The Importance of Fashion in Early Modern England
By Lindsay Kubin
Senior Seminar Thesis, Western Oregon University (2007)
Introduction: To twentieth century scholars the importance of cloth or clothing in society has often been debated. Its presence can be found in almost any society around the world at any point in history. In 1983 a conference entitled “Cloth and the Organization of the Human Experience” brought together scholars of anthropology, art, art history, and history to discuss the importance of cloth on people and societies. As one of these scholars put it cloth is “an economic commodity, a critical object in social exchange, an objectification of ritual intent, a vehicle of symbolic meaning, and an instrument of political power.” The participants of this conference concluded, “the language of cloth speaks not only to the creation and dissolution of personal and social identities but to wider issues of long-distance trade, colonialism, revolution, and nationalism.” Anthropologist Thomas Beidelman who was present at the conference stated his opinion that “cloth defines the limits and possibilities of people as actors in social relations” and added that “masking, hiding, and duplicity are equally important goals in the use of cloth.”
While a study of the impact of clothing and fashion in any society is no doubt interesting it is particularly fascinating in relation to the history and culture of the Western world. This paper examines the roots of fashion in Europe, specifically in England. Fashion was such an intrinsic part of society in early modern England (1485-1714) that a study of its trends and changes can help define the political, social and economic climate of the day, and in some ways was itself the perpetrator of trouble and change during this period. This changing climate reflects a process of materialization and an emerging middle class.
Studies of European fashion history begin usually with the Middle Ages following the changes of male military outfit. As battles were won dress was subtly changed here and there to reflect a victory, usually more for utilitarian than for aesthetic value. One instance of this is a Swiss victory over Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, at the Battle of Grandson in 1476. The Swiss soldiers used the acquired booty of fine silks and other materials to patch their torn clothes. This habit of patching different color cloths together was called “landsknecht” and soon became the style throughout European courts.2 As one scholar put it “fame in war brought imitation in peace.”