Heavy metal fashion

Imagine being weighed down by a suit made of iron or steel. Actually, as I was told during a tour of the current exhibition at Vienna´s Kunsthistorisches Museum, KHM, men wearing these metal carapaces were able to walk, run and jump in it. That must have taken some muscle power, in addition to agility, but apparently they were not as bad as all that.

Yesterday I got to go on a special guided tour of the exhibition “Iron Men – Fashion in Steel” with curator Stefan Krause, during a joint Instawalk with Instagramers Vienna and Instagramers Austria. I learned many new terms, since I was not at all familiar with armoury pieces or their production process.

Fancy plumes on helmets were quite common in tournaments

Harnesses are among the most fascinating historical and art-historical artefacts. But today they are often misunderstood. With Iron Men I hope to show new, often surprising aspects of this subject.

Stefan Krause, Ronald S. Lauder Director Imperial Treasury, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (from the KHM website)
Emperor Charles VI receives the inventory of the picture gallery, painting by Francesco Solimena and Johann Gottfried Auerbach (1728); in front of it the field armour of Emperor Maximilian II (1557) made from oxidised iron/steel, which gives it a blackened effect.

Making such armours was quite an elaborate process. Do you know what a bloomery is? (Hint: it has nothing to do with bloomers.) Jokes aside, bloomeries were where workers turned the mined ore into iron. From this craftsmen called armourers then produced the actual pieces of armour. But this was not the end of the process. After the raw pieces were ready, artists (painters, graphic artists, goldsmiths) designed and implemented the decoration of the pieces. And since armours also needed some kind of lining, they required tanners and tailors to outfit them with fabrics and leathers. In the high middle ages, the technique of etching evolved to be used to make the designs onto armour.

The armours were quite flexibly built, as they were put together of many pieces. There was the helmet, of course, breast- and backplates, something called a gorget, greaves, cuisses – it boggles the mind. The armours used for fighting were, it seems, really well adapted to making all kinds of movements. The KHM has a neat little video demonstration of a modern “knight” doing jumping jacks in one – have a look.

Helmets were especially valuable to the wearer, and they were often kept on display in the church when a knight died, as a way of remembering him, thus becoming “funeral helms”. While sometimes helmets from the dead person´s estate were used for this, interestingly they were also specially produced from painted wood just for display purposes.

L: Funeral helmet of Albrecht VI of Austria in wood and leather (1463); R: Funeral helmet of Emperor Frederick III in wood, metal, leather (1493)

The crests that often decorated them were heraldic or political symptoms. They could be quite spectacular or witty. For tournament events that took place during carnival there were also helmets in animal or other fantastic shapes, used as a fun disguise.

Lion head helmet, the earliest known all´ antica armour piece, Italian (1475/80)

The most “quirky” item though, from today´s point of view, was the so-called “codpiece” – that bit attached to the front of the crotch area. Such codpieces were an important element of European fashion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since medieval men wore hose, something akin to women´s stockings, and not really any underwear as we know it today, the codpiece was worn as an attachment to the hose at the crotch area. Initially meant to conceal men´s genitals, codpieces eventually became designed to actually show them off. One can find many Renaissance paintings of wealthy men wearing accentuated codpieces. And while mostly they were used in the types of sewn fabric hoses worn by men at the time, they were also included in some armours for those steely fashionistas. Think steely athletic cup…

The codpiece on a Landsknecht armour was, shall we say, quite prominent.

The armours were true works of art. Their styles could be quite fancy, reflecting the fashion of the day. One stellar example of this is the armour of Wilhelm von Rogendorf (1481–1541), a diplomat and general of the court of the German Emperor Charles V. It even has puffed sleeves! Of course such fine armours were not really worn on the battle field, but rather for special festivities, a bit like the ceremonial dress or parade dress uniforms worn by today´s military and other uniformed services.

There were different types of armours made for different purposes. For jousting tournaments, for example, armour needed to be optimised for the protection of the riders, and it depended on the kind of tournament what shape the armours would take. There was also the “pret-a-porter” variety though! Breast- and backplates for foot soldiers were mass-produced, of sorts. These were of course a far cry from the complicated custom-made armours that were tailored to their wearer´s exact measures. The elite also wore surcoats and other accessories over their armour – dressing to impress.

Surcoat from the Fugger Garniture, Southern Germany around 1560

What I also found really interesting is that the turtle-shell-like shape of armours had an impact on Renaissance fashion at large. If you look at some portrait paintings from that time, you may notice that the men are wearing some oddly shaped clothes – bulging out above the hose, and generally shaped like the segments of armour.

Archduke Matthias, painted by Lucas I. van Valckenborch in 1579 with a half-armour in fashionably tight hose and babby padded pants
Maria de Medici (aged 15, around 1555) wearing a stiff doublet. Female fashion was also influenced by harnesses.

On the other hand, the breast-plates sometimes mirrored the design of clothing, such as stylised button-borders down the centre. The steel skirts that some armours have were also derived from the male skirt fashion of the day. And some armourers produced armours that mirrored elements of the quite flashy landsknecht fashion with puffed sleeves and the appearance of slashes (see above).

I feel a strong desire for such patterns. It is our desire that you make for us such a harness in this shape. I am prepared to pay well for it.

Albert, Duke of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1490–1568) in a letter to Kolman Helmschmid (1471–1532), his armourer in Augsburg (found on the KHM website)

The helmets too reflected the fashion fancy of their time — for example helmets in the shape of Ottoman-inspired turbans at a time when the Ottoman empire was expanding greatly, or all’antica Greek- or Roman-inspired armours that became all the rage during the Renaissance.

What´s real and what´s fake? German “Turkish” helms and original Ottoman helms

Armours were so important in the middle ages, that they were even made for the children of rulers. They were of course not meant to go to battle, but rather these miniature armours were meant as symbols of dynastic stability. As such armours were quite expensive to purchase, they were reserved for the ruling class. Even so, armourers employed some tricks to make them last longer while children were growing, by for example building in some extension straps and special screws to allow them to grow with the child.

Armours for children

Surprising to me was also that the steely fashion was not reserved for men only. There are some steel corsets from the 1500s and 1600s that were evidently worn by women, perhaps to correct posture, or to accentuate the waistline.

A female corset made from metal

It all leaves us wondering what the ladies thought of their knights in shining armour. Maybe something along the lines of this quote from a modern tale:

Large men in black plate mail with red cloaks and plumes don’t sneak worth a damn.

Tanya Huff, Nights of the Round Table and Other Stories of Heroic Fantasy

Now, imagine being slapped by a gauntlet made up of up to 70 pieces of iron. That´s what I would call knockout fashion!

Just in case you feel inspired to play at being a knight, this bike helmet is available at the gift shop.


Texts describing the artworks shown here have been adapted from the free booklet accompanying the exhibition and from the website of the KHM.

#IronMenKHM #ModeInStahl #FashionInSteel #KunsthistorischesMuseum #Vienna

All photos (c) Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

3 thoughts on “Heavy metal fashion

  1. I didn’t really expect to be fascinated by armour, but the exhibit looks and sounds quite interesting. I have always been bewildered by fashion trends and the need of so many to try to fit in by wearing a certain style of outfit. Codpieces (which were new to me, by the way) must be one of the most bizarre outgrowths (literally and figuratively) of fashion.


    1. Haha, Tanja, codpieces are bizarre indeed, and frankly, I was also not aware that they made their way into armour! I had seen them in Renaissance paintings, always thought they were overdoing a bit with fashion statements! Or statements of manhood if you will. Like you, armour was of no interest to me until I got this tour of the exhibition, and what is interesting to me is the whole ancillary industry that sprung up around it and how fashion was influenced by it and vice versa. Thank you for reading!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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