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Popular Fashions and the Meaning of ‘Material’ in Early Modern Dress

Paula Hohti

My research draws on visual, documentary and material evidence that recorded ordinary people’s garments and accessories in 1550-1650, in order to investigate questions relating to the transformation of fashion at popular levels that will shed light on popular taste, on dissemination, transformation and adaption of fashion, on imitation and meaning, and on changing cultural attitudes to dress among popular groups in Italy in the Renaissance period. By focusing on clothing, accessories, textiles, colours and cosmetic products that were increasingly available for, and possessed in this period by ordinary artisans and small prosperous tradesmen, such as barbers, bakers, hat-makers and innkeepers, the central questions posed by my project are:

Detail of Giovanni Battista Moroni: The Tailor, 1565-70. Image: The National Gallery.


  • What materials and objects constituted the key agents of new consumer tastes, and the embodiment of fashion change at popular levels of society in Italy, 1550-1650?
  • How were novelties and key fashion products made, used, acquired and understood by individuals among the lower social orders, and what meanings were attached to these?
  • How was fashionable appearance (clothing, hair, accessories, cosmetics) constructed physically, materially and visually, and what processes did getting dressed involve?
  • How was knowledge about fashion disseminated across social and geographical borders, through printed recipe books, pattern books, advice manuals and other means, and how can we use this knowledge to reconstruct and understand past products and practices?
  • What was the meaning and significance of the ‘material’ in lower class dress?




In order to answer these questions, I will combine my art historical training and theoretical and empirical research with practical, experimental work on real textile artefacts, including technical analysis of textiles, dye- and fibre analysis, and reconstruction/visualization of historical fashions using sixteenth and seventeenth century recipes and modern digital techniques, such as 3D printing and digital textile conservation. This material-based framework of dress and textile history research at both scientific and experimental levels –using both contemporary and historical tools– provides  new grounds to interpret the value, origins, variations, and material experiences that were associated with dress, fashion and dressing in the Renaissance period, and to develop methodological tools that allow us to formulate new ways to explore how narratives from historical documents, books, images, and material objects can be created.

My work will be published via peer-reviewed articles, a monograph, small exhibitions and blog posts.



Read Paula’s blog posts