I am having an email conversation about a new landsknecht dress I’m going to make for a friend and I’ve been having a hard time describing the Landsknecht’s relationship to clothing. It has gotten me thinking about ways to describe all sorts of historical clothing distinctions that we lack today.
The clothes you wear every day say something about you to those sharing in the same culture. This is as true today as it is historically, but what has changed are the areas that our clothes demarcate, the distinctions one can gather by looking at a person’s clothes. Nowadays you can tell the difference between someone who is going to the office or going hiking based on their clothing, but the same person could go hiking on Sunday, then go to the office on Monday. Historically you are much more likely to tell someone’s class or their occupation based on their clothing and those distinctions are not going to change from day to day. So I’ve come up with different modern analogies to describe historical clothing distinctions.
When describing the differences between noble and peasant clothing in Medieval Europe I like to think about modern cars. Most cars have tons in common: 4 wheels, engine in the front, steering wheel, seats, windows etc. and most garments from a particular time and place in Medieval Europe are going to have some basic building blocks that are the same. But the difference between a brand-new luxury car and an old beater are pretty significant. Both upper-class clothes and luxury cars will be made out of different materials than your lower-class cousins. The luxury car comes with a lot of add-ons and the beater is more likely to be repaired and repaired until it just falls apart, the same holds true with medieval clothing. The analogy is not perfect, but it makes sense to me.
Now the Landsknecht are different. Landsknecht are the soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire from the early 16th Century. Most Landsknechte were the children of farmers or the second and third-born sons of merchants and artisans, but once they joined up they no longer dressed like their roots. There is not a set uniform, but they did have an incredibly distinct style of dressing that did not conform to the class structures that they came from. When thinking about describing the Landsknecht and their clothing it is important to think about the landsknecht in relationship to the other people in 16th Century Europe, they were feared and looked down on at the same time. They were not beholden to the same clothing rules as the rest of society, and they used this freedom to express something of the spirit of the landsknecht. What sort of modern analogy came to me? Teenagers!
Teenagers have a freedom of dress that children (their parents buy them clothes) and adults (we are expected to wear certain types of clothes) do not. Sumptuary laws, those laws that governed what a person could wear, did not apply to the landsknecht, so they wore what colors and styles they could get their hands on. Teenagers often do outlandish things: brightly colored hair, piercings, wild clothes, to differentiate themselves, and impress their peers. Landsnecht large brimmed hats full of ostrich feathers and puff and slashed clothing are often described as an intimidation tactic. If a Landsknecht does not die in battle but retires and returns to regular life, they are expected to give up their Landsknecht clothing, and go back to the more accepted, more conservative clothing styles. The same things happen to many teenagers when they get “real” jobs. I can totally picture the respectable townspeople when they saw the lines of pike approaching locking up their valuables and their daughters, the same as some modern parents would like to when a group of rowdy teens comes along. When I am at a stoplight and a car pulls up beside me that is blaring music, and racing the engine, and completely crammed with kids I just sigh and hope that our paths diverge soon, I can picture the respectable townsfolk of Europe doing the same thing.