- Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe by Ulinka Rublack
Costume historian James Laver once wrote, “Clothes are never a frivolity: they always mean something,” since they are “nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible.” Thankfully, the broader historical community has begun to arrive at the same conclusion, as demonstrated over the last decade by several studies of historical material cultures increasingly dedicated to understanding what objects like clothing mean.
What distinguishes Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe is its sumptuously illustrated, highly perceptive analysis of early-modern clothing not as passive, inanimate objects (largely given meaning—as Laver believed, for example—by our unconscious minds) but rather as active instruments in constituting deliberate visual acts. While most of the primary sources on which Dressing Up focuses (costume books, travelogues, sermons, letters, woodblock prints and the like) are already well-known, Ulinka Rublack successfully enhances preexisting scholarship by innovatively examining these materials for what they may yet reveal regarding individuals’ emotional relationships with the things they wore. What is more, the implications from her subsequent conclusions [End Page 809] regarding the ways in which persons “materialized” their personal identities extend far beyond the sphere of costume history and provide a much welcome “re-dressing” of broader biases rampant in early-modern social and cultural historiography regarding supposedly inward-looking Germans, monochrome Protestants, a drab and uniform peasantry, or men as ignorant of contemporary clothing trends as women of the commerce and crafts which helped produce them.
When ever-greater varieties of goods became available to the Renaissance market, Rublack argues that individuals responded to them sensorially and emotionally not unlike the ways in which they were engaging with the increasingly available printed image. Sensitive to the potential that objects had to communicate messages and meaning, both men and women increasingly viewed the body itself as capable of articulating a person’s identity, not necessarily by disguising it, but rather by elaborating and enhancing it through clothing. Fashion, far from being an entirely modern phenomenon, was—as Rublack explains –born from this very impulse to navigate the seemingly infinite variety of Renaissance consumer products by seeking personal meaning through combinations of its myriad interchangeable bits and pieces (not to mention, their various materials, colors, and cuts) into coherent personalized visual acts.
These visual acts could not only differentiate individuals, but could also unify them by reflecting adherence to what the author calls “taste communities,” groups united by their common values and/or shared aesthetics. Thus, certain clothing styles, disseminated through interpersonal contact and visual media or else recommended through sermons, pamphlets and sumptuary legislation, could suggest not only one’s aspirations for upward social mobility, but also—by appealing to a given “taste community”—one’s moral character, religious affiliation, national pride, “stylistic civility,” and/or masculinity or femininity. Even the humble peasantry could partake in developing their individual sartorial selves, the book asserts, with the advent of a variety of low-end products made available through newly affordable dyes and a booming used garment trade. (While a fixed meaning or identity would surely be difficult to nail down, according to Rublack constructing an identity through an ongoing dialogue with fashion and the body was not necessarily considered at the time to be a fully controllable “self-fashioning” process.) Last but not least, this ongoing dialogue with the body and clothing was mediated by (and in turn objectified) relations among family and between patrons and clients. Through these relationships, clothes were gifted new or handed-down used. Teenagers negotiated with parents for the latest styles, and parents could try to use promises of new clothes to elicit filial good behavior (after which the garment would then operate as the very incarnation of this social control). Travelling husbands might splurge on fabric in the latest fashionable color in order to make an impression among associates, while their wives, managing the family cloth business back home, might have to figure out how to pay for it. In this manner, familial, economic and emotional...