One could do an entire exhibition on the relationship between contemporary women’s fashion and the medieval coat of armor. Juxtapose a Thierry Mugler metal catsuit (sexy robot chic) with the battle gear of a knight. Throw in a few metal corsets, cuirass bustiers, and chain-mail hoods by Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Issey Miyake, and the late Alexander McQueen. Top it all off with aggressively spiky jewelry—Vivienne Westwood’s armor rings, a couple Hermès colliers de chien—and voilà: the Warrior Woman.
Even back in the midcentury, sharp eyes caught visual echoes between couture tailoring and knights in their full-metal jackets. Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA, compared the precision cut and containment of clothes by Charles James to 15th-century armor. And in 1973, when Diana Vreeland mounted her first fashion blockbuster for the Metropolitan Museum of Art—an homage to Cristóbal Balenciaga—she chose as the show’s centerpiece a suit of Spanish armor.
And yet, ironically, armor is the forgotten genre of fashion history. We simply assume that the design of armor was almost entirely functional, and that any changes were a response to new weaponry and techniques of warfare. But according to the Metropolitan Museum’s curator in charge of Arms and Armor, Pierre Terjanian, who organized “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I”—the first major armor exhibition at the Met Museum in decades—“Armor in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was not just functional.”
Top it all off with aggressively spiky jewelry, and voilà: the Warrior Woman.
Like creations of the haute couture, armor was a “luxury object”—even a “work of art”—made by highly skilled craftsmen for illustrious clients. The relationship between fashion and armor was very close. “Civilian dress influenced armor more than the reverse,” says Terjanian, “although there was movement in both directions.”
It wasn’t just that individual aspects of masculine fashion—from long, pointed medieval shoes to massive phallic codpieces to pointed peasecod doublets—were reproduced in metal for warfare. No, the entire fashionable silhouette was replicated, whether slender and high-waisted or broad-shouldered with a pinched waist.
If the wasp-waist look of armor reminds us of corsetry, it’s no accident. “We think of armor as a shell,” says Terjanian, “but early medieval European armor essentially consisted of garments made of textile supplemented with harder elements: mail armor, boiled-leather reinforcements, and eventually iron and steel plates. Armor was not separate from but a variant of clothing.” Concurrently, stiffness was introduced into fashionable clothing, as metal and/or boning were added to the bodices of women’s dresses, resulting in the development of corsets that were V-shaped carapaces, pushing up the bust and holding women strictly vertical. The desire for a hard body, erect and aligned, is not unique to modern times. It is an ideal that has held a powerful appeal—for both men and women—ever since antiquity. —Valerie Steele