Susan Mosher Stuard

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Costume is a relatively new field of study, and its literature is interdisciplinary. Currently, the field draws from literatures as diverse as theory about consumption, law, art history, business history, gender and cultural studies, and even practicum for costuming Renaissance dramas for the stage, cinema, or television. There is no substitute for the eye in studying costume in the Renaissance and Reformation eras, and many of the works cited here are lavishly illustrated. The investigation of Renaissance costume begins with the advent of fashion in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Burckhardt 1945 and Braudel 1973 (both cited under Theory as Applied to Costume and Fashion) share responsibility for this chronology, since both identified the importance of fashion in 14th-century Italy. Italian taste and fashion remain the most carefully studied and densely documented component of the literature on costume, as the following citations indicate. Nevertheless, the North has received significant attention over the past two decades, and the Low Countries and England have promoted the study of textiles, their manufacture, and their export. No part of Europe was left untouched by fashion, from the British Isles to Russia. The increasing consequence of costume may be traced through sumptuary laws that proliferated through the Renaissance and Reformation periods. Cities, monarchs, and the church all attempted to regulate costume with little success. Detailed sumptuary laws are excellent starting points for understanding what was popular and what was considered unseemly because it disturbed social order, presumed privilege beyond a person’s rank or office, or indicated indulgence in immoral, costly, or extreme dressing. Jews were singled out to wear distinctive colors, badges, or articles of dress to distinguish them from their Christian neighbors in some sumptuary codes. Repeated failure did not deter authorities from issuing new sumptuary laws. These laws covered many aspects of consumption beyond costume, including behavior at weddings, funerals, processions, and festivals; food served at banquets; household furnishings; and a host of other consuming behaviors. Nevertheless, articles of clothing were among the most noticeable articles of personal display and earned the most consistent condemnations in the laws, in preaching, and in conduct literature. Costume moved toward increased splendor and cost through the Renaissance centuries, and then toward greater sobriety during the Reformation era. Some scholars have labeled the 16th century the apogee of extreme fashions, because court societies competed with each other in costly and ostentatious dress during this period. From the 14th century onward, fashionable costume penetrated more deeply into town society and attempts to curtail consumption failed because popular fashions could be produced in cheaper editions. Sumptuary laws strictly limited women’s and children’s costume. Gender studies has therefore taken up the history of costume as part of the discipline. Another component of gender studies is an emphasis on hypermasculinity in youthful male court dress in the 16th century. The literature largely concurs that costume became more differentiated by gender in the Renaissance, with an emphasis on tight fit—that is, men displaying their lower torso and legs, and women wearing tight bodices and lower necklines. Buttons were one new technology credited with producing a close fit for a fashionable silhouette. The Renaissance eroticized the nude female figure, although this did signal the death of the traditional eroticized and lavishly clothed figure of luxuria. Over the Renaissance centuries the distinctive dress of a region or town gave way to fashions shared by all persons affluent enough to adopt them. One area of investigation that needs further detailed study is how and when fashions traveled from region to region and country to country. More primary resources should be studied to support the burgeoning interest in historical costume.

Article.  7587 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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