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Power Dressing in Portraiture

Written by Lily Sisson


Power dressing is using clothing as a way of displaying status, wealth, strength, virility, and well.. power. We legitimize ourselves through our displays of dress. While fashion and trends change, dress has always been used to make intended displays. This technique has been particularly used by those in high positions in their portraits and pictures for centuries. When looking at historical portraiture, it becomes evidently clear how curated all items displayed are; all shows of favor to suit the individual displayed. Artists are very intentional, and with a bit of analysis the symbolisms in their paintings can be uncovered.

Let us take a look at these two paintings of the French Kings Louis XIV and Louis XVI:

This begins to give visual reference to how French royalty in the 18th century showed opulence, wealth, strength, and power through sartorial symboling in portraiture.

There is an extreme show of wealth and status here. Material and color symbolism are key players, with velvets, reds, blues, golds, and ermine making consistent shows in both paintings. First impressions from comparing the two paintings beseech the mind to recall the Missy Elliott lyrics of “flip it and reverse it”. The paintings appear to be mimics of each other. There are many similarities among the two, noticeably the layout and positioning of the subjects.

Both painters had an affinity for the colors blue and red, but seem to have used them inversely. This is no accident. Red and blue are power colors centuries old. The red hues symbolize valor, courage, enthusiasm, blood and life, while the blue colors indicate perseverance, justice, vigilance and respect for divinity. Dating back to the middle ages, red and blue dyes were associated with high classes because they were expensive, making them rare. Red and blues were used after the extremely expensive Tyrian purple was reserved only for royalty, before becoming obsolete all together through extinction.

Both Kings also model a cape of ermine. Ermine is best known for its association with Kings, being the only individuals permitted to wear it, regulated by sumptuary laws. Ermines are small arctic eurasian stoats, or short-tailed weasels. Over the winter season they have a fluffy coat of white with a black tail. A cape such as this in the paintings displays a man-made pattern of symmetrical black dots on white. A single cape took hundreds of ermine to make, each black dot a tail. This is not only a show of wealth on the king’s part because of how expensive ermine fur is, this is a direct show of his global reach and power. The French king, a western European, in order to have a cape of ermine would have to have had enough hunters to send to the north, with enough supplies for them to survive the cold, for long enough to hunt enough ermine to make a single cape. This cape is worn by the King to show that his powerful reach is global.

The other expensive materials in the paintings such as the velvets, lace, golds, intricate wall/flooring papers and handsome interior woodwork all continue to build the king’s ethos as a powerful and wealthy noble. The constant display of wealth, and the extent of wealth displayed, by these top classes are sure to have infuriated the common man fighting to survive. As we know, the french revolution at the end of the 18th century was the culmination of many disparities, particularly the economic disparity between the royal/aristocratic and the large populace.

Among the wealth and regality of the furs, velvets, and frills there is a dichotomy of hard and soft. The staff in the right hand and a sword on the left hip are shared elements in these portraits. These are more literal symbolic shows of strength. It is not as if these kings are battle ready, holding their sword in good form. These are displays of military prowess and control over a country. The king is showing his authority through metal work and weaponry.

All of these displays, down to the king's body language and pose, are reflective of his legitimacy as ruler.

Beyond these two paintings, dress has been used throughout history in portraiture and (in more modern times) photography to legitimize its subject. Whether it be through uniform, designer, silhouette, material, or color, our dress choices and requirements authenticate us and display commentary about our life styles and statuses. At our core, humans have an exigency to be taken legitimately and this is displayed through our dress choices.

Next time you see a professional portrait, take a closer gander about what the elements are saying about the person on display. You might be surprised by the bigger picture.


About Author:

Lily Sisson is our resident designer. Currently studying at Parsons School of Design in NYC, Sisson is a developing artist who strives to create enthralling pieces that excite, always putting interest in implementing new ways and techniques to engage and construct.

See her latest work on the runway at our next 405 Fest!


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