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Prescribing Fashion: Dress, Politics and Gender in Sixteenth-Century Italian Conduct Literature

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Abstract:

This essay investigates the relationship between dress and conduct literature in sixteenth century Italy. Typically contemporary accounts, diaries and prescriptive literature have been used to reconstruct physical garments but this essay uses such texts to reconstruct a sense of contemporary attitudes towards dress and fashion. Conduct literature was prolific throughout the sixteenth century and guidelines about appropriate behaviour were interrelated with recommendations on appropriate dress. This worked to create a morality of dress, with certain types of clothing elevated and certain types associated with a damaged dignity and honour. Dress was defined through forms of social behaviour – there was no word for fashionable dress, just distinctions between old and new forms of social behaviour. Dress was the key signifier of social stability and the belief that clothing was an outward manifestation of the wearers moral and social worth lay at the heart of the 16th century conduct book. Currie emphasises the importance of theories over dress and fashion in reflecting the social, economic and political concerns of Italian cities – conduct manuals tried to preserve the status quo, with writers never questioning the idea that dress was a means of upholding social distinctions, instead focusing on external challenges such as the migration of new foreign styles. Furthermore, Currie suggests that as the Florentine court grew in its bureaucracy and sumptuousness, conduct books instructions over dress would have provided indispensable to a new layer of elites.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270400779108780

Publication date: May 1, 2000

More about this publication?
  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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