By Andrea Denny-Brown
Ohio State University Press, 2012
Medieval European culture was obsessed with clothing. In Fashioning Change: The Trope of Clothing in High- and Late-Medieval England, Andrea Denny-Brown explores the central impact of clothing in medieval ideas about impermanence and the ethical stakes of human transience. Studies of dress frequently contend with a prevailing cultural belief that bodily adornment speaks to interests that are frivolous, superficial, and cursory. Taking up the vexed topic of clothing’s inherent changeability, Denny-Brown uncovers an important new genealogy of clothing as a representational device, one imbued with a surprising philosophical pedigree and a long history of analytical weightiness.
Considering writers as diverse as Boethius, Alain de Lille, William Durand, Chaucer, and Lydgate, among others, Denny-Brown tracks the development of a literary and cultural trope that begins in the sixth century and finds its highest expression in the vernacular poetry of fifteenth-century England. Among the topics covered are Boethian discourses on the care of the self, the changing garments of Lady Fortune, novelty in ecclesiastical fashions, the sartorial legacy of Chaucer’s Griselda, and the emergence of the English gallant. These literary treatments of vestimentary variation—which develop an aesthetics of change itself—enhance our understanding of clothing as a phenomenological and philosophical category in medieval Europe and illustrate the centrality of the Middle Ages to theories of aesthetics, of materiality, and of cultural change.
Nakid thei wer[e]n fairest on to see;
For whil thei stood in staat off innocence,
Thei hadde off clothyng noon experience.
—John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, speaking of Adam and Eve
The “experience” of clothing in late-medieval England, to borrow John Lydgate’s wording, was the experience of change. Clothing, as his Fall of Princes (1431–39) reminds us, marked not only Adam and Eve’s radical turn from the static state of grace and innocence—thei stood in staat—into the falling, erring, mutable material realm of “deth and pouerte” (658), but also marked the origins of self-generated change in human history, the first instance of “[c]haungyng thestate” (657), of altering the form or circumstance of something from its original condition. A similar point was more recently made by Elaine Scarry, who asserts that Adam and Eve’s fig leaves symbolize “their first cultural act wholly independent of God,” and that they present one example of “the capacity for cultural self-transformation through artifice.” For Lydgate, however, and for many of the poets that I will discuss in this book, this biblical scene is less about the act of artifice that turned fig leaves into garments than it is about the inherently transformative phenomenon of clothing itself. Lydgate dwells on the issue of changeability in this moment of his text, speaking in rapid succession of Adam and Eve’s “sodeyn chaung” (659), of their “onwar myscheeff” [sudden misfortune] (659), and of their “onhappi transmutacioun” (660) even as he also situates their altered vestimentary status as the symbol and narrative starting point for the larger interconnected history of earthly power and worldly mutability that is the focus of his monumental poem.
Lydgate’s treatment of humanity’s first sartorial event nicely demonstrates the primary subject of this book, which is the capacity of clothing to organize ideas about cultural change, something that fascinated medieval poets and their audiences. I have chosen as my primary site of study a place and time in which the cultural pressures surrounding changes in clothing were overt: as scholars have shown, the period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries marked a particularly innovative stage of vestimentary development in Europe, a period whose novel and ever-changing aesthetic sensibilities generated long moralizing castigations by homilists, satire and ridicule from moralists, and the first widespread wave of sumptuary laws that attempted to stabilize individual practices of consumption and appearance. The important cultural phenomenon that Roland Barthes called the “fashion system”—loosely defined as the rapid, systemic change of diverse forms of clothing—has recently been shown to have emerged and thrived in this period, a fact that offers seemingly irrefutable evidence of the important role that clothing played in the cultural formulations of change. Moreover, throughout high- and late-medieval Europe, the persistent association of clothing with stylistic novelty and its objects—imported fabrics, embroideries, and colors with ever-changing styles, shapes, and designs—was underscored by the highly symbolic role that particular garments played in transformative events, from the legendary sartorial episodes in the Fall and the Crucifixion and the celebrated rites of religious and secular investiture (and divestiture) to more ordinary material demonstrations of economic prosperity and downfall, socioeconomic and political mobility, and daily practices of consumption and self-fashioning.
As I will illustrate, English writers perceived these contemporary changes in distinctive ways: with a particularized conception of vacillating fashions as a governing national characteristic; with a deep investment in the (Boethian) philosophy of the changeable material world; and with a curiosity about the way emerging practices in vernacular writing, and especially vernacular lyric, might correspond to stylistic innovations in material culture. As they trace the developments of these ideas, the chapters of this book reveal that, despite their associations with frivolity and vanity, clothing and fashion were often understood to be philosophically and phenomenologically significant objects of study, engaging weighty issues of their culture, often under the guise of superficiality and caprice. Through their association with change, I will argue, clothing and fashion became important tropes for exploring the processes of material transience; correspondingly, through its association with clothing, the notion of change in effect became reified as an aesthetic act, an identifiable practice that could be observed, analyzed, and poeticized. To give a sense of the scope of these critical developments, in this introduction I provide two examples of the type of unexpected analytic depth that clothing offers two very different texts: one an uncharacteristic treatise by the Church patriarch, Tertullian, and the other a virtually forgotten anecdotal lyric by the English poet Chaucer. I will then turn to discussing in detail the current state of scholarship on medieval fashion and the special currency that the topic of vestimentary changeability had in high- and late-medieval England.