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Dressed To Repress?: Protestant Clerical Dress and the Regulation of Morality in Early Modern Europe

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The Reformation of religion in sixteenth-century Europe included the re-modelling of the Continent's clergy. This article considers how Protestant ministers were required to dress both during church services and in their daily lives. Traditional vestments were mostly abandoned in favour of loose-fitting, full-sleeved black gowns. This form of dress was intended to reflect the role of clergy as figures of intellectual authority and as agents of moral discipline. It also aimed to represent ministers to their communities as examples of sexual propriety and as ethical consumers of modest goods. This culture of Protestant appearance spread across the Continent from Scotland to Hungary. Ministers and their wives were instructed to dress in sober colours under the threat of dismissal from office for any who failed to conform. Meanwhile in England clergy continued to dress in traditional vestments, despite Puritan demands that surplices and other 'Popish' clothing ought not to be worn. This concern in Protestant Europe that clergy and their wives ought to dress with modesty and sobriety was related to a wider campaign to control immoral forms of appearance. In addition, some rituals of moral disciplining included requirements for offenders to appear in church in distinctive dress to symbolise their repentance and acceptance of the moral norms of the church. While it is difficult to assess the impact of these efforts to implement a code of moral clothing within Protestant Europe, this article suggests that dress regulations ought to be seen as much more than instruments of religious and social power imposed by clerical elites on parish ministers and on ordinary people.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: May 1, 2000

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