Art on the edge: hair and hands in Renaissance Italy
By Evelyn Welch
Renaissance Studies, Volume 23, Issue 3 (2009)
Abstract: This paper argues that items designed for the bodily extremities such as hair-coverings, hats, fans and other accessories were valued for the ease with which they could be changed and adapted to express a range of different meanings: political, social and individual. They also provided an important point of contact between the world of commerce, the court elites and the wider community of men and women who purchased and used these goods. In studying these often marginalized items, we can explore mechanism for the transmission of concepts of fashion and innovation in the Renaissance period.
Introduction: Anthropologists have long argued for the importance of examining all aspects of bodily display. For scholars such as Edmund Leach and Raymond Firth, complex headdresses, beards, hair (long, short, washed and unwashed) offered essential mechanisms for displaying status and position, both sacred and secular. Other items of material culture designed to be worn or carried such as umbrellas, flywhisks, or buttons have similarly been investigated for their ritual and personal meanings in periods as diverse as Ming China and contemporary America. At the same time, specialists in contemporary fashion have stressed the ease with which accessories such as shoes, handbags or sunglasses can convey luxury and social identities.
Yet despite the increased interest in dress and the body, similar items broadly defined as accessories have received little attention within Renaissance studies. They remain on the edge of our discussion just as they lie on the margins of the body. This may be, in part, because contemporary commentators regarded such goods as either unworthy of attention, or even as immoral. For example, in the popular and widely-read Romance de la Rose, Lady Idleness was personified as a woman who wore white gloves and spoke with perfumed breath, introducing herself by saying, ‘I have no care but to enjoy and amuse myself, and to comb and braid my hair.