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Did Dress and Fashion Matter in the Poor Neighbourhoods?

In November, during my recent research trip in the state archives of Siena with our researcher Stefania, we decided to take a walk in the Sienese neighbourhood of Onda. This central contrada south from Piazza del Campo, originally called San Salvatore, used to be a popular neighbourhood among Sienese artisans in the Renaissance period. By 1531, nearly two thirds of San Salvatore’s inhabitants consisted of artisans or small local entrepreneurs, including painters, innkeepers, musicians, tailors and mercers to smiths, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, and weavers.

Street view in San Salvatore

One of the inhabitants of San Salvatore was the shoemaker Girolamo di Domenico who lived here in the first half of the sixteenth century with his children and wife Calidonia. His story invites us to think of the harsh economic conditions of many of the lower ranking artisans that we are studying in this ERC project. Tax records tell us that, in 1531, his taxable wealth was a modest 175 lire and the family’s economic circumstances did not improve in the following years. Girolamo died in 1547, leaving behind minor children. While there is no trace of what happened to the family after the shoemaker’s death, we can only hope that Girolamo’s brother Giovanni and someone named Girolamo di Bartolomeo Salvestri, described as Girolamo’s ‘relative’ (parente), both shoemakers, protected the widow and her children from falling into complete poverty.












As Stefania and I walked along the narrow, twisting streets of San Salvatore, looking at the original architectural features of the buildings that revealed where shops had originally been located, we were wondering whether clothing and fashion mattered on these streets, where many families struggled to provide just the basic living for their families.

While questions of cultural meaning and value in the absence of artisans’ own words are difficult to evaluate with precision, archival evidence, such as household inventories, allow us to access individual’s personal wardrobes and gain knowledge about ownership of clothing at most levels of society.

The shoemaker Girolamo’s inventory was drawn up a few days after his death on 14 September, 1547. The list of clothing that belonged to him and his wife included 26 dress items (pairs of hose, hats, shirts, skirts, jackets, under- and over-dresses and cloaks) that were stored in five chests. This indicates that the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife both had two or three sets of clothes.

Page from Girolamo di Domenicos inventory

Although a fair number of their garments were modest, often described as ‘sad’, ‘old’ or ‘worn out’, the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife Calidonia owned some garments that made it possible for them in special occasions to strip off their work clothes and dress up. The five chests of clothing in Girolamo’s house included relatively fine dress items, such as a white men’s doublet, a pair of black woollen breeches, a woollen cloak and a black satin beret, as well as a pair of black detachable women’s satin sleeves, a woollen cloak and two purple skirts described in the document as ‘fine’.  Furthermore, some of these clothes were decorated and made from fine materials. One of the shoemaker’s wife Calidonia’s purple dress, decorated with a black velvet band and large puffs in the upper part of the sleeve, was made from pavonazzo-coloured cloth.  This purple colour, obtained from valuable kermes dyestuff, was preferred also by patrician men and women, not only because it was expensive, but also because it was also a symbol of power and authority. Pavonazzo became forbidden from lower classes by sumptuary law in Siena in 1588.

Such garments were treasured objects among artisan families and may have been acquired in connection with marriage. Yet, the presence of fine garments such as Girolamo’s white doublet and black woollen cloak, or Calidonia’s satin sleeves and pavonazzo dress demonstrates that Renaissance dress and dressing up mattered at all levels of society, even among the poorer quarters of the city. Everyone wanted to look good in festive occasions and on Sundays at Church!

An Example of 16th Century Artisan Self-Fashioning – Master Shoemaker Jens Pedersen from Odense 

Shoemaker Jens Pedersen, 1583. Photo credit: Odense Bys Museer

In the process of gathering source material for my PhD research I came across a beautiful and decorative glass window in the shoe makers guild house in Odense, dating from 1583. Jens Pedersen had commissioned and donated the stained-glass window, picturing himself with his wife and two other shoemakers, probably a journeyman and an apprentice.

I was immediately caught by the details in the illustrations, and how the stained glass gives insight into the workshop of a shoemaker. Then I became intrigued by the variety of fashions and styles of garments that Jens Pedersen and his wife are wearing. They are each portrayed with three different outfits, showing off many kinds of decorative and colourful fashions and styles. The glass window shows different styles of hats and caps, and the construction of the clothes is also quite clear.   

A work scene from Jens Pedersen’s workshop is depicted in the middle of the frame. He as the master artisan, is sitting at a table wearing a black doublet and hose with some kind of linings, together with black stockings. On his head, he is wearing a black hat. The two working men are wearing white, probably linen shirts, black hoses and yellow stockings. They are all wearing ruffs around their necks. The workshop scene shows how the master artisan is cutting leather, and the journeyman and apprentice are sewing leather shoes together. The depiction not only gives insight into the working environment of the artisans, but also reveals a social hierarchy through the clothes worn by the master artisan and his workers. Were these the actual clothes shoemakers wore, when they were working in the workshop? And does this paint a realistic picture of an early modern artisan workshop?

Jens Pedersen must have had an agenda and an interest in showing himself off in the best possible way, and he is clearly aware that fashion can be a tool for promoting his own role as a prominent master shoemaker and burgher in the city of Odense. Especially the depictions outside the workshop signal honour and respect, and he is clearly using fashion as a tool for making himself stand out, and to shape his identity as a prominent and important burgher. His way of establishing himself as an important burgher can also be seen in the way he is using symbols, his wife with a wine jug and himself with a spear symbolling his participation in the city defence work.

His donation to the guild house shows that he proudly associates himself with the tradition of shoe making and of the guild. But at the same time, he distances himself from the coarser work of making shoes through his dress. Perhaps he also thought that the public placing of the window in the guild house could help shape an understanding of shoemakers as being fashionable, and in this way getting more patronage and additional commissions. No matter what, this is an excellent example of artisan self-fashioning, and I look forward seeing if there are similar examples out there.


Andersen, Vivi Lena: Between Cobbles, Bunion, Shoelast and Fashion. Shoes from 1300-1800 from Archaeological Excavations in Copenhagen, phd-dissertation submitted for University of Copenhagen, 2016.

Troels-Lund, Troels: Dagligt Liv i Norden: i det Sekstende Aarhundrede. vol 2. Gyldendalske Boghandel: Copenhagen, 1914.

Sumptuary Laws in Denmark: Om Drecht och Klædebon, 1558

In researching fashion and textiles in the artisan groups of Scandinavia, sumptuary laws are both important and interesting in terms of looking into what kinds of restrictions the king and the nobility found necessary to implement in society to maintain the social hierarchical order. Dress and fashion were ways people could signal their place in the social hierarchy, and the need to implement sumptuary laws, one might argue, was a response to a perceived threat from the masses of society.

In working with fashion among the lower groups of society, these laws are excellent in getting a glimpse into the social hierarchy of the Danish renaissance period, and especially how the society elite perceived the lower groups of society. Many sumptuary laws were issued in Denmark in the period of 1550-1650, but to what extent the over excessive consumption was an actual problem in the population, we do not know.

Christian III of Denmark, from the Bible of Christian III, 1550.

In considering the laws, I am especially interested in what kinds of restrictions were laid upon the ordinary people.  One of the first laws in the beginning of the period under investigation is a law from Denmark. In 1558 Christian III of Denmark issued a law called the Koldingske Recess. Within the law is the section called Om drecht och klædebon, where regulations on dress and textiles is stated. These regulations give information on what types of textiles the elite considered as luxury, and what kinds of textiles were in circulation in society, but they also tell what lower groups of society were restricted from using.

In general, the law prohibited all people from wearing luxury textiles such as gyldenstycke and sølfstycke (silk embroidered with gold and silver threads) and blyant silk (a valuable kind of silk together with any other kinds of silk embroidered with gold or silver thread). The law also prohibited the usage of embroidered hair pieces, pearls on headwear or neckwear, gold trimmings, silver trimmings, together with gold and silver lace.

Concerning ordinary people, it is stated that no unfree people, burghers or peasants, or the unfree man’s wife or their children, are allowed to wear velvet, damask, or silk. However, an honourable not noble woman, presumably an unmarried woman, was allowed to wear a plain silk or velvet ribbon around her head. Does this mean that the king and his servants had actual experienced these groups of lower stand wearing these kinds of textiles? And is this a sign that these people had access to these kinds of materials? These are some of the question that are interesting to look further into.

What the regulation also tells us, is that it was the responsibility of the hospital to collect the fees of people who broke the law. Working with these laws, however, we have to take in consideration that we do not know whether people ever were prosecuted for wearing forbidden items, or whether they might have adapted or rearranged their need for luxury, so they would not get prosecuted.

Even though there is a lack of knowledge on how these laws were enforced in this period, and we do not know how effective they were in real life, these laws offer great material when working with fashion and textiles, and can be used to accquire information on many different aspects on early modern Scandinavia.


Dalgaard, Hanne Frøsig: Luksusforordninger – 1558.1683,1736,1783,1783 Og 1799. Tenen – Dansk Tekstilhistorisk Forening 2015.

Secher, V. A. Forordninger: Recesser Og Andre Kongelige Breve, Danmarks Lovgivning Vedkommende 1558-1660. Vol. 1: Selskabet for Udgivelse af Kilder til Dansk Historie, 1887-1888.