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Paintings can give us a unique insight into what people wore, but have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sitters usually dress up for portraits, in official robes or in carefully selected clothes. In the past, when current fashion was considered frivolous or ugly, a more timeless style could be selected, based on the Roman toga perhaps. Such drapes could be added over contemporary dress to soften its modern appearance.

For historical, mythological and religious subjects, painters often lacked historical knowledge. They might include a mixture of contemporary armour and classical drapery. Dutch and Flemish painters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in contrast, often used modern dress, to emphasise the contemporary relevance of the bible stories.