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"Clothing and perceptions of gender and body in the medieval an early modern period", presentation given at the conference “Developments in dress history” at Brighton University December 8th-10th 2011
Eva I Andersson PhD
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
© for the text: Eva I Andersson, for image 2 and 3 the respective museums, their reproduction in this paper covered by their permission to use their images in scientific publications.
My name is Eva I Andersson and I am a researcher and lecturer at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. My dissertation, which was finished in 2006, dealt with clothing in Sweden and Norway in the Middle Ages. Since this was practically a white spot on the research map a lot of the work was very basic examination of various documents, which were then compared with period art and preserved garments and analyzed. After that important work, but maybe not so exciting for people who aren’t particularly interested in medieval dress –it does take up 100 pages in the dissertation – I turned my attention to the role of clothing in medieval society: How clothing was used to differentiate between social groups such as peasant tenants, farmers and the nobility – and, which is what lead me to today’s subject. How clothing was used to differentiate between men and women and how that is connected to more general ideas about men and women in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period.
The Middle Ages and my dissertation
As it all started with my dissertation on medieval clothing that’s where I’ll start. Not to mention that it usually is a good thing to start in the beginning.
While both the documents and the preserved garments used in the survey are from Scandinavia, images from all over Western Europe have been studied and the general discussion is probably valid for at least the north-western parts of the continent.
A striking difference between modern dress and medieval dress is the great similarities between male and female dress in the middle ages. Most of the terms for garments are used in connection with both women and men. The exceptions are mainly outer garments, while most terms for garments that are fitted to the body, like tunics, are used just as frequently in connection with men as with women. According to the examined documents the garments that were different for men and for women were mostly outer garments and headwear - garments that were neither linked to, nor emphasized bodily differences between men and women, but, at least in the case of women’s headwear, to their social roles.
When we look at medieval Scandinavian wills we find that clothing was not only willed to a person of the same sex as the donor, but men also willed their clothes to women and, though less frequent, the reverse could also be the case. Over ten percent of the clothes most commonly listed in wills were given to a person of the opposite sex than the original owner. The figure was probably higher in reality since I only include those clothes which are clearly stated to be the issuers own clothes in the wills, something that is rare. Irrespective of how much more than ten percent of the clothes were willed to someone of the opposite sex, the fact that it was done show that the garments looked, and were constructed, alike for both sexes. Preserved tunics from Herjolfsnes also show that, at least in the fourteenth century, men’s and women’s tunics were cut in the same way.
Image 1 – Two of the Herjolfsnes tunics, second half of the 14th century.
Source: Nörlund, Poul, Buried Norsemen at Herjolfsnes: an archaeological and historical study, København, 1924, the image is a redrawn composition of two drawings.
In mediaeval art, clothes also look the same for men and women, at least until the middle of the fifteenth century.
Image 2 – Grosse Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, c 1300.
Source: Grosse Heidelberger Liederhandsschrift at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Men’s clothes were generally shorter, but the body shape that the clothes emphasized, and also partially created, was the same. In addition, the beauty ideal appears to be virtually identical for both sexes, something that also can be seen in mediaeval literature where a young man frequently is mistaken for a young woman. This confusion is possible because the concept of human beauty was the same irrespective of sex; a beautiful young man was expected to look the same as a beautiful young woman.
To distinguish between the sexes is one of the most important functions of dress, one that is found across cultures and eras. However, how it is done is culture-specific and also varies with time. In the Middle Ages the most important ways of distinguishing between the sexes were, according to period artwork, difference in length for tunics and other fitted garments and in different headgear. The cut and desired body shape for the fitted garments were, however, the same. Other items of dress were also used to mark an individual’s gender, such as the placement of the belt. Gender was, thus, primarily indicated by use of garments and other items of clothing that neither was based on, nor emphasized, physical differences between the sexes.
This can be tied to what historian Thomas Laqueur termed “the one-sex model” or “the Aristotelian model”. This is the medical and scientific view of sex as a difference in degree of development and not as a difference in nature. The degree of masculinity and femininity was determined by the balance of the different humours that were thought to govern the body. According to this view, that which today is seen as primary and stable, biological sex, was seen as mutable. The basis for what was perceived as masculine and feminine was instead men’s and women’s social roles and the hierarchy between them.1 This was also the starting point when the body was interpreted; woman was not inferior to man because her body was weaker, but her body was weaker because she was inferior to him.
This view was also supported by the main authority in the Middle Ages: the Bible. In Genesis Chapter One it states that God created humanity after his likeness and that he created them male and female. This description stresses the likeness between man and woman; both were made in his image. In Genesis Chapter Two man is created first and woman created as a helper and company for him. The two versions do not, however, contradict each other concerning the nature of men and women, since the distinction made in the second chapter is social and not physical. She is of the same essence as him and thus also created in the image of God; however, her social role is inferior to his as she is his helper. This way of looking at sex, where “man” and “woman” were primarily seen as social categories, affected how dress looked and clothes were constructed throughout the Middle Ages. The one-sex model explains why the principal garments in the Middle Ages looked the same irrespective of the wearer’s sex; they were one-sex garments. And since “man” and “woman” in the Middle ages were primarily social categories the “gender-distinguishing” elements in the dress were not linked to physical, but to social differences.
This fact explains several phenomena in mediaeval dress. That the cut and appearance of most garments were largely identical is a natural consequence of a common ideal of appearance and beauty for both men and women, based on the one-sex model. It also explains much of the critique directed at fashionable dress. When it was branded as indecent that a woman wore a belt on her hips, as happened in the second half of the fourteenth century, it had nothing to do with exposure of or emphasizing of sexed body parts, or with sexuality. Instead it was the symbolic value of a belt worn at the hips, the traditional placement of the sword-belt, with its implications of knighthood and masculinity that made it unseemly for a woman.
Changes around 1500
In the late 15th century a change in how clothing was used to present men’s and women’s bodies occurred. The 15th century was a period of increasing differentiation in dress; the differences between regions, social classes and age groups grew bigger and side by side you found loose garments, especially in the mature age group, form fitting tight clothing and hybrid forms with sewn down pleats.
A consistent trend was, however, that men’s tunics and gowns got shorter – by the end of the century so short that they “forced” trousers return in European men’s fashion after five hundred years – when the tunic shrunk to a short doublet it became necessary to sew the hose shut in the back. In the front the opening was covered with a triangular piece of fabric, a innocent looking piece of fabric we will return to in a short while. Female dress didn’t get shorter, but tighter and more low-cut in the bust. Waist seams became common, making it easier to combine a tight bodice with a wide skirt. The tight bodice was used to push up the breasts, which accounts for the much bustier women in late 15th century art than in art from previous centuries. Both German and French written sources also mention different garments used to make the waist smaller.2
This development continued in the 16th century as clothing went from mainly accentuating body differences to creating them. When we look at artwork from this period, such as this painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, showing two members of the Saxon nobility, we see broader hips, larger breasts and really wide shoulders.
In this watercolour we see one silhouette with a narrow lower part and great width on top and another one which is its opposite with a narrow top and wide base.
Image 3 – Members of the Saxon princely house Lucas Cranach d.ä, 1540s
Source: Das Sächsiche Stammbuch, Mscr.Dresd.R.3, Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden.
Unlike the high medieval couple I showed before the man’s and the woman’s bodies are presented as having distinctly different shape. The outer sex differences are both accentuated and exaggerated by the clothes they wear, giving him unnaturally wide shoulders while the difference between a narrow waist and broad hips are accentuated by her dress.
The body shape is thus portrayed wholly different for the man and the woman and shows a change in the relation between clothes and sex.
If we leave the countries with German fashions and study female fashion in France, England and Spain you also find another way to broaden the hips in the form of the farthingale, an under skirt stiffened with hoops of wicker, whalebone or rope.3 In the same regions stiffened bodies, what we usually call corsets, were introduced towards the end of the century. These of course changed the look of women’s bodies even more – making them stylized hourglasses of two cones joined in the narrow end, a sort of pictogram where only the most obvious attributes of the idealized female body remained.
In the Saxon portrait above masculinity is expressed only through wide shoulders and well formed legs. More generally male fashions of the 16th century also exposed men’s behinds and accentuated and exaggerated their penises through the codpiece. Just like women’s breasts and hips got a more prominent role in fashion there was a wish to express men’s sexuality in their clothing and the codpiece got both stuffing and decorations to attract attention to men’s sex. Portraits from the 16th century are full of more or less “anatomically shaped” codpieces. In the regions affected by the German puff-and-slash fashion the codpiece of course also got slashed and fabric pulled through them. The combination of the codpiece’s imitation of an erect penis and the tightness of the clothing covering the backside gives an almost overwhelming impression of male sexuality – at least when compared with medieval ideals of dress.
The most revolutionary change in the relationship between clothes and the body and its sex thus occurs in the male costume, where not only secondary sex differences. But also the actual sexual organ gets a prominent role. The male sexual organ has an old history as a symbol for strength and potency, for example animals in heraldry were often shown with prominent penises, sometimes in a different colour to further emphasize them. It is, however, not until the 16th century that the same symbolism is applied to humans, at least in a positive context. Depictions of men and women with clear sex differences and visible sexual organs are found also in medieval art, but then always in a negative context: the condemned sinners and such.
For big boobs and prominent penises to be incorporated into the idealized body a radical change in the perception of sex and gender must have taken place.
Thomas Laqueur, bodies and fashion
As I said previously manners of dress in the middle ages were affected by an Aristotelian perception of gender, where the difference between men’s and women’s bodies was seen as a difference in degree rather than in kind. According to historian Thomas Laqueur the break with the Aristotelian model occurred in the late 18th century and even a superficial look at fashion in the beginning of the nineteenth century supports that a significant break occurred at this time and affected manners of dress. In the nineteenth century men’s and women’s clothing differed more than it had ever before. The clothes were made from different material, light and bright colours worn now only by women, while men mostly dressed in black or dark shades of brown, blue or grey. My study of dress and sex indicates, however, that there was another break, though less radical, in the perception of sex at the end of the Middle Ages. Judging from the development of fashion and clothing the change in the perceptions of sex should be seen as a gradual evolution from likeness to difference begun at the end of the Middle Ages, rather than a revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
Thomas Laqueur points to political and social changes as one of the main causes for the changed view of sex and gender – with great changes in society, there was a need to be able to feel that at least the relation between the sexes was stable. I do not intend to replace the 18th century as the crucial turning point in how sex an gender were perceived with another one, at the end of the 15th century – what I’d like to do is to point out some similarities between periods when clothing was used to create difference through body ideals, such as the period around 1500 and the early 19th century. Those two have in common that they were periods with large changes in society. When society’s institutions were questioned and where people appear to have searched for a sense of security by a stricter definition of masculinity and femininity. Unlike the 18th century, which saw the emergence of feminism neither the power relationship between the sexes nor marriage were publicly questioned
The increased differences between men’s and women’s clothing and ideals of beauty can therefore not be seen as a reaction to a contested gender hierarchy. It was also not an answer to threats to the institution of marriage – that by stressing the difference between men’s and women’s bodies a stronger argument for the complementary roles in marriage could be made. This was, conversely, periods when heterosexual unions strengthened their position as ideal in society; especially in the Protestant regions, where institutionalized alternatives to marriage were no longer available. So, what can be said regarding marriage and the changes I have discussed in clothing, what we can say is only that marriage was under a lot of discussion in the 16th century and that this probably contributed to changes in how gender was expressed in clothing and beauty ideals.
More important than the discussion of marriage was, however, probably the great political and social changes that came with the Protestant reformation (and the industrial revolution, but that’s not the focus in my research) and the Counter Reformation. When the position and teachings of the Church was questioned, there was a sense of security in at least being able to maintain strong and well defined boundaries between the sexes. In the middle ages these differences were overwhelmingly rooted in religion; in the hierarchy established already in the story of how Eve was created from Adam’s rib. When the teachings of the Church were contested, at least in some areas, there might have been a perceived need to strengthen those boundaries and that hierarchy by adding arguments founded in the body. Likewise the changes in dress in the early 19th century, with it’s sharp division between men’s and women’s fashions, materials etc can be seen as a reaction of and defence against the great changes in society brought on by the industrial and French revolutions, just like the new bourgeois ideals for men and women were.
In common for these two periods of greatly increasing differences in the dress of the sexes is thus a revolutionary changes in society – the reformation and counter reformation on one hand and industrialism on the other, that men’s and women’s roles in society were in a process of redefining, a generally more positive view of marriage (in theory if not always in practice) and a surge for the idea of the complementary marriage based on love.
By studying new, for the historian, categories of sources, in this case art and preserved clothing, new perspectives of a problem can be found and the established view of a historical process can be broken apart and put together in a new and more complex way. By supplementing Thomas Laqueur’ study of the medical discourse on sex with a survey on how ideas of beauty related to perceptions of sex and how these took concrete form in how men and women dressed the process can be understood more completely. At the same time it anchors the process in the practices of ordinary humans, how they interpreted ideals of sex in their everyday lives.
The development from what could be called a one sex fashion to a two-sex-fashion isn’t simple and linear where the differences between men’s and women’s fashions and ideal bodies steadily increase until the final breakthrough of the two-sex-model and very different fashions for men and women. The clear distinctions of sex in clothing and beauty ideal of the early 16th century were soon followed by a period where the fashionably dressed bodies of men and women again became more alike. For example the aesthetic expressions of men and women were much alike in the early 17th century: long curls, broad lace collars and broad brimmed hats for both sexes and a similar body shape with broad waists and relatively loose garments on the upper body.4 The later 17th century and the 18th century also show as many similarities as differences between men’s and women’s clothing; especially regarding the choice of materials, decoration and colours, but also in construction and sewing techniques.
The road to essentially different fashion ideals was a complex process and it is a process which is far from thoroughly examined, but it is an arena where contemporary ideas about masculinity, femininity and of the relationship between the sexes took concrete form.
Fashion and perceptions of gender and body are closely intertwined. Clothes are thus an important source to often unspoken ideas of masculinity and femininity. They therefore ought to be useful source also to historians whose main concern isn’t the history of dress. The pitfall is that the study of dress requires expertise not usually found among historians or for that matter most art historians – collaborations between historians and experts in the history of dress may thus be the best way to proceed, where the historians’ interest in society is paired with the costume historians’ knowledge of style, textiles, craftsmanship etc.
1 Laqueur, Thomas, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1990
2 Johannes Pietsch, “Das Wechselspiel von Körper und Kleidung” i Fashion and clothing in late medieval Europe (Riggisberg 2010), s. 175.
3 Janet Arnold, Queen Elisabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d (Leeds 1988) s. 123f.
4 Anne Hollander, Sex and suits (New York 1994) s. 64f.