The Labile Self

Marina Warner

  • Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe by Ulinka Rublack
    Oxford, 354 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 929874 7

A 17th-century comic print known as The Cure of Folly shows a surgery-cum-alchemical cabinet in which a doctor is treating patients: one is being administered mind-altering drugs; another is being fired and recast in a furnace. This one, a ‘gallant’ in a most elegant get-up, with little pointy moustaches, a lace ruff with multiple layers, soft boots with spurs, and a silk tunic fashionably slashed in both bodice and sleeves, is undergoing the procedure rather in the manner of a modern full body scan. As he lies there ‘the strange chimaera and crotchetts’ which have ‘made him mad’ fly up out of the chimney. The ills expelled include the pleasures and luxuries of the town: dice, hunting, bear-baiting, racquets, duelling, theatre, and the latest excesses of dress. The gallant youth must be purged of his love of puffed shorts, his hosepipe codpiece and flounced silk drawers. The female figure who appears in the rising miasma of his rakish misdeeds is recognisable from the fashion plates in the costume books that Ulinka Rublack vividly explores in Dressing Up. She is a Venetian courtesan, carrying a huge fan of feathers, her pert breasts hoisted above her farthingale to show them off.

Clothes and morals, dress and identity – both national (ethnicity) and social (rank) – spark a series of unfamiliar and arresting questions, which Rublack takes up with obvious pleasure. She likes her subject, finding the vagaries of clothing funny but important, seeming trifles that can reveal serious matters about society and self: ‘mode’ in the sense of custom and process (le mode) is thoroughly entangled with ‘mode’ in the sense of fashion (la mode, a term that entered German, she tells us, in mid-century). Every ribbon signals identity; every padded this or that proclaims status. Her field of inquiry opens on to matters of growing interest, including ‘the things things say’ (to borrow the title of a recent study by Jonathan Lamb), a culture’s techne or craft as an index of its level of civilisation, and the nature of self-consciousness before mirrors were commonly available. She wants to find out, she writes, what it felt like to be someone who wore these clothes. She taps the portraits of her subjects to make them give up information about ordinary daily experience and reads the messages they encode about religious particularism, class expectations and gender propriety. The implications of what she finds can be broadly applied, but the focus of her evidence is more narrow than the subtitle suggests: she draws principally on Nuremberg, Leipzig, Augsburg and other significant towns, like Luther’s Wittenberg. For this reason, prints that circulated throughout Europe tend not to feature in her study, and she fights shy of the propaganda attacks on extravagance and vanity so richly documented in Malcolm Jones’s superb catalogue, The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight (where The Cure of Folly is reproduced).[*] The places she studies were rich trading centres, some of them free cities rather than feudal possessions, and their inhabitants used clothing to establish a cohesive sense of decorum and self-esteem.

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[*] Yale, 352 pp., £45, May 2010, 978 0 300 13697 5.