Corset, late 18th century, Spanish (probably), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Corset, late 18th century, Spanish (probably), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

A woman's shoe of embroidered slik with silver-gilt braid, English, 1720s-1730s, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A woman's shoe of embroidered slik with silver-gilt braid, English, 1720s-1730s, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Social groups and the circulation of fashion

PI4: Paula Hohti, Finland

IP4 takes up the larger question of whether creativity and innovation operated in similar ways in rural as well as urban environments, and in different social circumstances. It asks how fashions moved across social groups in early modern Italy and Sweden, at what speed and with what impact? Many fashionable items (perfumed gloves, fans, canes, light silks fabrics) were reasonably affordable but were often forbidden to non-aristocrats through sumptuary and other laws. The same groups that might make these goods were not, therefore, expected to wear them. This project asks what forms of circulation and dissemination we might need to consider once we move away from the courts and wealthy civic communities; indeed, it asks whether we need to rethink our notions of how fashionable goods became ‘popular’.

This is important because, historians are now increasingly interested in clothing, identifying the wide range of new fashion products and clothing designs that were produced for the European markets from late fifteenth century onwards. Yet, with the important exception of John Styles’ work, most studies that focus on early modern communities have centred on the production and consumption of clothing among wealthy elites, providing scant information about the types of clothing and dress accessories that were disseminated further down the social scale. In consequence, there is a widely held assumption that the working population was largely excluded from innovations in fashionable dress.  Yet documentary sources indicate that the desire for, and access to fashionable garments may have been much more widely shared than previously assumed.

In her doctoral and initial postdoctoral work, Hohti’s exploration of household inventories from sixteenth-century Siena, has shown how artisans and shopkeepers from builders and blacksmiths to pork-butchers and shoemakers often owned elaborate garments that were made of fine silks and velvets, including expensive crimson-colour skirts, fitted jerkins and embroidered detachable sleeves. The books of the Sienese commune reveal, furthermore, that some artisans could pay a ‘luxury tax’ that allowed them to wear elaborate garments that were formally prohibited by sumptuary law. This evidence is compelling because it indicates that ordinary families not only had the economic and social capacity to obtain refined clothing articles, but that at least some also shared the desire for luxury garments that responded to novelty and recent changes in fashion styles. But was Italy, even in its smaller more rural communities, special in some way? This project extends Hohti’s earlier work to look at the comparative situation in early modern Sweden (which includes Finland) where we know from work undertaken by Sven Lilja that between 1650-1750, new trades such as glovers, hatters and wigmakers became increasingly important in both Stockholm and many smaller Swedish centres. Given this growth, we need to explore what items (ruffs, wigs, etc) were disseminated further down the social scale, particularly among communities of the lower middling classes of artisans and shopkeepers such as shoemakers, tailors, innkeepers, second-hand dealers, barbers and tailors. Paying close attention to the circulation of new types of manufactures and fashion innovations, IP4 explores what kinds of clothes were worn by ordinary working people in both everyday and festive context, what these were made of, their economic value, how the design and quality of garments changed across time and space, and what dress, appearance and dressing meant to those in lower social ranks. The intention is to contribute to the overall research of the CRP and its database by providing evidence that can be analysed in terms of how fashions moved across social classes in 16th and 17th century Italy and Sweden, in order to find out to what extent dress fashions in the period were driven at the lower social levels by the same concepts of novelty and innovation deployed by the elite.

In looking at how new forms of dress and fashions moved and were transmitted not only across different social groups, but also across several important Italian and Swedish towns, this project challenges the general assumption that fashion dress in the early modern period, with its links to creativity, novelty and innovation, was exclusively driven by the wealthy elites. At the same time, it broadens our knowledge on the new types of manufactures that came to be produced, promoted, rejected or used at various times in different centres, allowing an examination of the economic and social processes that made changes in the dress styles and cloth production in different regions possible.

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