Social history of early modern costume

This was probably my favourite request. (I’ll work through some more in coming weeks.) I’m cheating really: many of the links here have been cribbed from this page at EMR (this is how much I like this topic: I did it already. And I’m doing it again, when I should be working on my conference paper. But it’s Sunday afternoon, so I don’t care). So you could just go straight there… But if you stay with me, there are some different things here too. Promise.

In fact, there are a lot of websites about historical clothing out there: a good starting point is The Costumers’ Manifesto. But it should be noted that much of this online material (like The Costumers’ Ring, too) is directed primarily at costumers and re-enactors. Historical analysis or contextualisation can be quite rudimentary, so be prepared to sift. You could try these for a diverse sample: The Salacious Historian’s Lair; Madame Bonancieux’s Cavalier Page; the Elizabethan Costuming Page; La Couturiere Parisienne; Dutch Women’s Clothing 1500-1530. Or take a look at the Regency Fashion Page.

The web is a great source for ‘prescriptive’ primary source materials. You want to know what the famous Elizabethan moralist Philip Stubbes (The anatomie of abuses) thought about fashion? It’s all here. Or there’s William Harrison, William Perkins, James Durham, Thomas Manton, Hannah Woolley and John Wesley.

Clothing is always gendered, and also revealing are reactions to cross-dressing, on which there is something approaching an online mini-industry of electronic texts and student projects (and more advanced dissertations): so much so that this time I really will simply direct you back to my existing list, or I’ll be here forever.

Sumptuary legislation tends to get some attention too (although it was pretty much a dead letter in Britain by the seventeenth century, as far as I know), and it did generate source material for historians to use. So you can find out about the social status of clothing in early modern Venice, about the relationship between Elizabethan clothing regulations and the theatre, and get a broader overview of the history of sumptuary laws. Not to mention finding examples of these attempts to control the uncontrollable (as late as 1651 in Massachusetts).

But wait a minute, I can hear you complaining, isn’t this all about people telling other people what not to wear? What did they actually wear? What kind of fabrics and styles? And what about the bigger questions? How did, say, men’s fashions evolve over the early modern period, and what might this have to say about wider social and cultural changes? What sort of impacts did new ‘exotic’ fabrics such as cotton have; how important were textiles and fashion in encounters between east and west? But it wasn’t just the exotic: staples such as wool were becoming ‘globalised’ too. And then there were dyes such as indigo or cochineal.

Someone had to make the cloth (and clothing was increasingly being made outside the home too), so don’t forget that side of the economic history: for just a few examples, you could look at leather (or word file, if that link doesn’t work) ; women’s work (or word file); and the role of textiles in the Industrial Revolution.

Or, you might ask, shifting back towards cultural histories again, what role did clothing play in constructing identities? And what about the question of clothing, cleanliness and health?

One obvious primary source is pictures, and this doesn’t mean only posed portraits of the rich and famous. The costumers’ sites usually have plenty of selections of images; or you can easily find them yourself at online image collections (especially, perhaps, seventeenth-century Dutch domestic paintings). However beautiful, surviving clothing, taken out of its original contexts, may not be that useful to a social historian, but dialogues with archaeologists may be illuminating: for example, the cultural traditions behind deliberately concealed garments and shoes, hidden in buildings.

What other sources are there? Some writers have explored literary texts. A current project is using probate, court and other archival sources to build an online database. Historians of crime have recently started a more serious discussion of the significance of clothing theft (especially for women), and there is huge potential in the use of crime-related sources to explore topics of clothing and the secondhand clothes trade. At the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, a keyword search for clothes returns over 6200 results. Now that should keep you going for a while.

Some further reading (or word file).

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6 Responses to Social history of early modern costume

  1. kristina says:

    Just out of curiousity (since periodization is an interest of mine), are sumptuary laws particular to the early modern period, or do they differ broadly from any medieval (late or otherwise) examples? Or is this an instance where the standard periodization means little?

  2. Chris Williams says:

    You utter star, Sharon. Remind me to buy you a pint sometime.

  3. Sharon says:

    Now that’s the kind of appreciation I like. :D

    Are you coming to the Oxford conference this week? I know Pete is going to be there. And Clive Emsley (he is at OU isn’t he?).

    Kristina, if the essays I linked to don’t offer any clues (I can’t remember if they do or not), I can’t help much with that question. It’s not really something I know very much about. I mean, I know this kind of legislation was around for a very long time, but it could nonetheless have varied considerably in the details. And it wasn’t always just about clothing, as I recall.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    Alas, I can’t make it to Oxford, owing to the small matter of a small baby to help look after. And had there been no baby, I’d have been in Sydney at the CISH conference. Oxford’s nice (though it has a tendency to do my head in) but Sydney’s nicer.

    Still, the OU will be represented by Clive, Pete, and our new Mystery Signing. Have a good time.

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  6. Sharon says:

    My first ever trackback in German, I think! (And I think it says nice things, but my German is utterly abysmal so I’m not sure.)

    I’ve noticed from Bloglines in the last day or two that this post has been picked up by Renaissance re-enactment/costume people – so hi folks! (But I should probably just note that this isn’t a costuming site…)

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