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New Research in Dress History Conference, 24 May 2019

Man’s doublet, possibly Italian, c. 1550-60. Red satin lined in canvas, trimmed with handmade silk buttons. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh boasts a wonderful collection of clothing and textiles, like the Italian doublet pictured above. This made it the perfect venue for the New Research in Dress History Conference, which took place on Friday the 24th of May. This is an annual event organised by the Association of Dress Historians, and this year it featured seventeen presentations on research spanning the late medieval period to today, and covering North and South America, Europe and Asia.
 
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present my paper, ‘Books of Secrets and Artisans’ Dress in Italy, 1550–1650′, in the first panel of the day. The paper brought together my research on recipe books and the results of the workshop that the Refashioning the Renaissance project hosted in April. I spoke about the considerable investment that average people living in early modern Italy had to make in order to obtain clothing, drawing on examples from the inventories of artisans’ household that Stefania has been gathering and transcribing over the last 18 months. I then presented some ideas about ways that people might have cared for their clothes – to keep them in good condition and to help them keep their value – based on evidence from recipe books. I then spoke about the project’s ‘Dirty Laundry’ workshop, where we recreated different recipes for stain removers, simple dyes and a perfume for linen chests. As I explained at the conference, recreating the recipes helped us to ask new questions about artisans’ dress, look at things from new perspectives and recognise the importance of socialising and relationships in shaping the ways that people cared for their clothing.

A slide from my presentation showing our team admiring the results of our efforts at the workshop alongside an image of washing day from a German manuscript. Both show the importance of collaboration. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I was on the same panel as Astrid Pajur, a PhD student that the Refashioning the Renaissance team met on our trip to Uppsala University last year. In her paper, ‘Clothes, Practices, and Social Relations in Seventeenth Century Tallinn, Swedish Baltic Empire’, Astrid also spoke about the importance of social networks in relation to dress. She presented the wonderful example of an organ builder who did not feel he was provided with the outfit ‘in the latest fashion’ that he had requested from a local tailor and decided to take action against him. This resulted in a long and complicated dispute between the two men, each leaning on their colleagues and fellow townspeople for support. As Astrid demonstrated, the value of the clothes also had a social aspect, as the organ builder felt he would face ridicule and damage to his honour if he wore the unfashionable outfit provided by the tailor.

A slide from Astrid Pajur’s presentation. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The panels in the afternoon featured presentations on a range of interesting topics, including the female suppliers of clothing and accessories to the nineteenth-century French court, metallic bobbin lace from Sweden’s royal wardrobe, dress for cycling in the First Brazilian Republic and the problem of women’s hats in late nineteenth-century American theatres. I was quite intrigued by Eliza McKee’s paper, ‘Landed Estate Clothing Societies in Rural Ulster, Ireland, 1830–1914′, which explored the dress of the poor through evidence around clothing clubs. As part of these clubs, the wives and daughters of wealthy landowners brought together donations that provided their impoverished tenants with clothing, especially for winter. The details of these garments and lengths of fabrics were captured in detailed account books and registers kept by the club members, monitoring this important aspect of their tenants’ lives.

Eliza McKee presenting her research. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I also saw some interesting connections between my paper and that of Leren Li, titled: ‘Japanese Boro and the Designing of Frugality in Contemporary Fashion’. Leren explained the Japanese terms boroand boroboro, which refer to tattered garments and soft furnishings. In the past, when many Japanese people lived in rural areas with very little money, women mended and created new garments clothing through the recycling of pieces and patches from other textiles.

Robe worn by a Japanese peasant or fisherman and pieced together with indigo-dyed cotton, c. 1850-1900. Cotton, 115x120cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Today, at least in urban centres in Japan but also Europe and North America, garments are still patched up in this way, but for reasons of fashion rather than poverty. For instance, the jacket pictured below, which features hand-stitched ‘boro’ patchwork, can be purchased for just under 1400 Euros on Etsy! Leren also spoke about workshops that teach people to mend their clothing in the borostyle, and in some instances, participants bring new t-shirts with purposely cut holes, which they patch with vintage fabric.

Although the papers presented at the conference were many and diverse, they were unified by the importance all placed on how meaningful dress is and was in the past. Each paper, in its way, highlighted the multiple ways that different people and groups develop or derive meaning from clothing – whether their own, that for their families, friends or customers and through production, consumption or even just spectatorship. Most importantly, as each paper demonstrated, clothing takes its multiple, complex meanings from the social realms in which it lives.

Shoes, dyes, fabrics and lace – Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in Toronto and NYC

Following our series of four panels at the Renaissance Society of America in Toronto, the Refashioning the Renaissance team took the opportunity to explore the city, and then travelled across the border and to New York for a four-day research trip in order to discuss, experiment, and see early modern textiles with some American colleagues and collaborators.

Before we left Toronto, we were able to spend a few heavenly hours with curator Elizabeth Semmelhack in the Bata Shoe Museum’s stores, where we saw richly decorated Spanish and Italian platform chopines, medieval leather pointed shoes, porcupine-quill decorated moccasins, seventeenth-century English slap-soled heels, and even some more humble slashed leather shoes that might have been worn by the artisans we study at the Refashioning project. We were joined by Making and Knowing’s Principal Investigator Pamela Smith, with whom we had some stimulating discussions about the recent scholarly turn to object-based investigations, and also recorded a podcast (keep your eyes and ears peeled on the website for that).

Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, holds a velvet-covered chopine. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Once in New York, we headed straight to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Textile Conservation department, where we were hosted by Cristina Carr, whose expertise with a microscope reveals the intricate skills and painterly effects that could be achieved by embroiderers, weavers and seamstresses in the early modern period (for more, see this interview with her by our colleagues at the Materialized Identities project). It was a joy to see the cutting-edge technology and patient skill of the conservators who work behind the scenes to care for some of the museum’s most delicate objects. We also visited the Ratti Center, where curator Elizabeth Cleland and her colleagues viewed a range of textiles and accessories that early modern artisans may have worn during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with us. Among these were stunning pieces of needle and bobbin lace from Italy and the Netherlands, woollen velvets, and linen aprons. Although the Met provides many high-resolution images on its website, nothing compares to being able to view these pieces in person, to see the lustre and colour of their dyestuffs and fibres, and to spend time with our curatorial and conservation colleagues discussing the techniques, materials, and context of these objects.

Viewing, discussing, and documenting the Met’s textile collections. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sophie Pitman looks closely at some stamped velvet at the Ratti Center. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Piia Lempiäinen with a woollen velvet fragment. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I also had the chance to visit the Moroni exhibition at The Frick Collection, remarkable for how the curators have placed surviving brocades, fans, and jewellery next to portraits which depict men and women wearing very similar garments and accessories. Giving these objects a presence in the gallery space focuses the viewer not only on the individual but also their carefully chosen attire and accoutrements. Moroni’s enigmatic portrait of an anonymous tailor, well-loved by the Refashioning team, was on display alongside a beautiful pair of decorated iron scissors from France, placing the artisan’s tools and social status (the cutter was, and remains, the most important tailor in the workroom) centre stage.

Members of the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance Teams in the lab, Columbia University. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We spent a rich and exhausting day back at my former stomping ground, the Making and Knowing Lab at Columbia University, where project Manager Naomi Rozenkranz and I designed a day all about early modern red dyes. Bringing together the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance teams to dye kermes, cochineal, and madder on wool, silk, and linen was a wonderful way to not just discuss reconstruction in theory but to actually make and experiment together. Our experiment focus was prompted by the need for some naturally dyed textiles for the upcoming ‘Dirty Laundry’ workshop, so stay tuned to the website to see how we stained these beautiful swatches with oil, wine and iron gall ink (using the ink made for us by Naomi!). We also had time to discuss the challenges and practicalities of materials sourcing, notetaking, safety issues and planning, and toasted past and future collaborations over an Aperol Spritz in Morningside Heights.

Paula Hohti grinds kermes lice to make red dye (left) and textile being removed from dye bath (right). Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Madder, Cochineal, Kermes and Weld dyed textiles drying in the Making and Knowing Lab. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Our final workshop day was spent at the Textile Arts Center learning to make bobbin lace with Elena Kanagy-Loux, who has travelled around Europe learning regional styles and techniques directly from lacemakers. At first, the simple gestures and satisfying click-clack of the bobbins convinced us that we might all be making yards of lace in no time, but as the patterns became more complicated, we recognised the high levels of skill, patience, and innovation employed by early modern lacemakers. Elena discussed the 1559 Venetian pattern book Le Pompe with us, explaining how lacemakers might interpret the patterns differently depending on their regional and personal techniques, and taught us how we might learn to read and make some of the patterns ourselves, with a little more time and determination. After all, in the words of Frank Sinatra, if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.

Michele Robinson and Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen making bobbin lace. Below Sophie Pitman demonstrates some bobbin lace techniques. Photo and video copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Refashioning the Renaissance hosts panels in RSA Toronto

On the 17—19 March 2019, the Refashioning the Renaissance team took part of the the annual Renaissance Society of America conference, this year held in Toronto. Our project was very fortunate to get four panel sessions accepted into the conference program, focusing on different aspects of lower-class dress in Europe.

Our panels on Lower-Class Dress, Fashion and Identity in Europe, 1450–1650 took place on the first day of the conference, and included presentations from all the researchers of the team. Focusing on the Italian context, Paula Hohti presented the Refashioning the Renaissance project, and talked about fashion among artisans in Renaissance Italy, and how artisans were communicating how they wanted to be viewed by others. Stefania Montemezzo added to this by introducing an accounting book by Alessandro Vignarchi, and unspecialised trader who travelled in remote areas in Tuscan Apennines. She discussed the peddlers’ role as intermediaries between areas and markets in the spreading of fashion in especially rural areas in Italy. Furthermore, Michele Nicole Robinson examined cross-cultural exchange of dress and accessories seen in artisan inventories in Siena, Florence and Venice, with a particular focus on pearls.

We had a delightful turnout for our panels, and many stayed fro the whole day.

Focusing on England and Denmark, Sophie Pitman considered the urban dress among lower social levels of society, especially focusing on the social codes and attitudes towards fashion, as well as imitation materials. Lastly Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen discussed the influences of reformation in the dress of Danish artisans.

We were also were fortunate that so many scholars wanted to contribute to the discussion of dress of ordinary people, and present in our panels. This included scholars such as Joyce de Vries and Amanda Wunder, who focused on the clothing of women seen through Bolognese dowry inventories, and the clothing of the women who were admitted into the poor hospital, Hospital de la Pasión in Madrid, respectively. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Alisa M. Carlson touched on the role of hats and headdresses used by the lower levels of society, by discussing depictions of hats and headwear in the portraits painted by Hans Holbein the Elder in Augsburg, and the depictions of women’s linen head coverings in Europe, with an emphasis on Burgundy-Flanders.

Alisa M. Carlson, Francesca Canadé Sautman, Joyce de Vries, and Amanda Wunder.

After our own panels were successfully behind us, we were able to enjoy the rest of the conference. Some of our team members had been to previous RSA conferences, whereas for some this was the first time in a conference of this scale. The scope of the presentations and scholars from all areas of Renaissance studies made sure that there were at least three interesting panels going on in any given moment, and it was hard to choose where to go. It was a pleasure to meet so many old and new colleagues, engage in interesting discussions and enjoy the papers that shed light to so many various aspects of renaissance life. We look very much forward to next year´s conference!