How the Renaissance Shaped Fashion and Identity

Painting of Lucrezia di Medici

It is no news that our wardrobe reveals a lot about us to the outside world. What we wear can inform others of our type of employment, our ambitions, our emotions, our income and lifestyle. We dress up for work, and the more important our roles and responsibilities, the more we invest in clothes and sacrifice for beauty. Other occupations are equipped with tangible uniforms, where clothes place the wearer in a specific posture, allowing identification of ones role and rank for the rest of society: The doctors white robe, the Policemen’s uniform, the businessmen’s suit and tie or the prisoner’s orange jumpsuit.

Since the inception of fashion photography, magazines have been offering lifestyle, allowing consumers to assemble an identity through seasonal fashion and iconoclastic imagery. We follow trends and desire handbags we cannot afford- not because they are prettier or better – but for the lifestyle the Itbag represents to the outside world, or perhaps the illusion thereof. In fact, science has revealed that the clothes we choose are not just sending a message to those around us, but also to ourselves.‘Enclothed Cognition’ gives scientific proof that clothes influence our emotions: the way we dress can cause internal shifts- confirming the idea that clothes form a factor of stability and that we should not dress how we feel, but how we want to feel. When and why did clothes become such a powerful way of maintaining a sense of who we are, where want to be and how we classify others?

In 1570, Chinese scholar Chen Yao noted in dismay how ‘fashion’ in clothing emerged in his native region of Yangzhou, irrevocably changing the cultural and sartorial climate from a modest agricultural lifestyle, to a materialistic society. He wrote: “Now the young dandies in the village say that even Silk Gauze isn’t good enough and lust for Suzhou embroideries, Song-style brocades, cloudlike gauzes and camel serge, clothes high in price and quite beautiful. Long skirts and wide collars, broad belts and narrow pleats- they change without warning. It’s what they call “fashion”, to translate “Shiyang”, literally the look of the moment.” The term Fashion started circulating in different cultures and languages during the Renaissance. The Italians coined ‘Moda’, adapted from the Latin Modum, to describe fashionable dress and in the 16th century the French replaced the ancient French cointerie with ‘mode’. In England the term ‘fashion’ was taken from the Latin word for ‘making’ and appeared for the first time in 1542, in Andrew Boorde’s Book the Introduction of Knowledge. A physician to Henry VIII, Boorde travelled across Europe during the 1500’s and wrote about the customs and fashions of the countries he visited.

Fashion during the Renaissance (c.1300 to 1600) has to be understood as the act of making: people became aware that fashion could ‘make’ you a certain way. More importantly, fashion moved away from modest and necessity to luxury and politics, a matter of individual identity, social class and power. People’s lives grew complex with the birth of visual media and their interaction with material goods and concerns of self-image, driven by the desire to know how one appeared on to others intensified with the invention of the mirror. As a result, artists were commissioned to depict men and women in numerous ways from medals, portraits and woodcuts- and print allowed information about style and fashions to spread across the world, giving birth to the genre of ‘costume books’. Like today with ‘Selfies’ and marketing, images were sometimes manipulated in highly controlled visual displays designed to achieve a specific response, such as divine magnificence or the proclamation of power as a head of state on royal portraiture, as exhibited with Henry VIII and his successor Elizabeth 1 of England.

A Nuremberg law of 1657 bluntly stated: “It is unfortunately an established fact that both men and womenfolk have, in utterly irresponsible manner, driven extravagance in dress and new styles to such shameful and wanton extremes that the different classes are barely to be known apart.” As styles went in and out rapidly and as fashion grew in accessibility, legislators feared that mixing fashions from different cultures would make people completely unidentifiable in any national, economical, political or moral sense. There was a strong desire to classify and separate people in explicit categories through clothesSumptuary Laws, intended to distribute luxury by social rank and to prevent conspicuous consumption of the classes already existed, but proliferated rapidly during the renaissance. Another reason for stricter laws of dress, was to protect people against the massive rise of conspicuous consumption. Legislators feared that people could convince each other they were wealthy and powerful by dressing like it and going deep into debt to finance their excesses. An Elizabethan law decreed; “The wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts.” 

In Elizabethan England, gold, silver and pearl embroideries, crimson and scarlet velvet alike, were reserved for the highest of nobility: dukes, marquise and earls. Purple silk and sable fur was reserved for the Queen and the royal family, while commoners and apprentices would wear linen, wool or sheep’s leather. There were dress codes that singled out professions. In Rome, prostitutes wore red stockings. In England, they were required to wear their dresses inside out. Servants were not allowed to wear pointed shoes or puffed and slashed sleeves and respected professions had ‘special’ clothes or symbols for identification. Doctors for example, were given golden spurs to wear on their boots.

Sumptuary laws eventually disappeared in the 19th century, not able to withstand the creative spirit of mankind. A century ago French historian Etienne Giraudias, eulogised sumptuary laws for all times. “Everywhere, after a brief time, they have been abolished, evaded or ignored,” he wrote. “Vanity will always invent more ways of distinguishing itself than the laws are able to forbid.” The Renaissance is in many ways a mirror reflecting our times. It is when people started to talk about fashion and understood that it was far from a frivolous phenomenon, driven by trade, wealth and the birth of print and media. It interferes with the notion that trends, conspicuous consumption, self-esteem, vanity, reputation and sex appeal are a new phenomenon, merely a product of our modern times. The Renaissance proves that since fashion first appeared, we have had to deal with clever marketing, as well as with questions about identity and image.