16th-century costume guide


This rich collection of woodcuts gives a fascinating insight into global fashions of Shakespeare’s day. With its Italian title meaning ‘Ancient and Modern Clothing of the Whole World’, the book showcases costumes – ancient and early modern, domestic and exotic – extending from Venice across the globe.

It was made by Cesare Vecellio (c. 1521–1601), a cousin once removed of the famous painter Titian. Vecellio produced some of images from first-hand observation of multinational visitors to Venice, or during his travels. Others were copied from paintings or based on second hand stories. This edition, printed in 1598, is enlarged from an earlier 1590 version.[1]

Clothing as a sign of social status

The guide includes people of all sorts – beggars, fishmongers and merchants, prostitutes and widows, noblemen and women, tsars and tribal chiefs. It creates a kind of visual guide to early modern humanity, suggesting that people are knowable by their appearance. Costumes signify status, age, gender and region, not only in the theatre but in real life.

A global collection of costumes

The work is arranged into four continents, represented on the title page by four striking women: Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. This reflects the 16th-century impulse to make the newly-known world more accessible and containable through a multitude of polyglot dictionaries, atlases, travel narratives and manuals.

The text below describes selected images from this work. The information is taken from a modern English translation of the 1590 edition.

Italian men: ancient and early modern

  • Roman consul or tribune (Console, over Tribuno Rom., p. 3v)
  • Merchant of Venice (Mercanti, p. 90v)

Italian women: veiled and unveiled

This section shows the complex rules restricting the clothing of women – before and after marriage – in patriarchal Europe. It reveals how masks and veils – sometimes used in stage-tricks by Shakespeare – were also part of the real world, particularly Venice.

  • Noble young girl of Venice (Donzelle, p. 94v): Vecellio explains how noble girls are guarded by their fathers, only leaving their homes on rare occasions for church or holy days. When they do so, they must wear a silk veil or fazzuolo.
  • Venetian bride before her wedding (Spose non Sposate, p. 95v): Before they take their wedding vows, brides are permitted to go out and enjoy themselves. But they are carefully chaperoned and must wear a black silk veil.
  • Venetian brides outside their houses (Spose sposate, p.96v; Spose nobili moderne, p. 97v): After the wedding ceremony, noble women can emerge into the public sphere, beautifully dressed, to enjoy days of dancing at celebratory balls.
  • Venetian courtesan outdoors (Cortigiana, p. 106v): Alarmingly, prostitutes use clothing as a form of disguise, pretending they are modest by wearing the costumes of virtuous wives and widows.
  • Noble Sicilian woman (Nobile Siciliana, p. 226v): At church, Sicilian women wear a long floor-length woollen cloak.

English men and women

  • English nobleman (Nobile Inglese, p. 274v): Vecellio describes how Englishmen wear fur-lined gowns to protect themselves from the cold winds on their island. He notes that they are very fond of red-haired men; when they see a red-haired foreigner they say, ‘What a pity he isn’t an Englishman’.
  • Married English noblewoman (Matrona Inglese, p. 275v): These elegantly dressed women, in their feathered hats, are said to be very friendly to foreigners.
  • Noble English girl (Donzella Inglese, p. 276v): Vecellio suggests that modest Englishwomen have more freedom than those of Venice. They go out freely, shaking hands with others, even when they are outdoors. And they fall in love easily with men of the same social status.
  • Young Englishman (Giovane Inglese, p. 277v): These warlike men are always armed with swords and bucklers or small shields.

Moors of Africa

Here Vecellio shows the many different meanings of the word ‘Moor’, though in doing so he resorts to reductive racial stereotypes. The term ‘Moor’ is used to describe both the people of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africans. As such, it has provoked heated debate about the identity of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’.

  • Noble Moor of Cairo (Moro nobile del Cairo, p.423v): This Egyptian man wears a sessa or turban like that of the Turks. He comes from Cairo, which Vecellio sees as one of the foremost cities of the world – a beautiful and thriving mercantile centre, like Venice.
  • Wealthy Moor (Moro di conditione, p. 429v): Rich Moors are described here as ‘olive-skinned’ men who live in beautifully decorated houses in large cities, such as those in Tunisia.
  • Moor of Barbaria (Moro de Barbaria. p. 431v): Vecellio acknowledges the diversity of customs in the varied regions and kingdoms of Africa.
  • Black Moor (Moro neri, p.438v): this image shows the clothing of certain black Moors of Zanzibar, in Africa.


This group of 20 woodcuts of the so-called ‘New World’ was newly made for the 1598 edition. They are adapted from images found in American travel narratives, particularly engravings of Virginians by Theodor de Bry based on watercolours by John White.

  • A married woman or girl of Virginia (p. 500v): Vecellio observes that the same clothes are worn by both married women and unmarried girls, except that the girls hide their breasts with their arms . Try comparing this image with De Bry’s engraving of the ‘chieff Ladye of Pomeiooc’ in Harriot's A Brief and True Report (1590).

[1] Margaret F Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, The Clothing of the Renaissance World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

Full title:
Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo; di nuovo accresciuti di multe figure
1598, Venice, Italy
Book / Octavo / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
Cesare Vecellio
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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