Fashion as an Industry

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Fashion as an Industry


While moralists and city officials perceived ostentation and display as a threat to urban society, a large class of wealthy consumers in Renaissance towns admired fashion for its innovations and its ability to express individual tastes. By the fifteenth century a category of wealthy consumers no longer feared ostentatious dress as a sign of concupiscence, the chief evil the friars had identified in lavish clothes. In medieval and Renaissance terminology concupiscence was any strong desire that might lead one to the even greater sins of avarice and sexual depravity. As wealthy Renaissance men and women shed their fears of ruffles and finery, the fashion market expanded in towns like Florence and Venice. By the fifteenth century a vast number of tailors, seamstresses, accessory producers, furriers, glove makers, cobblers, and leatherworkers produced the daily wear and grand costumes consumed in Italian cities. The clothing industry was by this time as varied and complex as the modern "rag trade" is today, and while most of the men and women who toiled in the industry earned low wages, great and middle ranks of tailors who catered to the whims and demands of the city's rich became increasingly common. Their presence in a town like Florence—a city lacking a court and a hereditary aristocracy—points to the development of a style-conscious elite who relied on fashion to express their wealth and family position as well as their individual preferences. Honorable men, Florentines frequently repeated, were created out of "cloth and color." Thus the first glimmers of the modern consumer society can be found in a Renaissance city like Florence, where fashion emerged as an important expression of one's individual identity.

Silks and Woolens.

In Italy, the standard measure for cutting cloth was the braccio, a length that differed from city to city but which usually was about 22 to 26 inches long. In Rome, though, the standard was considerably longer, measuring almost thirty inches. In those towns where the cloth trade was a vital part of the local economy, a bronze measuring stick was often affixed on the exterior of the town hall or on the cloth guilding's offices, so that merchants might be sure that they were receiving the correct length of material from local suppliers. Shorting on the weights and measures of raw materials used in the construction of clothing was a serious offense. The cost of fine fabric of the type used in the upper classes' gowns, doublets, and robes fluctuated dramatically, but began at around three florins per braccio for woolens and escalated to twenty florins for the finest silks. Since the grandest men's robes and women's gowns might consume up to 20, 30, or even 35 braccio of material, the cost of fabric used in these garments was enormous. A family of four, for example, could live in Renaissance Florence at a minimal standard in the fifteenth century for sixty or seventy florins annually. Many gowns and robes of the period thus consumed in fabric alone far more than most people's annual incomes. Cloth was expensive for a number of reasons. First, the weaving of wool or silk was a time-intensive project. It required more than 25 steps to produce a length of woolen cloth and nine steps to produce a similar length of silk. Wool had first to be carded and spun into yarn before it was woven, bleached, and stretched. The dying of most fabric occurred after it had been formed into cloth and subjected to more than twenty separate production steps. The cost of dyes varied enormously, with red being the favored color for men's clothing of the time. A wide array of red dyes was available, and the discriminating consumer could distinguish quite easily between those colors that were expensive and cheaper hues. Other colors favored by Renaissance elites included black, purple, and a deep blue violet. Although the weaving of wool was labor- and time-intensive, the industry's returns were far less than those in silk production. Because of the great profits generated by the silk industry, the weaving of this fabric eventually out-paced the production of woolens in Renaissance Italy in many cities. Florence and Venice gave important tax incentives to spur the production of silk, realizing the important revenue that might be generated from the industry. By the mid-fifteenth century Florence's government encouraged the planting of mulberry trees throughout Tuscany, from which the precious cocoons that provided silk's raw material might be grown. Silk required only nine steps to produce, but the finer thread necessitated a complex, time-consuming weaving process. It might take up to six months to weave a length of luxury silk suitable for making two gowns. Beyond the higher returns of silk production, other factors made it a desirable industry for cities. The higher incomes of the silk weavers made them generally more satisfied and less contentious than wool weavers, and the bigger profits from silk allowed a city to tax it more lucratively than wool. In Italy, the production of many different kinds of luxury silks became popular. These included an array of velvets, taffetas, damasks, and cloth of gold. This last kind of fabric had gold or silver threads woven into them in a number of stunning patterns that caught the light. Sumptuary laws enacted throughout Europe restricted its use; in England regulations permitted it only for nobles of the highest rank, and in Renaissance Italy it could


The great merchant Francesco Datini presided over the weaving of wool in the Tuscan town of Prato, just outside Florence. Datini was a pious man whose more than 140,000 letters provide one of the great collections of evidence concerning Renaissance commerce. He was also fiercely competitive and amassed a considerable fortune. A relatively self-made man, he often kept his suppliers waiting for months for payment. In her classic biography of Datini, the twentieth-century historian Iris Origo describes the shrewd way in which Datini imported English wool, buying up the raw material from abbeys throughout the island even before the sheep had been shorn. At the same time, Datini was a pioneer in outsourcing, for he also bought up woolen cloth that had been woven in England because it could be sold more cheaply in Italy and throughout Europe than what he could have woven in his own workshops.

It was, of course, exceedingly important to avoid any delay in buying up the clip. At the beginning of the century the papal tax-collectors who purchased English wool from the great abbeys often reserved the amount of the clip they wanted, even before the sheep were shorn, and this custom apparently still survived in some places, for there is a letter to Datini from Francesco Tornabuoni and Domenico Caccini and Co. of London apologizing for some wool from Cirencester which had proved unsatisfactory by saying that he had been obliged to buy up the clip before seeing it. "For one must buy in advance from all the Abbeys, and especially from this one, which is considered the best …"

The wool—which was classified as "good," "middle," or "young," was exported either in sacks of shorn and wound wool from the clip or as wool-fells (i.e., sheepskins with the wool still on them, collected after the Martinmas slaying)—240 wool-fells, for purpose of taxation, being considered equal to one sack. The wool was brought in to the great barns of the sleepy Cotswold villages, weighed and valued and packed and carded and sold, after much hard bargaining, to the highest bidder, and was then loaded on pack-horses and brought to London, where it was weighed for custom and subsidy, and shipped off with the next merchantman who set sail for the Mediterranean …

Datini imported to Tuscany not only wool but cloth—which may at first sight seem surprising, since he had a cloth-manufacturing company of his own. It must, however, be remembered that English cloth was not only good, but cheap, since English manufacturers had the great advantage over their Italian or Flemish competitors of first-rate raw material on the spot, and since the English export tax on cloth was then only about 2 per cent, while that on wool was about 33 per cent. Moreover, fine English cloth seems also already to have been fashionable, for we find Datini … buying "6 scarlet berrette, dyed in England" for his own use. The types of cloth he imported were Essex cloth … in various colours, Guildford cloth … in various colours, and unbleached cloth … from the Cotswolds and Winchester, while there is also one record of two bales of "Scottish cloth" sent from Bruges to Majorca.

source: Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prato. (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1957): 57–58.

only be used on women's sleeves. At twenty florins per braccio it was the highest priced fabric of the age.

Clothing Producers.

Renaissance men and women usually purchased their cloth directly from producers in the cities before taking these materials to a tailor to be sewn. In many European cities tailors had their own guilds that defined training requirements and set prices for garments. In other towns, those who produced clothing worked in many guilds, depending upon which kind of clothing they produced. In Florence, for instance, some tailors and seamstresses had originally belonged to the city's luxury retail guild before moving into the silk guild. Over time, however, only the producers of the most luxurious garments like male doublets (an elaborate vest worn under a man's robes) maintained their affiliation in these guilds. Eventually most Florentine tailors worked within the guild of secondhand clothiers, men and women who bought up the linens and clothing of the deceased in order to resell them. This guild organized the first "ready-to-wear" marketplace within Florence, and its members also sold silk hats, purses, gloves, and a variety of other fashion accessories. Most of the tailors who belonged to this group ranked among the middle level of artisans in the city, while the most successful had considerable fortunes. Generally, tailors earned only modest incomes in spite of their high level of skills, although the status of the profession increased during the fifteenth century. Female tailors earned less than their male counterparts since they generally served less distinguished clients. The greatest tailors—admittedly a small circle within the guild—moved easily within the cultivated palaces of the time and sometimes became trusted confidantes of their most important clients. Most of these artisans, though, spent their days in less rarefied surroundings.

Suppliers and Craftspeople.

Besides tailors, a complex web of craftspeople also served the clothing industry in all cities. Milliners, cobblers, hosiers, purse makers, furriers, and goldsmiths were just a few of the many categories of artisans who produced clothing and accessories. The labor market was highly stratified, with the makers of slippers falling under different regulations than those who produced shoes or clogs. The guilds carefully monitored the activities of each, ensuring that one group did not stray into another's territory. In addition, the guilds supervised with minute detail just exactly how much each kind of artisan might charge for its work, and they defined the kinds of materials each was to use in production. Beret makers, for instance, were distinguished from those who made hats out of wool or silk, while those who made clasps and buckles were further separated from those who produced buttons. While a tailor might be responsible for the final sewing of a garment, he sewed the final gown or doublet only after extensive work had been done on the materials by embroiderers, furriers, or goldsmiths. Beyond work performed by guildsmen, a variety of other clothiers worked outside these structures, producing lace, veils, scarves, and other items that were part of a complete dressing ensemble. Many of those producers who worked outside the guilds were independent vendors who crowded into a city's back alleys or sold their wares by going door to door. They were usually female, with reputations for being aggressive salespeople. At Florence, these women vendors were notorious for their brash manners and for encouraging the women to whom they sold to buy more than they needed.

Sewing at Home.

More sewing was done at home—even in the houses of the very wealthiest families—than in modern times. Some seamstresses did not sew but merely cut material for clothes that could then be sewn by women in the home, thus keeping the costs of daily dress down. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the popularity of underwear was on the rise, and the records and letters of great families show that it was the mistress of the household's job to see that her husband, children, and servants had the proper undergarments. To do so, even many of the wealthiest women usually visited a linen retailer to purchase a bolt of the cloth before she and her daughters set to sewing the chemises, undergarments, and nightcaps for the household. Even high-ranking women acquired skill with the needle and thread, and great families with a daughter in a convent frequently sent her sewing projects to fill the day. Although nuns only wore plain habits, many of them spent their time sewing for others. Lace- and purse making as well as embroidery were crafts that were frequently practiced in the Renaissance convent.


As in modern times, Renaissance urban life required different kinds of clothes, depending on the occasion. The men who governed Florence, Venice, and other cities dressed in a dignified, yet magnificent style when in public or conducting affairs of state. Advice books written by humanists counseled men to have their clothes made of the finest fabrics and grand materials in order to prolong their wear and to reflect favorably on their family and city. They cautioned women, on the other hand, to be restrained in choosing clothes to wear at home, although the wives of great men dressed in grand splendor when accompanying their husbands at public occasions. There were many such events annually in Florence and other important Renaissance cities. Florence, for example, celebrated at least twenty important feast days each year, in addition to weddings and those affairs demanded by public offices. In this last category, royal visits, the arrival of ambassadors, and state banquets called for those who held urban office and their wives to don their finest clothes. In Italy, most great families kept a logbook that recorded their major purchases, and these included entries for cloth and dress accessories as well as notes about when a tailor had been hired to complete an outfit. These records show that the greatest merchant families of the Renaissance paid endless amounts of attention to their dress throughout the year as the cycle of public festivities and state occasions demanded a steady influx of new garments for public life.



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Generally, the enormous costs of the wealthy's garments resulted from the high price of materials. The clothes of kings, nobles, and merchant princes consumed an inordinate amount of costly silks, velvets, and woolens, and they were generally bulkier than those worn by society's lower orders. Servants and slaves wore clothes that were shorter and made over patterns that consumed relatively little material. By contrast, the huge, bulky folds of men's robes and women's skirts represented wealth and often slowed the steps of the wealthy to a crawl, lending dignity to the important person's gait. Stories abounded of women who appeared to be weighted down under the dresses they wore on important occasions, and in at least one case a young Renaissance bride had to be carried to her wedding because her dress was too heavy to walk in. The expenditures of Renaissance patricians and merchants differed widely across the spectrum of the upper classes. Prosperous, but not enormously wealthy merchant families spent more each year on clothing than the annual salaries of many venerable professions, including accountants, university professors, and tax collectors. Above this, the inventories conducted at death from some of the wealthiest members of the Renaissance urban elite show that as much as one-third to forty percent of a family's wealth might be invested in clothing. Yet nowhere in the cities were expenditures comparable to the enormous amounts spent on clothing in Renaissance courts. The records of these courts indicate an enormous increase in clothing costs during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1502, Pope Alexander VI married his illegitimate daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, to Alfonso I, duke of Ferrara. She came to Ferrara with a total of more than 80 gowns, 200 day dresses, 22 headdresses, 20 robes and cloaks, 50 pairs of shoes, and more than 30 pairs of slippers. One of her dresses alone was worth the princely sum of 15,000 ducats. Her jewelry collection included almost 2,000 pearls and 300 gemstones, and in addition, she packed in her trunks another 2,500 yards of precious satins, silks, gold cloth, and velvet to be made into dresses at a later date. To transport her luggage from Rome to Ferrara her father the pope had to have a number of wagons specially constructed, and more than 150 mules were necessary to pull this caravan. Lucrezia Borgia was certainly an extraordinary case, yet as the Medici family in Florence rose to become dukes in the sixteenth century, they, too, emulated such expenditures. Duke Lorenzo de Medici's personal clothing expenses for the year 1515 alone totaled more than 5,100 florins, a truly unbelievable sum when one considers that many respectable professions had incomes of less than 100 florins annually.


Renaissance families lavished the greatest care on the creation of gowns for a bride's wedding and the garments that were part of her trousseau. Two ceremonies—one of betrothal, the other of the formal wedding—marked the couple's entrance into married life. The betrothal usually took place some months or years before the actual wedding. At this ceremony, the couple exchanged the words of consent ("I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife") that established marriage. The church's teachings dictated, however, that unions be sexually consummated before they were legally binding, and consummation occurred at a distinctly later date, that is, after the formal exchange of marriage vows at the wedding. During the intervening period, both the bride and groom's family completed the financial exchanges necessary for the marriage to occur. In this period, a great deal of effort went into the creation of the bride's gown for the wedding feast as well as the items that made up her trousseau. During these months the groom also prepared for the coming celebrations by seeing to the creation of the bride's "counter-trousseau," that is, the gifts of clothing, jewelry, and items that he was to offer his bride at the time of the wedding. Of all the preparations, families of brides showered the greatest attention on the actual creation of the wedding gown itself. Sisters, mothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles all weighed in with their opinions about the dress, but in most cases the father of the bride took the active role in determining what kind of dress his daughter wore and in choosing its fabric and decorations. While no Renaissance merchant's daughter ever approached the level of luxury accorded a royal princess, the costs of these gowns was nevertheless enormous, with prosperous, but not wealthy merchants sometimes spending several hundred florins on the gown itself. Pearls and other gems frequently decorated these dresses that grew more complex and magnificent the further up the social ladder one went.


While preachers and civic officials castigated women throughout the Renaissance for their costly wardrobes, the evidence suggests that men lavished just as much attention on their clothes as women did. The life of a public figure in the Renaissance required careful dressing to project the right image. The preparation of outfits worn at civic events consumed a family's time and money. In fifteenth century Florence, great families might spend as much as forty percent of their wealth on clothing. These upper-class styles favored bulk and ostentatious display, and a complex web of suppliers served this clientele. Tailors and seamstresses represented just one segment of those involved in the clothing industry, as many small suppliers churned out the accessories, trims, buttons, and other items needed for dress. Guilds mostly controlled workers in these professions, but small independent suppliers sometimes carved out niches in the trade in certain accessories, much to the guilds' chagrin. Tailors themselves were among the middle ranks of a town's artisans, less prosperous than goldsmiths and other master craftsmen. While their status was lower than those in the great trades, the fondness of Renaissance men and women for clothing helped to boost their position within the urban hierarchy. The greatest of these figures, those who clothed great merchant princes like the Medici and Strozzi families at Florence, mingled with elites and sometimes became trusted figures within great Renaissance households.


C. Frick, Dressing Renaissance Florence (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins, 2002).

L. Molà, The Silk Industry in Renaissance Florence (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins, 2000).

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Fashion as an Industry

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Fashion as an Industry