Cluster of Excellence »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Signs and Symbols. Dress at the Intersection between Image and Realia

Berlin, February 18 — 21, 2016

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Dress research is a relatively young academic discipline and its methods are dynamic, drawing from the fields of visual studies, linguistics, and cultural studies, and alternating between detailed empirical analysis of material culture and its interpretation. Fashion in images (painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture) and in written works are typically considered through the lens of art history and historical analysis, whereas the research on textiles and clothing tends to favor technology-based methods of investigation. Yet not infrequently, it appears that the various specialized interests are generating independent strands of research—leaving untapped the potential to create synergies and to synthesize diverse research approaches. Seeking ways to address this desideratum will be one key aim of the planned conference. “Cross-reading,” the juxtaposition of different source texts, requires particular meticulousness and a thorough knowledge of the different research disciplines. Common to all the disciplines engaged in dress research is the question of how to define and delineate the image-dress-fashion triad. In the framework of this multidisciplinary conference, we want to bring about a reflection on applied methods and, with it, a collective self-positioning of the disciplines with regard to dress. The overarching aim of the conference is to create synergies in the research on visual objects, dress, and accessories by bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines in the humanities and empirical sciences whose research engages themes of dress and fashion. The focus of discussion will be on methodical and methodological questions surrounding the reconstruction of dress and its significance in visual and textual media.

1. Relation between image and written word

The following areas of emphasis and the questions they present all relate to two sides of the same coin: dress as textile artefact and dress in images. Between these poles, dress functions as (body) image, both in real life and in visual representations. Research on the repertoire of sartorial symbolism relies on both visual and textual sources. What do these sources say about patterns of identification, ranging from distinction to conformity, within the context of normative behavioral codes? And how do they affect the symbolic meaning of dress from the following perspectives?

Norm and form

Clothing regulations, ceremonial records, and police regulations show that ruling authorities’ efforts to enforce social norms required the development of ever more, and increasingly differentiated regulations and penalties—not only in the area of clothing regulations and sumptuary laws but also for the governance of society as a whole. Taking this legal history perspective as a point of departure, the conference will focus on the causes and impacts of clothing regulations.

Cultural transfer

Clothing and fashion were important trade commodities, which were also absorbed into the clothing styles of other courtly societies, although not without reinterpretation. Dress and fashion transfer unfolded on a spectrum ranging from conformity by means of assimilation to the establishment of distinction by means of adaptation. More concretely: What formal and semantic changes did the Parisian fashion of absolutism go through in neighboring countries? How were the costumes of Dutch regents of the 17th century adapted as they were incorporated into the dress of neighboring countries, and what elements of late 18th century English fashion were adopted?

Hybrid dress

Special attention will be paid to the designers of hybrid dress, who conceived decidedly inauthentic vestments in early modern painting and sculpture. Anthonis van Dyck’s portraits, for instance, depict women in fanciful garments that are not adequately understood to this day, and the inauthentic costumes depicted by artists from Donatello to Schlüter in equestrian statues and busts of rulers led ultimately to the academic “costume dispute.”


The exaggerated forms of fashion found in caricature as a genre are semantically loaded, shifting between nationalisms, social critique, and gender problems. The conference will therefore explore on a fundamental level whether the art historical approach of iconographic-iconological analysis of visual motifs can do justice to the motif of dress and its cultural meanings or to the reconstruction of a “material culture.”

The planned conference will take up the critique of logocentric iconology to explore a hermeneutic approach to the representation of things based on visual representations of dress. It will use these depictions as a means of examining whether the meaning of objects in images can be deduced solely from their established textual and programmatic meanings. Although certain objects were not the subject of scholarly humanistic or theological discourse in the early modern period, these objects can still claim symbolic meaning. Whether south or north of the Alps, the symbolic meanings of objects, and particularly dress, can be understood within the context of the visual world they inhabit. The realities they generate may be temporally antecedent to textual reflection. In this context, a focus of the conference will be on re-reading textual sources that have been understood in the fashion research up to now based on established patterns of interpretation that are in urgent need of revision. These include non-descriptive sources, beyond ceremonial literature and the systematic evaluation thereof, such as court records, wills, and inventories.

2. Empirical Research

The empirically oriented research, which focuses on surviving historical objects such as textiles, clothing ensembles, accessories, and paintings, is conducted by experts in material science and art restoration. Their work involves collecting data on historical textiles, paintings, and other artefacts, and studying the structure and construction of objects or analyzing paint layers, color values, and the percentages of metals in pigments. Reading this information requires in-depth, specialized knowledge of the discipline in question, whereas interpreting and applying the findings to a larger context requires an interdisciplinary approach. At precisely these two junctures, frictions sometimes arise. In interdisciplinary research teams, it is not uncommon to see that findings reported by empirical researchers first have be translated into non-specialist language and then placed within the context of research questions in the humanities. And while this can cause frictions, it can also lead to joint research questions. 

Surviving historical objects are of central importance for any reconstruction and interpretation of dress and vestimentary cultures. Focusing on the interface of picture, text, and object sources, the conference will explore methodological options that might be utilized more fully to promote transdisciplinary research, and will encourage researchers to challenge and stretch the established methodological boundaries of their respective disciplines. This will require a willingness on the part of researchers to engage in deconstructing their own narratives, established theories, and historical models. This applies, for instance, to the fashion theory of Georg Simmel (1906), which occupies a central place in fashion studies to this day and is undoubtedly just as relevant as it is in urgent need of revision. Probing such sensitive methodological points will mean drawing connections between visual and textual sources and objects, and comparing and interpreting them. In the second part of the conference, (restoration) reports from collections will form the nucleus of a search for methodological orientation. A further aim of the conference will be to supplement this search with reports from archaeological excavations, which have been the source of an increasing number of vestimentary finds in recent years.

3. Concepts / Terminology

Between ethnology and cultural studies, broader questions of nomenclature arise, as the existing concepts—including fashion, dress, traditional costume, and costume—are inconsistent in their definitions and interpretations. The concept of fashion, for example, has gained prominence in scholarly work in recent years. It is based on Simmel’s theory of fashion (distinction and adaptation) and is applied in historical research uniformly to all the centuries of early modern history. Equally in need of revision are the terms “traditional costume” and “costume,” whose semantic orientations have been revised inconsistently in the scholarship over the last few decades. These terms require critical reassessment. In this terrain of methodological uncertainties, it is important to bring together various sources (visual and textual material) and objects/artefacts (dress, accessories) and to find ways of analyzing and interpreting them.

Call for Abstracts

We invite scholars in art history, visual culture, fashion, history, cultural studies, archaeology, sociology, and experts in textiles research and conservation, as well as literary scholars, anthropologists, legal scholars, and economists to present their diverse perspectives on the development and significance of fashion and dress at the conference.

The Call for Abstracts is now closed.



Confirmed Speakers

Dr. Astrid Ackermann // Dr. Stefanie Freyer // Giulia Galastro M.A. // Wilm Grunwaldt M.A. // Prof. Dr. Karen Hearn // Leoni Heeger M.A. // Janine Jakob M.A. // Dr. Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink // Dr. William Kynan-Wilson // Dr. Mateusz Kapustka // Dr. Tatjana Petzer // Dr. Johannes Pietsch // Prof. Dr. Marcia Pointon // Anne K. Reimers M.A. // Prof. Dr. Aileen Ribeiro // Dr. Clare Rose // Barbara Schmelzer-Ziringer M.A. // Prof. Dr. Änne Söll // Dr. Martin Treml // Dr. Sara van Dijk // Dr. Juliane von Fircks // Dr. Thomas Weißbrich

Conference language

Presentations will be held in German and English. The papers in German will be translated simultaneously into English. In the Programme the title in the first place indicates the language in which the presentation will be held.


Thursday, 18th February 2016

Keynote Lecture and Reception

6 pm / Horst Bredekamp (Cluster of Excellence »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«): Introduction
6:15 pm / Aileen Ribeiro (Courtauld Institute of Art, London): How Real is Dress in Art? | Wie real ist Kleidung im Bild?

Friday, 19th February 2016

9:30 am / Registration, Welcome Coffee

Dress-Images as a Heuristic Problem

10:15 am / William Kynan-Wilson (Aalborg Universitet): Limitations and Possibilities – Ottoman Costume Albums as Sources of Clothing | Grenzen und Möglichkeiten – Osmanische Trachtenbücher als Kleiderquellen

Form and Norm Between Image and Realia

11 am / Juliane von Fircks (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz): Der Pourpoint des Charles de Blois. Männermode im 14. Jahrhundert | The Pourpoint of Charles de Blois. Fourteenth Century Men’s fashion
11:45 am / Thomas Weißbrich (Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin): Des Königs Rock zwischen Sein und Schein | The Emperor’s New Clothes Between Appearance and Reality

12:30 am / Lunch Break

Textiles in Portraits

2 pm / Karen Hearn (University College, London): From the Life? Representing Textlies in Tudor Portraits | Nach der Natur gemalt? Die Darstellung von Textilien in Bildnissen der Tudor-Zeit
2:45 pm / Marcia Pointon (University of Manchester): Enduring Characteristics and Unstable Hues: Men in Black in French Painting in the 1860s and 1870s | Dauerhafte Eigenschaften und unbeständige Farbtöne: Schwarz gekleidete Männer in französischen Gemälden der 1860er und 1870er Jahre

3:30 pm / Coffee Break

Gender, Fashion and Their Visual Performance

4 pm / Barbara Schmelzer-Ziringer (Berlin): Modegeschichte als Machtgeschichte in Bildern. Zur Genese der vergeschlechtlichten bürgerlichen Silhouetten zur Zeit des höfischen Absolutismus | On the Evolution of Gendered Bourgeois Silhouettes in the Age of Courtly Absolutism
4:45 pm / Änne Söll (Ruhr-Universität Bochum): Tyrann oder Pantoffelheld? Die modische Ratgeberliteratur für Männer der 1920er Jahre und ihr Verhältnis zum neu-sachlichen Männerporträt | Tyrant or Henpecked Husband? Fashion Advice Literature for Men in the 1920s and its Relation to New Objectivist Image of Masculinity
5:30 pm / Anne K. Reimers (University for the Creative Arts, Rochester/University College, London): Temporality, Style and the Vocabulary of Fashion in 1920s German Arts Criticism | Zeithaftigkeit, Stil und Modewörter in der deutschen Kunstkritik der 1920er Jahre

Saturday, 20th February 2016

Textile and Vestimentary Sources

9:30 am / Clare Rose (Royal School of Needlework, London): Textile and Texts – Sources for Studying 18th-Century Quilted Petticoats | Textilien und Schrift – Quellen für die Erforschung von abgesteppten Röcken des 18. Jahrhunderts
10:15 am / Johannes Pietsch (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, München): Historische Gewänder als Primärquellen der Kleidungsforschung | Historic Garments as Primary Sources for Dress Research

11 am / Coffee Break

Source Critique Between Image and Written Word

11:30 am / Leoni Heeger (Halle): Bilder in Zahlen – Die statistische Untersuchung von Kleidung in mittelalterlichen Bildquellen | Pictures in Numbers: The Statistical Analysis of Clothing in Medieval Visual Sources
12:15 am / Janine Jakob (Universität Zürich): Edler Putz macht Damen. Mode zwischen Mandat und Alltagspraxis in Basel, Zürich und Luzern 1650–1790 | The Clothes Make the Lady. Fashion Between Mandate and Everyday Practice in Basel, Zurich and Lucerne 1650–1790

1 pm / Lunch Break

Dress Images and Dress Orders I

2:30 pm / Giulia Galastro (University of Cambridge): Forbidden Finery: Sumptuary Laws in Action in 16-Century Genoa | Verbotener Aufputz: Angewandte Luxusgesetze in Genua im 16. Jahrhundert
3:15 pm / Wilm Grunwaldt (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin): Von der Vorschrift zum Vorbild. Popularisierung policeylicher Kleiderordnungen in moralischen Wochenschriften | From Regulations to Role Models. Popularization of Public Dress Codes in Moral Weeklies

4 pm / Coffee Break

Dress Images and Dress Orders II

4:30 pm / Astrid Ackermann & Stefanie Freyer (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena & Universität Osnabrück): Fehler im (ständischen) System? Die Uneindeutigkeit vestimentärer Kommunikation | Mistakes in the (Feudal) System? The Ambiguity of Vestimentary Communication
5:15 pm / Tatjana Petzer & Martin Treml (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin): “Kleiderordnungen”: Versuch zu einer Figur kulturwissenschaftlicher Forschung | “Dress Codes”: Exploring a Figure of Cultural Studies

Sunday, 21th February 2016

Signs, Symbols and Change of Meaning in Images

10 am / Sara van Dijk (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam): Portrait of a Jewel. Bianca Maria Sforza’s Jewellery in Word and Image | Porträt eines Edelsteins. Das Geschmeide der Bianca Maria Sforza in Wort und Bild
10:45 am / Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin): Von der Culotte zum “existenziellen Anzug”, vom Hof in die akademische Welt. Stationen in der Karriere der Kniebundhose | From the Culotte to the “Existential Suit”, from the Court to Academia. Stations in the Career of Knee-Lenght Trousers
11:30 am / Mateusz Kapustka (Universität Zürich): Clothes for the Mission | Kleidung für die Mission

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Conference publication

The conference proceedings will be published in autumn 2017.

“Signs and Symbols - Dress at the Intersection between Image and Realia” Ed. by de Günther, Sabine / Zitzlsperger, Philipp




Keynote and Opening Reception (Thursday, Feb. 18th, 2016)

Spandauer Str. 1
10178 Berlin (Unfortunately accessibility to Heilig-Geist-Kapelle is not provided)

Conference (Friday, Feb. 19th to Sunday, Feb. 21st, 2016)

Humboldt Graduate School, Festsaal
Luisenstr. 56
10115 Berlin

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A Conference organized by the Cluster of Excellence »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory« and funded by German Research Foundation (DFG)

Logo Exzellenzcluster Bild Wissen Gestaltung


Logo Hochschule Fresenius AMD

Logo Netzwerk Mode Textil

Concept and Organization

Sabine de Günther M.A., Research Associate, »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«
Prof. Dr. Philipp Zitzlsperger, Hochschule Fresenius, Special field Design (AMD) - Associate Member, »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«
Davide Ferri B.A., Assitant, »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«

Layout & Design

Johannes Herseni, Interface Designer, »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«


Cluster of Excellence »Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory«
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin


Picture credits: SMB, Kunstbibliothek, Sammlung-Modebild