Portraits and other figurative subjects can be invaluable records of the fashion and costumes of the people depicted. Many sitters of portraits will dress to consciously express the way they wish to be perceived, so we can take their dress to be accurate representations of the fashion of their time: an aristocrat in hunting clothes, a soldier in uniform with medals, a worker in his apron, or a businessman in a suit. As fashions change so rapidly, it thus becomes possible to date an unidentified portrait from, for example, the shape of a lace ruff, the cut of a sleeve, or the shape of a man’s hat. Clothing also helps identify status, rank and class, occupation, nationality and age.
However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries successful artists usually employed drapery assistants who specialised in painting dress, sometimes for several different artists. Such artists held stocks of costumes and accessories so there can therefore be a formulaic use of dress in portraits by popular artists. Sometimes fashion in portraiture can be misleading, for example the fashion for so-called ‘Van Dyck dress’, inspired by the fashions of the 1630s, in English portraits of the mid-eighteenth century.