The World's First Costume Book: François Desprez's Collection of Various Clothing Styles (1562)

These woodcuts by François Desprez come from 1562’s Recueil de la diversité des habits (whose full title translates as “a collection of the various styles of clothing presently worn in the countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the savage isles”), published in Paris and sometimes cited as the world’s first costume book. As Europeans encountered and conquered new worlds during the Age of Exploration, they not only took an interest in novel geography, biological specimens, and exportable resources but also in the customs and dress of unfamiliar peoples. Desprez’s 121 engravings illustrate garbs found the world over, accompanied by anonymous quatrains describing the sartorial behavior of Desprez’s subjects. The typeface is civilité, an imitation of the style of handwritten letters found in children’s book and etiquette manuals of the period, making the woodcuts look almost as if they are annotated with a traveler’s observations. Indeed this book was not meant to inspire innovation in the boudoir but served instead as a kind of anthropological atlas, marketing itself as a proto–National Geographic: “If you’re not eager a voyager to be, / To reach the places where other people dwell, / Escaping travelers’ woes, here you can see / A Hungarian man’s dress just as well.”

Just as early travelogues blended observation and folklore in their accounts of natural history — birthing mythical creatures and all sorts of hybrids — the dress on display here is a bizarre mélange of documentation and fantasy. Viewed in rapid succession, the woodcuts feel like trading cards for exoticized humans and extinct humanoids. Turks, Tartars, and Spaniards rub shoulders with a droopy eared cyclops, a monkey using a walking stick, and the so-called sea bishop: a bipedal, piscine creature, first spotted in the early 1500s, who cosplayed a Catholic priest and could communicate with clergy. It is not surprising that scholars believe Desprez was also the artist behind The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel (1565), a series of grotesque hallucinations after Rabelais that were published, like this book, by Richard Breton. The images in Recueil de la diversité des habits portray fashion in the oldest sense of the word: a fabrication or act of creation as well as a habit and way of life. If clothes make the man, however, different clothes, seen through imperial eyes, can also make the man a monster. For his part, Desprez insisted on the truthfulness of the images, many borrowed faithfully from “the late Roberual, Captain for the King, and a certain Portuguese [sailor] who visited several different countries.”

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At least twelve costume books were produced in Europe between 1550 and 1600, exemplifying “the period’s confidence in dress as a signal of kinship and identity”, how costumes were thought to be imbued with the “typologies of national character”, writes Katherine Bond. If the nude “savages” and muscular barbarians are somewhat expected in a book published in the 1560s, the decade that saw the establishment of West Indies Fleets, it is perhaps more disorienting to view the funhouse refractions of people who lived, not across the Atlantic, but on the other side of the Channel (Desprez finds savages aplenty in Scotland) or a few days trek across the Alps. The quatrain for “The Englishwoman”, for example, portrays clothing not as fashion but as obligatory costume, by which one can successfully identify a foreign species: “Thus dressed is an English woman, / On top her bonnet is fur-lined. / We can recognize her easily . . . By her square bonnet.” Other national costumes prompt the Frenchman to reflect on his own people’s vanity. The “German” does not change outfits “as often as we do / because the French ask for new clothes / changing them like the wind”. This was a bugbear for Desprez, who lambasted “curieux” clothing, the fast fashion of his time, casting a new light on his assertion that foreign peoples’ dress stays fixed. Where we might expect to find only crude stereotypes — and there certainly are some of those — we also happen upon a critique of the homeland, grounded in praise (albeit misinformed) for the cultural stability of foreign lands.

We will leave you with the address to the reader from Recueil de la diversité des habits, which — in a moment of seeming cultural relativity — acknowledges that sartorial difference can make other people look strange, no matter where they hail from:

If you want to see portraits of girls, men, and women,
Without leaving their gestures or clothing behind,
Depicted from life at the time that we live in,
For the sake of delightfully enlivening your mind,
Read through this book with attention and care.
Over these images let your gaze range.
You’ll come to know well the clothes humans wear,
Which make them all, one to the other, seem strange.
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