In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Costume

  • Introduction
  • Databases, Encyclopedias, Indexes, and Journals
  • Essential Primary Sources on Costume
  • General Studies and Sources
  • Theory as Applied to Costume and Fashion
  • Portraiture and Costume
  • Ecclesiastical Sumptuary Law
  • Accessories
  • Armor
  • Textiles
  • Cross-Dressing
  • Clerical Costume
  • Conduct Literature and Preaching on Costume
  • Marketing Fashion

Renaissance and Reformation Costume
Susan Mosher Stuard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0170


Costume is a relatively new field of study, and its literature is interdisciplinary. Currently, the field draws from literatures as diverse as theory about consumption, law, art history, business history, gender and cultural studies, and even practicum for costuming Renaissance dramas for the stage, cinema, or television. There is no substitute for the eye in studying costume in the Renaissance and Reformation eras, and many of the works cited here are lavishly illustrated. The investigation of Renaissance costume begins with the advent of fashion in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Burckhardt 1945 and Braudel 1973 (both cited under Theory as Applied to Costume and Fashion) share responsibility for this chronology, since both identified the importance of fashion in 14th-century Italy. Italian taste and fashion remain the most carefully studied and densely documented component of the literature on costume, as the following citations indicate. Nevertheless, the North has received significant attention over the past two decades, and the Low Countries and England have promoted the study of textiles, their manufacture, and their export. No part of Europe was left untouched by fashion, from the British Isles to Russia. The increasing consequence of costume may be traced through sumptuary laws that proliferated through the Renaissance and Reformation periods. Cities, monarchs, and the church all attempted to regulate costume with little success. Detailed sumptuary laws are excellent starting points for understanding what was popular and what was considered unseemly because it disturbed social order, presumed privilege beyond a person’s rank or office, or indicated indulgence in immoral, costly, or extreme dressing. Jews were singled out to wear distinctive colors, badges, or articles of dress to distinguish them from their Christian neighbors in some sumptuary codes. Repeated failure did not deter authorities from issuing new sumptuary laws. These laws covered many aspects of consumption beyond costume, including behavior at weddings, funerals, processions, and festivals; food served at banquets; household furnishings; and a host of other consuming behaviors. Nevertheless, articles of clothing were among the most noticeable articles of personal display and earned the most consistent condemnations in the laws, in preaching, and in conduct literature. Costume moved toward increased splendor and cost through the Renaissance centuries, and then toward greater sobriety during the Reformation era. Some scholars have labeled the 16th century the apogee of extreme fashions, because court societies competed with each other in costly and ostentatious dress during this period. From the 14th century onward, fashionable costume penetrated more deeply into town society and attempts to curtail consumption failed because popular fashions could be produced in cheaper editions. Sumptuary laws strictly limited women’s and children’s costume. Gender studies has therefore taken up the history of costume as part of the discipline. Another component of gender studies is an emphasis on hypermasculinity in youthful male court dress in the 16th century. The literature largely concurs that costume became more differentiated by gender in the Renaissance, with an emphasis on tight fit—that is, men displaying their lower torso and legs, and women wearing tight bodices and lower necklines. Buttons were one new technology credited with producing a close fit for a fashionable silhouette. The Renaissance eroticized the nude female figure, although this did signal the death of the traditional eroticized and lavishly clothed figure of luxuria. Over the Renaissance centuries the distinctive dress of a region or town gave way to fashions shared by all persons affluent enough to adopt them. One area of investigation that needs further detailed study is how and when fashions traveled from region to region and country to country. More primary resources should be studied to support the burgeoning interest in historical costume.

Databases, Encyclopedias, Indexes, and Journals

The journal Continuity and Change devoted Volume 15 (2000) to costume (see Belfanti and Giusberti 2000). Medieval Clothing and Textiles is wholly dedicated to the study and interpretation of textile and dress, and it is supported by the organization DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion). The DISTAFF website includes information on conferences and publications, as well as an e-mail list focusing on the medieval and early modern period costume. Feminae and the Early Modern Women Database provide citations and information on women and gender issues, including costume. British dress over the medieval period is the subject of the Owen-Crocker, et al. 2011.

  • Belfanti, Carlo Marco, and Fabio Giusberti, eds. Special Issue: Clothing and Social Inequality in Early Modern Europe. Continuity and Change 15 (2000).

    The introduction by the editors (pp. 359–365), is a useful starting point for consideration of how clothing, sumptuary law and fashion illustrated social inequality. Patricia Allerston’s article, “Venice in the Sixteenth Century” (pp. 367–390), considers all classes and their costumes, and even discusses the cost of garments.

  • DISTAFF: Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion.

    The DISTAFF site includes an e-mail list, created by Beth Matney focusing on new books, articles, conferences, and scholarly resources on medieval and early modern clothing and textiles.

  • Early Modern Women Database.

    It is a great misfortune that the University of Maryland will no longer maintain this database, but the past data is available and full of references to Renaissance costume, from interpretive studies to instructions on how to make a Renaissance ruff.

  • Feminae: Women and Gender Index.

    An online bibliography of articles, book reviews, and essays on costume, mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. The index is updated continuously.

  • Medieval Clothing and Textiles.

    The annual journal includes papers presented at DISTAFF sessions. DISTAFF is an organization devoted to medieval dress and textiles.

  • Owen-Crocker, Gale Gwen, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Maria Hayward, eds. Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450–1450. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    A single-volume encyclopedia bringing together recent research from a range of disciplines with knowledge of dress and textiles, inspired by DISTAFF.

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