashes in a piece of material. Schwarz’s take on this particular look involved a doublet he commissioned featuring an astonishing 4 800 small pinks. 

It has become commonplace when writing about Matthäus Schwarz to refer to him as the original menswear blogger or as the progenitor of selfies and fit pics. And while there is something admittedly glib about this type of present-day retrofitting, it does get at the heart of why Schwarz is such a notable figure. He was in some senses a man who typifies the Renaissance period, while in others seeming centuries ahead of his time. 

Schwarz’s book of clothes is a one-of-a-kind record of middle-class dress in the sixteenth century, back when this type of self-documentation in art remained almost exclusively the purview of royals and aristocrats. Moreover, it challenges a prevailing notion that everyone outside of royal courts dressed in rags or sackcloth and that fashion only became available to the masses around the eighteenth century. Schwarz, meanwhile, like a true Renaissance man, demonstrated an interest in the rapid advancements of the time and chose to do so through the way he dressed. He went to great expense hiring merchants to source rare materials and paid craftspeople to create garments animated by new cuts, colours, fabrics, and details all intended to astonish in their novelty and show off the rapid advancement of civilization. 

This keen sense of progress and the passage of time no doubt also informed his impulse to document his dressing. While Schwarz survived until the age of 77, he had ceased his project fifteen years prior. After his death, his son, Veit Konrad, continued the family tradition by adding a further 41 images of his own, albeit ones depicting clothes that were decidedly more sombre than his father’s. 

Today it is widely agreed that Matthäus Schwarz produced the world’s first fashion book, yet his motivations for creating it remain elusive. It may have been intended purely as a vanity project, or as an heirloom, a novelty to show to friends and family, or maybe even as the novel record of contemporary fashion we’ve come to regard it as. 

What is more clear are the many ways in which Matthäus now reads as an almost uncannily modern figure. At a time when taking a supposedly undue interest in one’s appearance was considered foolish and frivolous, Schwarz appreciated clothing as being interesting for its own sake and recognised fashion as a cultural phenomenon worthy of attention. Moreover, in his capacity as proto-menswear blogger, he took chances by walking out in bold ensembles that could easily have made him a figure of ridicule — not unlike wearing a gaudy present-day runway ensemble down your local high street. He chose to find what was fun, novel, and exciting about clothing, as opposed to what was merely practical. His self-portrayal was also disarmingly frank, which again feels unexpectedly modern. He included naked images of himself (a move that would have been unheard of at a time when nude imagery was considered the preserve of religious and classical artwork), he spoke of weight gain and dieting, had a painting done of himself while he was recovering from a stroke, and in general was unusually honest and unromantic in his self-appraisal. 

As modern viewers, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how groundbreaking Schwarz was in this regard. Certainly, there was no similar sequential record kept by anyone until the advent of photography. As a result, Schwarz’s work seems uncannily to speak to our own time from five centuries prior. And he does so with the keen knowledge of clothing’s ability to communicate meaning and intent — a message that feels somehow as potent now as it did then. Matthäus Schwarz knew how to dress to impress, and we could all do well to do the same. 

* This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something using them, we get a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. More info at our affiliate policy.