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The coming of fashion created a new world, in which a passion for novelty, combined with rapid changes in taste, interrupted a tradition of well-established habits in ways of dressing and the significance attributed to clothing, introducing to the social structure a new system of values, able to condition the behaviour of the actors. Fashion can be considered as a social institution which regulates the alternation of cyclical changes in dress styles, overcoming the previous regulation based on ascribed principles. Needless to say, it was not a sudden or quick transition, but rather a gradual, progressive but irreversible change. The question is then to ascertain the period in which this process of transformation was begun. The paper argues that it happened in the sixteenth century, when the traditional ‘hierarchy of appearances’ went into crisis for a number of reasons: the difficulty of enforcing the sumptuary laws, the pressure from social classes wanting to move upwards, the new opportunities afforded by the clothing market. The system based on a rigid normative code—the sumptuary laws—was replaced by a social institution, by rules no less strict—fashion—which did not cease to attribute significance of representation and identification to clothing, but carried out this role much more flexibly and, at the same time, more effectively.