Fashion and Self-Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy
By Kayla Arnold
Published Online – University of Puget Sound, 2011
Abstract: The advent of true fashion in Italy during the 1350s introduced a new system of values to a society whose members were becoming increasingly concerned with self-presentation. The new social and economic changes that arose during the Renaissance began challenging existing social hierarchies and forced groups to display their status through their apparel and be able to recognize other groups through theirs as well. As a result, during the Renaissance the regulation of clothing became a way for city officials to define different social, religious and gender groups as well as maintain the boundaries between them. This paper analyzes sources produced between 1350 and 1600, ranging from sumptuary legislation to popular literature, in order to examine the social, moral and economic motivations of clothing regulation during this period. Specifically, elite men, elite women, prostitutes and Jews are examined in this paper in order to see how each group was affected by, and responded to, such regulation. The conclusions drawn by this analysis demonstrate that an attempt was being made by the governing bodies of Italy to separate groups based on their social and moral status. This research adds to our understanding of the interactions between social, gender and religious groups of the Italian Renaissance and helps to situate the history of clothing within a social and ideological context.
Introduction: In 1378 a ten-year-old girl named Nicolosa was fined fourteen lire for wearing a fine silk gown with tassels on the streets of Florence. In 1398 a prostitute of the same city was prosecuted for failing to wear high-heeled slippers and a bell on her head. All across Italy officials were sent to weddings, funerals and general social gatherings to ensure that the participants were wearing the kind of clothing the law specified they could. The common thread between all of these incidents is the attempt being made by the governing bodies of Renaissance Italy to regulate how people dressed, but the question is…why?
Until the last twenty years or so, historians evaluated the role of clothing in history by focusing on the evolution of fashion along a time-line, cataloging the changes that occurred throughout the years but not necessarily analyzing the motivation or meaning of those changes. It is only in recent years that historians like John Styles and Margaret Spufford have advocated for a more analytical approach which aims to put clothing within specific ideological, social, economic and religious contexts.