Portraits in disguise

Afghan (in fact Moorish) Costume (John Lane; Mr Redding), by David Octavius Hill, and  Robert Adamson, 1843-1848 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Afghan (in fact Moorish) Costume (John Lane; Mr Redding)
by David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson
NPG P6(159)

This site concentrates on a variety of disguised self presentations documented within the genre of portraiture.

The idea that the portrait ISN'T some form of disguise is interesting, after all it is always an interpretation of a presence. There is no guarantee that the sitter is not 'naturally disguised' when sitting for a portrait, this being often a peculiar and sometimes difficult experience to submit to.

Facial expression is so often a disguise - how many people recall opening a gift in front of the donor and feigning delight when disappointment is the real emotion provoked by the offering?

Portraits are done for so many reasons, and these reasons influence just how much the people portrayed are shown in disguise or not. For example, sitting for one's lover is a very different experience to sitting for a retirement portrait by a commissioned artist.

'Dressing up for your portrait', has always been the accepted norm. Whether we look at Bronzino's Eleanora da Toledo, Bellini's Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, or in this country, Holbein's Henry VIII or Gheeraerts the Younger's portrait of Queen Elizabeth I - we are confronted by images of people who are making the most of clothes and jewels to reinforce their powerful presence. These bodily coverings and adornments are not always all that they seem, painters can easily invent the odd diamond, and records suggest that Elizabeth I had fake jewels on her clothes that were recycled with new clothes (which might more appropriately be described as costume).

There is a correlation between fashion and developing styles of painting spurred on by the human love of change and innovation. Crazes for things, uses of new materials, from plastic (acrylic) paints giving new looks to painting and using canvas as opposed to wooden panels. Fake fur replacing the real thing - will ermine remain as symbolic of nobility?

Portraiture is linked to consumerism, always in thrall to fashion, as people constantly want new ways of showing off, and proving that they are up to date. People are eternally human and vain.

Dressing up lends particular status to certain occasions - either formal or informal. We accept the fiction of the codes, and recognise the conventions within them. Here are some broad definitions:

  • Power portraits; the reinforcement of royal status with ermine trimmed clothes, symbolic reference including the orb and the sceptre and plenty of ostentatious wealth, such as gilded furniture, chandeliers and brocade.
  • Fashion and the re-invoking of past fashions, for example 17th century loose clothing and 18th century sitters in Van Dyck costume.
  • Actors and actresses 'in character'.
  • Pretending to be in another age - reworking past portraits, for example Allan Ramsay evoking Peter Paul Rubens. Party clothes - dressing up for fun and recording this photographically.
  • Specific or formal wear and uniforms, such as that worn by judges, soldiers, those who have been awarded public honours such as the Order of the Bath, and sports people.
  • Specifically coded costume for example Roman and Greek heroic costume with laurel crowns or armour, Greek scholars (for example the Ashley-Cooper brothers), shepherds or shepherdesses or blue robed Madonnas.
  • Travellers. Intellectuals. Writers.

People make statements about themselves, consciously or unconsciously, by the way that they dress. Different walks of life are denoted by different kinds of uniform or socially acceptable clothing. Particular fashions are tied to particular times, and people interpret clothing statements in a variety of ways.

The people shown on this site have chosen to be portrayed wearing clothing other than everyday or work related attire. The pictures give us an alternative view of the sitters; a manipulated image suggesting their fantasies, pretensions and desires through chosen guises. They also hint at a yearning for timelessness beyond mere fashion.
Paintings recording sixteenth and seventeenth century courtiers dressing up for masques became fashionable prototypes. The pastoral mode was popular with Van Dyck, and continued to be in vogue with the new medium of photography in the nineteenth century.

The possibilities of disguise were even more diverse and realistically achieved once photography became widely used for portraiture. Madame Yevonde's inspiration to record the Goddesses attending the Olympian Party organised by Miss Olga Lynn (1935) relates to earlier painted images of participants in C17th masques. Yevonde presents us with Ceres, Europa, and Daphne - ladies from London high society all happy to dress up for their portraits in disguise.

The reproductions illustrate the difference between 'normal' attire and the 'new look' worn in the 'disguise portraits'. The parallel portraits were made at approximately the same time. The 'faceless' portraits enable a comparison to be made and are accompanied by a short descriptive text, provided by Graham Cottenden, Senior Lecturer in Costume, Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design.

There are twenty-one examples dating from c. 1590 to 1940, with 'fancy' or disguise dress on the left, and 'normal' dress illustrated to the right.

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