Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Philip II: A Man of Our Time

If they were privileged enough to behold this imposing portrait of Philip II of Spain, painted by an unknown artist around 1580, contemporaries would have been mightily impressed. The king-emperor (for Philip inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor from his father, Charles V) looked every bit the sixteenth-century general. His cuirassier-style armour, distinguishable by its bands of gilded decoration and blued steel, was highly fashionable and expensive. In his right hand, Philip holds a baton to designate his status as commander. His left hand rests on a plumed helmet, the feathers, decorated with gilt-work, are a further indication of his supreme rank. The king’s short doublet, white hose and shoes, emphasise his shapely legs, which demonstrate athleticism and virility; viewers were meant to believe this king, now in his fifth decade and with a prominently receding hairline, could wield the two swords that feature in this portrait to dangerous effect, not just pose with him them. Contemporaries may have drawn parallels between this pugnacious presentation of Philip II and Titian’s equestrian portrait of his father, painted in 1548 (below). They may have made connections with similar portraits of Philip, for he posed for several in different suits of armour.

My students were not so impressed. Unaware of the style and cost of sixteenth-century armour, this was a painting of an angry-looking man in uncomfortable and oddly top-heavy get-up. The king-emperor’s legs were a source of scorn rather than marvel. I was struck by how alien my students considered the clothes of this portrait to be. Is this sixteenth-century garb really so different to what men wear today in terms of how it emphasises and exaggerates the silhouette of the body? It has long been fashionable for civilians to take their sartorial cues from the military. The trend has become more prevalent in the West, ever since ‘The Enemy’ was divested of its corporeal form and became an ideology, which is much harder to pursue and eradicate. Presumably, warlike clothes confer a (subconscious) sense of safety on their wearer.

Philip II

So, take another look: Aren’t Philip’s hose the equivalent of today’s skinny jeans – they both serve a similar sartorial function? His ruff, a proto turtleneck? The bands of decoration on Philip’s armour are surely close to the chunky zips and leather strips that decorate many of this season’s military-style outerwear? It wasn’t difficult to assemble a picture of how a twenty-first-century man might seek to channel Philip II’s military aesthetic, and be equally stylish in the process. My model wears Belstaff and Alexander McQueen, with accessories from Joshua Kane, Thomas Sabo and Globe-Trotter. The only thing missing is the plumed headwear, but let’s just see what next season brings…

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