The Regulation of Clothing

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The Regulation of Clothing


The Commercial Revolution that began in Europe around 1000 c.e. rested on a firm foundation of cloth and clothing production. As Europe's cities increased in population during the High Middle Ages, fabric weaving became a lucrative business, and by the early Renaissance Italy was Europe's preeminent center of cloth production, exporting fine silks and woolens throughout the continent. The production of cloth—an item for which there was universal need—was the foundation upon which great Renaissance economies relied, and the spinning of fabric produced much of the enormous wealth that allowed the era's elites to indulge their tastes for art, fine buildings, and sumptuous fashions. The guilds that controlled the milling of wool and the weaving of textiles were usually the most important commercial organizations in Europe's cities, and they often dominated local politics. In Florence, perhaps as many as a third of the city's population worked in the woolen industry, and Florentine cloth had a reputation throughout Europe for its fine quality. Spun from English wool, it had captured a place as a luxury commodity of the highest distinction. In the course of the Renaissance the wealth that Florence's looms produced funded many of the city's building projects, including the construction of the city's cathedral. In the 150 years it took to complete the massive edifice, the town's Arte della Lana, or Wool Guild, controlled the building's construction, even as it dominated the city's economy and government.

Labor Problems.

The medieval and Renaissance guilds have often been compared to modern trade unions, but in one crucial respect they were vastly different. The goal of modern unions is to better the living standards and wages of workers, while in pre-modern Europe, great masters dominated the guilds and acted to keep costs low. As a result, many guilds were far from harmonious organizations, as journeymen and small producers resented the actions of the great masters who controlled the guilds' structures. At Florence, for example, the master weavers responsible for the final stages of production of the town's luxurious woolens sat at the apex of a vast pyramid of woolen workers. Their high-handed tactics frequently angered those who performed simpler, less skilled tasks associated with cloth production. Tensions erupted in the Arte della Lana, sometimes threatening the city's social fabric. In 1378, for instance, the Ciompi, or the wool carders, revolted against the control over production held by the weaving masters and retailers. The carders did not possess a vote within the guild so they demanded their own guild to represent them against the wealthier weavers and exporters of fabric. Eventually, many of the city's less-skilled workers or "little people" (popolo minuti) joined the carders in their demands and succeeded in briefly seizing control of the town's government. Although eventually suppressed, the Revolt of the Ciompi left a legacy of bitter faction and enmity in Florence's government and cloth industry that persisted in the early fifteenth century.


introduction: Like many large European cities in the later fourteenth century, Florence experienced major conflicts in its guilds. After the population decline caused by the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of the plague, labor grew comparatively more expensive in the towns, although the demands for better wages and working conditions sometimes fell on deaf ears in the guilds, many of which were controlled by the wealthiest masters. In his History of Florence, the famous sixteenth-century humanist Niccolò Machiavelli recounted the history of Florence's bitter revolt of the Ciompi, or wool carders, in 1378. As this relatively powerless group within the wool guild clamored for a greater voice in their guild and in urban government, they were joined by many of the minor artisans of the city. Machiavelli was not unsympathetic to the workers' plight and the interesting observations that he places in the mouth of one of the rebels show us the fundamental role that dress played in the mentality of the Renaissance.

When the companies of the arts were first organized, many of those trades, followed by the lowest of the people and the plebeians, were not incorporated, but were ranged under those arts most nearly allied to them; and, hence, when they were not properly remunerated for their labor, or their masters oppressed them, they had no one of whom to seek redress, except the magistrate of the art to which theirs was subject; and of him they did not think justice always attainable. Of the arts, that which always had, and now has, the greatest number of these subordinates is the woolen; which being both then, and still, the most powerful body, and first in authority, supports the greater part of the plebeians and lowest of the people.

The lower classes, then, the subordinates not only of the woolen, but also of the other arts, were discontented from the causes just mentioned; and their apprehension of punishment for the burnings and robberies they had committed, did not tend to compose them. Meetings took place in different parts during night, to talk over the past, and to communicate the danger in which they were, when one of the most daring and experienced, in order to animate the rest, spoke thus:

If the question now were, whether we should take up arms, rob and burn the houses of the citizens, and plunder churches, I am one of those who would think it worthy of further consideration, and should, perhaps prefer poverty and safety to the dangerous pursuit of an uncertain good. But as we have already armed, and many offenses have been committed, it appears to me that we have to consider how to lay them aside, and secure ourselves from the consequences of what is already done … We must, therefore, I think, in order to be pardoned for our old faults, commit new ones; redoubling the mischief, and multiplying fires and robberies; and in doing this, endeavor to have as many companions as we can; for when many are in fault, few are punished; small crimes are chastised, but great and serious ones rewarded … Be not deceived about that antiquity of blood by which they exalt themselves above us; for all men having had one common origin are all equally ancient, and nature has made us all after one fashion. Strip us naked, and we shall all be found alike. Dress us in their clothing, and they in ours, we shall appear noble, they ignoble—for poverty and riches make all the difference.

source: Niccolò Machiavelli, History of Florence. (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901): 128–129.

Luxury Goods.

Florence was not alone in its guild tensions, as a demographic crisis had long aggravated problems within Europe's cities. By 1300, three centuries of unparalleled population growth had outstripped the towns' ability to provide employment for the thousands of new immigrants who flooded into them each year. This population boom depressed wages and made widespread poverty a fact of life in Renaissance towns. While the numbers of the poor varied widely from place to place, as many as one-third of a town's population might be impoverished. They survived on occasional day labor, begging, and thievery. The problem of overpopulation encountered a devastating solution between 1347 and 1350 when the bubonic plague decreased the population of many of Europe's cities by as much as one-half. Repeated outbreaks of the disease throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries effectively prevented population numbers from replenishing. The dramatic falloff in population in the towns initially deflated the demand for the goods produced in cities, but as equilibrium returned to the urban scene the population decline bred inflation. While the Black Death and subsequent plagues often destroyed entire families, those wealthy producers who survived faced relatively less competition than before the epidemic. As a result, the concentration of wealth allowed the great families who had long dominated town governments and the urban economy to achieve even greater dominance. While this dominance fueled urban revolts like the Ciompi, it also inspired a new taste for luxury consumption. In Italy, especially, the cities' great families embraced fashion as a way to demonstrate their status and standing within urban society.

Fashion: A Feminine Problem.

By 1400 the rise of an opulent world of fashion in the Renaissance city was indisputable. This trend did not go unnoticed at the time, and criticisms of the love of luxury were common. In contrast to earlier medieval commentators who had frequently attacked men for their role in sustaining the taste for rich display, the moralists and civic fathers of the Renaissance more often blamed women for the insatiable appetite for sumptuous clothing. In truth, men were just as often guilty of sartorial excess as women, but the notion that fashion was a "women's disease" was common and had its origins in certain customs and legal practices of Renaissance society. The patrilineal system of inheritance (in which property passed through the father's line of descendants) made women legal outsiders in the families they joined when they married. While a married woman might produce heirs for her husband's family, Renaissance law gave her no claim to his wealth upon his death, and even the children she bore her husband belonged, not to her own but to her husband's lineage. A woman, then, effectively borrowed her status from her husband, and the high mortality rate of the time meant that the identification with her husband's lineage might be only a temporary one. Widowhood and remarriage thus threatened the stability of the family, as widows might take a new husband and leave their children to be raised by their deceased spouse's family. Thus many Renaissance men made bequests in their wills to their wives, stipulating incomes and property they might enjoy if they stayed within their adopted families and continued to raise their children. As these practices became ever more fixed in the society of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the symbolic role of a wife's clothing and jewelry increased dramatically. Her dress became, in other words, a potent symbol of her husband's power over her and of her ties to his lineage. From queens to the ranks of humbler women who entered marriages, women adopted the styles of dress favored by their husbands' families. Those who used their dress, by contrast, to express an individual identity or to satisfy a mere desire for fashionable display could be attacked for defying their husband's authority.

Trousseaux and Dowries.

In the mid-fourteenth century the humanist Giovanni Boccaccio concluded his famous collection of tales The Decameron with the story of Griselda, a woman who suffered trials in her marriage similar to those of the Old Testament figure Job. Boccaccio celebrated Griselda's patient suffering as the highest expression of Christian womanhood, and his story shows the vital role that clothing played in Renaissance marriage and family life. Born of peasant stock, the virtuous Griselda rose to become the wife of a king. At the couple's marriage, her husband richly adorned her with fine jewels and costly garments, only to take these away from her soon after the wedding guests had departed. In the years that followed, Griselda bore her husband children, but he turned her out of the house to live in poverty. Despite these and other trials, she preserved her honor, lived in acute need, and refused to take a lover to support herself. Her constancy convinced her royal husband of her virtue, and he eventually restored her to an honored position in the family, clothing her again in rich finery. The exchanges that Boccaccio detailed in Griselda's story were very much a part of Renaissance family life. While no peasant ever rose to become the wife of a king, marriage was, in fact, preceded by a highly complex system of gift exchanges in which clothing and jewelry figured prominently, underscoring a bride's entrance into a new family and her willingness to live, like Griselda, under the control of her husband. At marriage, for example, a woman received her dowry from her own family as her share of her father's wealth. These sums, often consisting of cash payments, property, and household items, transferred to her husband to offset the expenses of the new couple's household. In addition, none but the poorest of families ever sent their daughters off to begin marriage without an opulent trousseau (a set of sumptuous clothes and gifts intended to help the young woman establish her household) that expressed their ability to provide her with a suitable entrance into married life. To match the finery that her own family provided, the groom and his family also presented the future bride with many gifts of clothing, jewels, and luxurious household items that matched and even surpassed those provided by her birth family. These exchanges—of rings, gowns, silver, and gold—thus played a symbolic role in underscoring that a woman was leaving her own lineage, and taking up a new position within her husband's family. At the same time, family honor hung in the balance of gift-giving, and the exchange of rich goods often became a competition that demarcated each family's standing in the urban hierarchy. Among the wealthiest families of Italian cities, specially constructed and elaborate caskets known as cassoni carried these items on ceremonial processions that wended through a town's streets in the days and weeks before a marriage occurred. Thus the exchanges of clothing, jewelry, and household items that occurred in the critical days before a wedding played a vital role in publicizing a family's wealth and status in cities, and the size of a woman's dowry, her trousseau, and her husband's gifts became a matter for local commentary and record.



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Such displays of family status were costly and could threaten the financial well being of all but the wealthiest families. Amassing a daughter's trousseau was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the husband's counter-gifts of clothing and finery represented a similar effort. By the 1400s, husbands often offset the exorbitant cost associated with celebrating a marriage by renting the elaborate wedding costumes with which they clothed their brides from other families who had recently undergone the same event. Those who actually purchased the gowns might, after the wedding, cut off the gold, silver, pearls, and precious gems affixed to the fabric, or even sell the dresses to other prospective grooms. Only the wealthiest families or the most generous husbands allowed their wives to keep the finery that they provided for the wedding indefinitely, particularly since sumptuary regulations mandated that women put away these lavish clothes several years after marriage and adopt a reserved and matronly style of dress. Such practices made these wedding customs affordable to a broader range of the populace, but the cost of celebrating a couple's wedding was still considerable. By the early fifteenth century even bourgeois women came to their new homes laden with many changes of clothes, numerous slippers and shoes, a wide selection of hats and jewels, and a variety of purses and accessories. By the fifteenth century a prospective husband might invest as much as one-third of the money he received from a woman's dowry in wedding gifts of clothing and jewelry, a development that caused, in turn, the price of dowries to rise and inspired some cities like Florence to introduce municipal bonds that allowed the parents of daughters to invest in a publicly funded bond market to amass the sums needed to see their daughters installed in marriage. Out of fear that this rising tide of consumption would make marriage too expensive for all but the wealthiest Italians, many towns tried to limit the values of the gifts that a groom's family could shower upon a bride, even as they tried to pare down the size of a


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woman's dowry and the number of items that might be included in her trousseau. Despite laws passed to outlaw these excesses, the costs of trousseaux and marriage gifts continued to rise. Women's elaborate consumption of clothing, town authorities feared, discouraged many men from marrying. In Florence and other towns, they introduced new taxes that discriminated against men who had failed to wed by a certain age in an effort to prod them into marriage. At the same time fears of male homosexuality grew in some cities as civic officials suspected that a perceived increase in sodomy resulted from male anxieties about the enormous costs of marriage. And finally, fears of population decline emerged as a result of the debate over women's fashions. In 1512, for example, the Republic of Venice faced the threat of an attack from the powerful forces of the League of Cambrai. That year in the midst of these troubles the Venetian Senate spent a month debating the cut of women's clothes and the finery that was permissible on their dresses in order to limit the costs of female fashions. Like civic officials elsewhere, Venice's town fathers perceived women's opulent dress as a barrier to marriage. Their line of reasoning ultimately linked the city's costly fashions with the military crisis, since they credited women's excesses with lengthening the age at which men might marry and thus with depressing the birth rate and ultimately limiting the number of men who might be recruited to serve in the city's army and navy.

Moral Attitudes.

Prospective husbands and town authorities detested fashion as a costly excess that threatened family and the home front. The attitudes of the friars—members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders within the church—were even more uncompromising, and arose from long-standing interpretations of Christian teaching. In the fifteenth century a distinguished lineage of Franciscan and Dominican preachers, including St. Bernard of Siena and St. John Capistrano, toured Italy denouncing women's fashions, gaming, prostitution, and Jewish money lending as vain practices that encouraged sexual depravity. In Italian cities the preaching of these figures concluded with huge "bonfires of the vanities" into which men threw their cards, dice, and gaming boards, and women tossed their ruffles and frills. In the wake of these rituals of purification Italy's towns redoubled their efforts to confine the activities of the Jews, often insisting that Jewish men and women wear some distinguishing sign on their clothing to make their identity plain for all to see. They linked Jewish money lending with luxury consumption, and banished prostitutes from cities in the days and weeks that followed the friars' preaching missions. In all cases, the prostitutes returned within a few months, but they faced closer scrutiny and limited activity for a time after the friars' missions. The relationship between Jewish money lending, prostitution, and women's finery was close in the friars' perceptions. As they explained in their sermons, women's seemingly insatiable appetite for fashion encouraged single men to spurn marriage for sodomy or sexual relations with a prostitute, even as it forced the married man to Jewish money lenders to support his wife's consuming habits. One of the most vicious and extreme outbreaks of these sentiments occurred in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century, as the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola attracted a following in the city and tried to establish a "Godly" republic. In daily sermons he preached from December 1494 until his downfall and execution in 1498, Savonarola encouraged Florentines to establish a "New Jerusalem" free from the vices of avarice and ostentation. Frequent religious processions and "bonfires of the vanities" popularized the rise of a new holy republic, as many Florentines tried to rid themselves of every hint of immodesty, including their rich finery and games. At the same time, Savonarola's puritanism remained unpopular with the aristocratic and wealthy element in Florence, who taunted him at his public sermons. Thus while the Dominican developed a significant following in the city, members of the government were not always as enthusiastic about adopting his policies as the law of the town. Excommunicated for his anti-papal views, Savonarola was eventually arrested in Florence, tried, and burnt at the stake for heresy. Although his plans for a "Godly Republic" failed, his extreme puritanical views about the relationship between clothing and morality survived, and religious figures as different as the English Puritans and the Catholic Counter Reformers expressed similar views in the sixteenth century.


introduction: Attacks on clothing styles as a symptom of pride stretched back to the Middle Ages. Even in the late sixteenth century, the Puritan minister Philip Stubbes continued to denigrate fashion in ways similar to many medieval preachers. His Anatomy of Abuses, published in London in 1583, recounted a dialogue between a philosopher and a student concerning the evils of pride, in which the philosopher identified pride as a threefold sin that included pride of the heart, of the mouth, and of apparel. Stubbes claimed that pride of apparel was the worst of the vainglorious sins. His claim that his own country England was most given to "newfangledness" and innovation in style might have been vigorously disputed by the many critics of fashion who wrote at the time in all European countries. Each critic seemed always to be convinced that their own nation was most affected by the disease of fashion.

S[tudent]: How is Pride of Apparel committed?

P[hilosopher]: By wearing of Apparel more gorgeous, sumptuous, and precious than our state, calling, or condition of life requires, whereby, we are puffed up into Pride, and forced to think of ourselves more than we ought, being but vile earth and miserable sinners. And this sin of apparel (as I have said before) hurts more than the other two [sins of pride], for the sin of the heart, hurts none but the Author in whom it breeds, so long as it hurts not forth into the exterior action: And the Pride of the Mouth, which consists, as I have said, in offending and bragging of some singular virtue, either in oneself or in his kindred, and which he arrogates to himself (as it were by hereditary possession, or lineal descent from his progenitors) though it be mere ungodly in its own nature, yet it is not permanent. … But this sin of excess in Apparel remains as an example of evil before our eyes, and it is provocative to sin, as experience daily proves.

S: Would you not have men to observe a decency, a comeliness, and a decorum in their visual Attire? Does not the word of God command all things to be done … decently and after a civil manner?

P: Yes truly, I would wish that a decency, a comely order, as you say, a decorum were observed, as well in attire, as in all things else. But would God the contrary were not true. For do not most of our novel inventions and newfangled fashions, rather deform us, than adorn us, disguise us, than become us? Making us rather to resemble savage beasts … [rather] than continent, sober and chaste Christians?

S: Hath this contagious infection of Pride in apparel infected and poisoned any other countries besides Ailgna [England], suppose you?

P: No doubt but this poison of Pride hath shed forth his influence, and poured forth his stinking dregs over all the face of the earth, but yet I am sure, there is not any people under the Zodiac of heaven … so poisoned with this … Pride … as Ailgna (England). …

S: But I have heard them say that other nations … [wear] exquisite finery in Apparel, the Italians, the Athenians, the Spaniards, the Chaldeans, Helvetians, Zuitzers, Venetians, Muscovites, and such like. …

P: This is but a … cloak to cover their own shame … The Egyptians are said never to have changed their fashion, or altered the form of their attire from the beginning to this date … The Greeks are said to use but one kind of Apparel without any change, that is to wit, a long gown, reaching down to the ground. The Germans are thought to be so precise in observing one uniform fashion in apparel as they have never receded from their first original … The Muscovites, Athenians, Italians, Brasilians, Africans, Asians, Cantabrians, Hungarians, Ethiopians … are so far behind the people of Ailgna (England), in exquisiteness of Apparel that they esteem it little or not at all.

source: Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses. (London, 1583): fol. cir–ciir. Text modernized by Phil Soergel.

Sumptuary Legislation.

While moral and social reasons prompted Renaissance Italians to regulate dress, sumptuary laws—laws aimed to curtail extravagance in dress—were a common feature of life everywhere in Renaissance Europe. While maintaining a common base in Christian morality, these laws varied from region to region. In France and England, Renaissance sumptuary laws served to reinforce social distinctions and status, with certain items being reserved for the exclusive use of the nobility. In England, a series of Tudor sumptuary laws detailed the kinds of fur, fringes, and cloth that were appropriate for each class. While such regulations eventually spread to Mediterranean Europe, the far greater inspiration for Italian sumptuary regulation lay in the climate of intense competition that existed within the peninsula's cities. Towns feared that the rivalries in gift-giving and lavish clothes surrounding marriage squandered resources and discouraged men to marry. In Germany, cities and territories also had a long tradition of sumptuary legislation, and they relied on various codes of dress to make obvious distinctions between different categories and classes of people. In particular, Germany's urban sumptuary laws upheld differences in the patterns of dress among guild masters, journeymen, and apprentices. While in most places sumptuary violations merely


introduction: Cities and kingdoms throughout Europe passed frequent sumptuary laws between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries to restrict the consumption of fashionable clothing. England's sumptuary laws were typical of Northern European states in that they set out categories of clothes that could be worn by different classes of people. Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) did so by setting out a model of what clothes were permissible to be worn by the categories of people who comprised her own household and then enjoining her subjects to hold to the same rules in the country. This excerpt from a 1577 proclamation of one such law explains patiently that previous laws have had little effect on curbing waste in clothing. Elizabeth, in fact, republished these laws at least five times in her reign, and each subsequent proclamation noted that her subjects were not heeding the restrictions. The higher members of her court, though, enthusiastically consumed the articles that were permitted to them, and Elizabeth herself cut a daring sartorial figure as she matured in her office.

Whereas the Queen's Majesty has by sundry former Proclamations notified unto her loving Subjects of this Realm, the great inconvenience and mischief that hath grown to the same by the great excess of apparel in all states and degrees, but specially in the inferior sort, contrary to divers laws and statutes of the Realm, whereof notwithstanding there hath followed no redress or very little at all; whereby hath appeared no less contempt in the offenders, than lack of dutiful care in those to whom the authority to see due execution of the laws and orders provided in that behalf was committed, which thing might give her Majesty just cause (were it not that of her own gracious disposition she is naturally inclined rather to clemency than severity, so long as there is any hope of redress otherwise) to commit the execution of the said laws, to such persons as would have proceeded therein with all extremity. Notwithstanding her Majesty meaning to make some further trial, before we have recourse to extreme remedies, and finding upon conference had with the Lords and others of her privy counsel, for the redress of so grievous and pernicious a sore in this commonwealth, the chief remedies for the same, to be example, and correction. Her Majesty therefore for the first, which is example, thinks it very meet and expedient that the due execution in her Majesty's most honorable house, of such orders and articles as are annexed to this Proclamation, should serve for a pattern throughout the whole Realm, and therefore her Majesty hath already given, and by these presents doth give special charge to all those that bear office within the said house, to see due observation of the same, which she trusts will be duly observed. And further her Majesty doth generally charge all Noblemen, of what estate or degree so ever they be, and all and every person of her privy counsel, all archbishops, and bishops, and the rest of the clergy, and all other persons, according to their degrees that they do respectively see the same speedily and duly executed in their private households and families. And likewise does [she] charge all mayors and other head offices of cities and towns corporate, the chancellors of both the universities, governors of colleges, readers, ancients and benchers in every Inns of Court and Chancery, and generally all that have any superiority or government over and upon any society or fellowship, and each man in his own household for their children and servants, that the likewise do cause the said orders to be straightly kept by all lawful means that they can.

source: Elizabeth I of England, Proclamation entitled By the Queene: Whereas the Queen's Maiesty hath by sundry former proclamations notified unto her loving subjects of this realm, the great inconvenience and mischief that hath grown to the same, by the great excess of apparel in all states and degrees. (London: Richard Jugge, 1577). Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

resulted in fines, from time to time offenders received more extreme punishments. In 1541, for example, the Protestant reformer John Calvin gained control over the church in the city of Geneva in Switzerland. Among the many moral reforms that Calvin instituted were a stricter prosecution of those who violated the traditional prohibitions against luxury, ostentation, and display. He also tried to curb immodesty by bans on the display of women's busts. During the almost quarter century that Calvin dominated the city, sumptuary violations resulted in more than 800 arrests and as many as 58 death sentences. The rigor of Geneva's sumptuary laws was extreme, however. Most Protestants and Catholics differed little in their attitudes toward sumptuary laws, favoring fines rather than death sentences for violations.


D. O. Hughes, "Earrings for Circumcision: Distinction and Purification in the Italian Renaissance City," in Persons in Groups. Ed. R. C. Trexler (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985).

—, "Regulating Women's Fashion," in Vol. II of A History of Women in the West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1992): 139–168.

—, "Sumptuary Laws and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy," in Disputes and Settlements. Ed. J. Bossy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 69–99.

A. Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions; A History of Sumptuary Regulation (New York: Macmillan, 1996).

Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

D. Nicholas, The Later Medieval City, 1300–1500 (London, England: Longman, 1997).

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The Regulation of Clothing

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