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Art and antiques dealer Philip Rosenbach (1863-1953), the brother of famed rare book and manuscript dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), purchased a collection of 450 portrait miniatures from English painter Talbot Hughes in 1928. The largest collection of oil on copper miniatures in the United States, it includes portraits painted by English, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and French artists. The titles and artist attributions used in this exhibition are predominantly Hughes’s own. In addition to the Hughes collection, the Rosenbach maintains a fine selection of American, English, and Continental miniatures in other media: watercolor on vellum, watercolor on ivory, enamel, and wax.

Portrait miniatures usually present only a partial view of the subject and often lack the more elaborate background and props of their larger counterparts, but they still have many stories to tell. Because we see their subjects from the chest up, the study of the historic development of neckwear is a particularly compelling exercise. Styles of neckwear both mirrored and shaped changing ideas about the male and female body; depending on whether the neck and chest were deemed to be expressive of strength, status, or sexuality, fashionable neckwear strategically emphasized or downplayed those areas. Neckwear also implied status, with the functional outfits of laborers defining their social standing and fine fabrics and confining styles announcing the wealth and leisure of the upper classes. Contact with foreign cultures introduced new materials and silhouettes, while patterns of political and economic power were reflected in the shifting influence of particular regional styles on international fashion trends.

Click on any image to see larger size and read more information.

Man in a black cap and fur-trimmed gown

The story of neckwear told by the Rosenbach portrait miniatures begins in the sixteenth century. Where did neckwear come from? For western culture the answer seems to be the phenomenon of layering garment over garment. Wearing an outer garment created the opportunity to display or hide the edges of the garment beneath it. The undergarment, or chemise, had a drawstring around the neckline. When pulled tightly, as in the example shown here, the neckline of the chemise would gather and form a shallow ruffle with a knotted or bow-tied string. All other forms of Western neckwear derive from these two basic elements.

From the middle of the sixteenth century, the growing Spanish influence over the European world expressed itself in the fashions worn by Europe's elite. Against this dark, form-enhancing silhouette, the white edge of the undergarment increased both in visual impact and in size to extend beyond the heightened collar of the Spanish doublet. Encroaching on the chin, the collar forced a stiff posture that conveyed the status of the wearer. Such confining posture implied leisure, as the wearer could not freely move his or her head and therefore could engage in only limited activity.

A man unknown

Man with a gold chain

Unknown man (age 31)

A knight of Malta

Rudolph II of Germany

The growth of the high, ruffled collar was an expression of status that created its extreme, the ruff. Originally supported by a wire form, in the early seventeenth century the ruff was stiffened with newly invented starch. Ruffs varied in size, fabric, and form; the image of Rudolph II shows a small, early ruff, while Jan Baptiste de Wael wears a larger, contemporaneous, split ruff.

Self portrait

The ruff also implied status for women, but as the miniatures of Clara Eugenia and Margaret, Duchess of Parma illustrate, its size and shape prohibited décolletage as an expression of femininity. The alternative to a full ruff was to open it in front and extend it behind the head in a stiff, tall, wing-like lace collar, like that seen in the Italian miniature shown here. An adaptation of the ruff also appears in the nineteenth-century portrait of Queen Adelaide, which employs the style of three centuries earlier to convey the status of its subject. Similarly, modern formal attire, like that worn at weddings, is often inspired by fashions of the past.

Headwear and hairstyle worked in tandem with neckwear, balancing proportion and visibility. The ruff displaced hoods and bonnets that would have competed for space around the head and neck; hats that perched atop the head became more common.

Clara Eugenia

Margaret, Duchess of Parma

Lady with a lace collar

Queen Adelaide

Frederick, Elector Palatine [King of Bohemia]

Regional fashion in the seventeenth century saw ruffs decrease in size in England and France, but increase in size in Holland. Clothing in France began to loosen (like the costumes of The Three Musketeers) and the ruff softened and fell towards the shoulders. Among the English, religious difference led to differentiation in clothing. The Puritans generally followed the more rigid Dutch, sans expanding ruff, and Cavaliers (followers of Charles I) emulated the more relaxed French silhouette. This image of Frederick shows a fallen ruff, perhaps stylistically indicating his political sympathies; he was the husband of Elizabeth, sister of Charles I of England.

In England and across Europe, contemporaneous with the ruff and remaining in vogue after the ruff was abandoned, was the starched, standing collar. The standing collar, like the ruff before it, gave way to its softer, falling counterpart as the century progressed. In women’s fashion, the relationship between the wing-like alternative to the ruff and the wide, fallen collar is evident when this example is compared to those shown previously.

Sir Thomas Overbury


King James I

Self portrait

Lady in blue brocade dress


The 1660 Restoration of Charles II made the more relaxed French style prominent more widely for a short time. Ribbon became fashionable and was attached to all parts of clothing. The softening of women's clothing continued and necklines began to slip towards the shoulders. Broad lace collars disappeared and the shoulders and neck could be covered with a shawl or kerchief if necessary.

A lady unknown

Men's fashion changed rather radically with the introduction of the long eastern-style vest, a style influenced by the marriage of Charles II to Catherine de Braganza, the Iberian princess whose dowry included Bombay, India. It was now England that influenced French style, and the elite of the court of Louis XIV began to wear similar garments. The proportions of the long vest required an alternative to the broad, falling collar. Additionally, the newly fashionable long, full wig would have covered any collar other than one that was centered and vertical. Thus, the cravat appeared, at first a long, loose version of the broad collar, but eventually a narrower, knotted length of fabric, sometimes worn with a ribbon––a vestige of the original tie that gathered the neck of the undergarment. As a long cravat could prove inconvenient, a variety of methods of knotting the fabric appeared in order to keep them in place, leading Randle Holmes to write in his 1688 treatise Academy of Armory and Blazon:

A cravatte is another kind of adornment for the neck being nothing else but a long towel put about the Collar, and so tyed before with a Bow Knott; this is the original of all such Wearings; but now by the Art and Inventions of the seamsters, there is so many new ways of making them, that it would be a task to name, much more to describe them.

Unknown man

Man in armor

Man in purple coat

Andrew Marvel

Henri Francois Daguesseau

The eighteenth century saw the persistence of the vest and coat both in England and on the Continent, but these garments were gradually abbreviated, as was the long curly wig. The shortened coat had a smaller band or standing collar and the cravat persisted, but diminished in length. Mid-century brought the stock, a stiffened piece of fabric that wrapped around the neck and was worn with a black tie. Throughout the century, costume became simpler, especially in England, reflecting more active lifestyles and the decreasing influence of court style. Women could choose between feminine and masculine styles and both décollete and riding attire were acceptable dress.

Boy in scarlet

Man with dog and gun

Horatio, First Lord Walpole

Lady in yellow dress

The French Revolution encouraged French adoption of less elaborate and less restrictive clothing patterned after English styles. After the Terror, some status-asserting extravagance returned in the form of a rising collar and neckcloth that again claimed the chin of the wearer. With the ascension of Napoleon the neckcloth receded somewhat, as Napoleon himself favored the military style of a black stock and thin white cravat. In England, however, fashion-setter Beau Brummel emphasized the importance of the cravat, reportedly spending up to an hour arranging the folds and knots of his neckcloth and littering the floor with discarded attempts. Classicism was reflected in both French and English fashion of the early nineteenth century, and women's clothing, patterned after images from antiquity, evolved into what was, in its extreme French form, merely an undergarment. American fashion of the period was influenced by French and English styles, as seen in the portraits of Moses Hart and Julia Rush.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Portrait of a young man

Lady in a white dress

Unknown young man

William IV

Julia Rush

Moses Hart, Governor of Guadeloupe

Andrew J. Archibald Robertson

With the latest miniatures in the Rosenbach's collection dating to the early nineteenth century, our story ends just shy of the development of modern neckwear. From the gathered and tied neck of the undergarment to the ruffle, ruff, falling collar, cravat, neckcloth, and all of their variants, men of today have inherited the bow tie and necktie. Both are expressions of status and taste, and required elements of proper attire that derive, perhaps somewhat ironically, from underwear. Women’s necklines continue to reflect a tension between display and concealment, with the occasional return of undergarments that are intended to extend beyond the edge of garments themselves. But that, too, is nothing new.

All images © Studio Lux