Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dressed to Impress

Image result for sassy pants meme

“As there can be no circle without a center, no more can beauty be without goodness….And therefore is the outward beauty a true sign of the inward goodness” (Castiglione 6). 

In a society rife with religious and political reform, when you could execute for an offense and have the same returned in a single afternoon (maybe not, but it sure seemed like it), political leaders of the day were anxious. Anxious to please. In England, they were anxious to please the Queen. And the Queen? She was anxious to please the world.

To leave a good impression – to please someone – there are methods. A rather expensive one being your clothes. Elizabeth knew this; and keenly aware of her need to impress politically, internationally, she put into effect the Sumptuary Laws. These statutes outlined, very precisely, who could and could not wear what. It contains a section for men’s clothes, a section for women’s clothes, and a warning that infractions would be “redressed in all open assemblies by all wise, godly, and lawful means.”

Heavens, there were even guidelines for their underclothing.

Consequently, clothing became a very clear marker of rank and status. Let alone the idea of preventing normal folk from wearing nice things – and let alone the vanity of rich apparel – if you wanted to stay alive, you dressed according to your rank, whether you could afford it or not. You provided outward proof that you were stable, successful, cultured, valuable. More than quoting poetry, more than studying and honing personal skills, “even the most committed patrons of artists, poets and translators spent a far greater proportion of their income on clothes than they did on the arts” (Vanderjagt 209).

I tried to imagine myself in a world like this, where it really mattered whether my blouse was purple or white, where it mattered which threads I used in my embroidery, where I could get in serious trouble for wearing the wrong underwear. It was hard. I am very used to a mentality of fashion being an expression of self, whereas Elizabethan wear was an expression of money (real or not). And I came to two conclusions.

One: no wonder stage costumes of the day were frugal, hinting rather than displaying at a character’s identity.

Two: no wonder at the demand for New World commodities, particularly silk and fur. Those things were lifesavers.

Some fun reads on the subject:

How to Dress (a guide to putting on an Elizabethan gown)
Make-up 101 (a guide to cosmetics and beauty standards of the era)

Works Cited

Hoby, Sir Thomas. “From The Courtier, From Book IV.” 1561. Print.

Vanderjagt, Arie Johan. Princes and Princely Culture: 1450-1650. Vol. 2. Netherlands: The Netherlands Koninklijke Brill NV, 2005. Print.

“Who Wears What I.” Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes. N.d. Web. 22 September 2015.


  1. I have a couple pairs of sassy pants, myself.

    I remember learning about Elizabethan-era sumptuary laws, which dictated that certain classes of people were and were not allowed to wear certain styles of clothing, certain fabrics, etc. A number of rich merchants were able to break these laws without repercussion because they had so many noblemen in their debt; much like today, the size of a person's wallet often allowed them to transcend normal social boundaries.

    To what extent do these things survive? Well, it would seem that celebrities are expected to wear hideous things that regular people are, perhaps, better off without (cf. Project Runway), and the extraordinarily rich are expected to maintain certain aspects of their appearance even after the illusion of genuineness is long gone (cf. Donald Trump's hair). We willingly maintain the artificial separation between haves and have-nots by, ironically, forcing the haves to wear uncomfortable clothes that take forever to put on. And then we spend our entire lives trying to be as cool as them.


  2. This is a theme that seems to have carried over into our day! So interesting to consider the effects cultural norms have had on literature.