When Habsburgs dress up for
haute couture

The Habsburgs may have never been smiling on the official portraits (even though one might assume, in private life neither) but they did certainly have an exquisite taste and style when it comes to fancy high-end textiles and princely fashion shows.

When admiring the best-dressed figures, decorated with the most beautiful garments and tapered by the utmost glitter and glam, one tends to easily forget about the exclusive access to these sort of textiles, which have solely been reserved to the very few wealthy of Habsburg days. Now, we rarely see a farmer’s fashion in art history portraits, do we? But would we even be capable of being fascinated by any style besides the one and only, noble Habsburg style?

Fashion will surely, forever and always, represent a strong means of expressing and of making politics, and of course, the tool per se, for expressing ourselves, perhaps even idealising our persona, as we do in post-modern culture and a world flooded with social media influence.

While visiting Ambras Castle in the remote fairytale place of Innsbruck, Tyrol, meeting members of the Habsburgs at all ages, genders, and origins, might not be any surprise. For instance, Ambras too is the place where the concept of an almighty Wunderkammer (Ferdinand’s chamber of arts & curiosities) was born and is still being manifested.

#ModeSchauen too, is about manifesting princely wardrobes, antique robes and the most precious materials and textiles.

Habsburg portraits have been used to express their social status, but also to create a world of magic and nostalgia, far from their own reality and lives destined to be limiting and being lived at court only, wearing costumes and dresses according to court rules and regulations of each family.

While quite a lot members of the princely Habsburg families have experienced some of the most traumatic destinies, such as forced marriage and abuse of all kinds initiated by their relatives, one might too well understand their pokerface and serious attitude on official portraits.

These very portraits of prominent Habsburg influencers of the past, dressed in the most lavish attire, also proof how significant the role of fashion and staying stylish has been back then. Nowadays, society has been rating fashion as a superficial matter only, which perhaps it might have become too, due to fast fashion industries. Back in Renaissance, engaging with garments and fabrics, has been an utmost pastime, for the intellectual and cultivated.

At Ambras, the ideal stage for self-representation, has been taking place, from the Renaissance to Baroque, showcasing the most alluring faces and bodies of Habsburg members.

Special attention is focused on the painted fashion worn by the depicted sitters, which are juxtaposed with various three-dimensional objects, including precious textiles that found their way into the wardrobes of the great European dynasties.

Expensive silk fabrics were considered luxury items, as well as the accessories: not only jewellery made of fragile glass, gold, silver and precious stones, but also shoes, gloves, lace-trimmed handkerchiefs and fans were reserved for the upper elite of society.

Splendid examples in the Ambras fashion show include the wedding attire with matching stockings and knitted silk trousers worn by Duke Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and a squire’s doublet from the possession of Archduke Ferdinand the First.

Together with the finest Italian needlework, laced up bodices, a hoop skirt and headdresses, the exhibits convey an impression of the fashionable garments from three centuries.

Queen Elizabeth I of England, like hardly any other woman in history, is remembered not only politically but also as a style icon thanks to her unique fashionable appearance. 

She developed her characteristic style into a brand that she touted as the virgin queen who was married to the English family. Despite a thick layer of white make-up mixed with arsenic and consequently toxic and skin-replacing, this image was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, comparable to influencer’s world of creating surreal perfection and a botox-oriented world of falsified faces and hearts.

Nevertheless, her appearance must have been a unique appearance due to the luxurious dresses, large collars and precious jewels.

But it also examines the role of a patriarchal pre-modern society and a female figure, captivated in her corsage, functioning as a statue, almost divine, yet suitable and destined to be exploited by a kind of convenient marriage system, aiming to gain more power and thereby embellishing gowns with more embroidery and ornaments, which were again to symbolise a desirable yet surreal status quo.

The ideals and rules of that time for gender-oriented clothing and the associated use of style elements differ in a striking way from today’s habits. Men from the 16th century, for instance, showed their legs by wearing shorts and colourful stockings, elaborately decorated robes and headdresses. 

And again, in the 17th century, it is men who stand out for the opulence of their clothing and who even wear high-heeled shoes. Only the 18th century was responsible for a shift from men’s glamour onto women’s fancy way of dressing in fashion, which doesn’t seem to have changed a lot since today.

Also, one might just wonder when or how those restrictions will disappear or at least turn into a blurry entity in a visually oriented world and society of today. Now, we could imagine only a future of gender-fluidity and breaking the rules, which have certainly been invented by monarchy and politics of power.

All the portraits and paintings at Ambras, may act like a stage, almost like a theatre play, showcasing the costumes and emotions of a bygone time, and similar to that play, they still inspire us to create a most contemporary realm of beauty and fantasy, reinterpreting ancient grace and Renaissance splendour.

Still captivating today, these fascinating historical garments even inspire renowned couturiers and fashion houses today. Some of these have been, for instance, reinterpreted by fashion school graduates, captured by creative director and one of the three curators of the exhibition, Stefan Zeisler, depicted below together with Ambras director, Veronika Sandbichler.

In collaboration with Ambras Castle Innsbruck (special thanks to Thomas Nocker) 

Exhibition in partnership with Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (special thanks to Stefan Zeisler and the KHM Team) 


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