By Michelle Laughran and Andrea Vianello
Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, edited by (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011)
Abstract: In an age where women wear pants and men can fashionably sport kilts, it seems as though accessories are now a defining touch of gender expression, indicating gender boundaries with which an individual is either identifying or testing. Women wearing neckties or men carrying handbags are not out of the question in the early twenty-first century Western fashion system, but nevertheless there are few dress acts which are more immediately visually challenging to cultural expectations of gender roles. Thus, in a world of Manolo Blahniks, we are accustomed to footwear being one of these highly visible and very public representations of gender identification and/or expression. Yet in the premodern and early-modern fashion system, we argue that gender identification and expression though shoes were primarily based on degrees of their invisibility.
Premodern men and women’s footwear were initially unisex and utilitarian in design, and women’s shoes were distinguished primarily by the fact that they tended be to some of the less visible aspects of contemporary female costume. Indeed, with the advent of Renaissance conspicuous sartorial consumption, women’s shoes would become even less readily visible, draped as they were in dresses constructed of layers of far more expensive fabric. Ironically, however, this is the very same period in which footwear styles of men and women would begin significantly to diverge for the first time. How to explain this apparent paradox?
A parallel development interestingly occurred simultaneously in what would come to be called lingerie. The deeper women’s undergarments were buried under myriad strata of clothing, the more diverse (and eventually sexualized) they became. In this article, we will argue that early-modern footwear in this same way essentially became a kind of gendered intimate wear, the increased fascination with which relied on the power of what was usually unseen, but a glimpse of which might be granted to or stolen by the viewer.”