Sartorial subversion in Florence
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Sartorial subversion in Florence

Tue 08 May 2018 7:25 AM

The “wear whoever, whatever, whenever we want” mantras of 2018 could not be further removed from the clothes-curbing, classist ethos of early Renaissance Florence governments. “Sumptuary law”—legislation that, by its kindest definition, strived to restrain luxury and extravagance—began sweeping Europe in the late Middle Ages, making Italian landfall via Genoa in 1157. What Florence may have first lacked in initiative, it quickly made up for in scale: at least one new law was passed every decade between 1281 and 1497, circumventing even Venice’s best efforts to regulate the city classes.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Young Lady

Remarkably little has been documented on the rise and fall of sumptuary law in Italy, even though the few reports still surviving show that, as a key part of social history, it captured the Italian peninsula—and, above all, Florence—more notably than any of its European neighbours. In a city famed for its courtly culture and creation of sprezzatura (meaning faux nonchalance as seen in the seasonal spectacles of Pitti Uomo), laws centred on sartorial dos and don’ts seem like a natural consequence. Restrictions on wardrobe sizes, colours and accoutrements were rolled out with gusto, in an effort to stop any segregation leap-frogging. Perhaps most striking (if unsurprising) of all is just how many of these regulations sought to restrict women: between 1200 and 1500, 135 laws were established regarding female garbs compared to 25 for menswear, while the office charged with prosecuting offenders of either sex was tellingly known as the Ufficiali delle Donne, or “Officials on Women”. Rather than acting submissively in the face of society, this only spurred on these would-be victims to take power back into their own hands, hoodwinking the system cleverly enough to dismantle it altogether.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Isotta Brembati

The strategies designed to outmanoeuvre sumptuary law, brewed up by the most fashion-forward of females, were in plentiful supply. With women’s fashion in near-constant flux during the Renaissance, rules that set out to restrict ornamentation only further popularised lavish garments and intricate accessories; their attention-to-detail making law evasion all the easier. The ascent of urban merchants and artisans, achieved by their creation of desirable, yet attainable dress, allowed paupers to slip into princess frocks.

A 1495 law banning belt pendants was quickly made redundant when women began wearing precious stones, such as crystal, agate and lapis lazuli, on the belts themselves. When legislation prohibiting low necklines came into play, women kept their bodices low-cut but layered partlets—semi-sheer veils—over their breasts and shoulders to claim they were still obeying the law.

Ghirlandaio, Francis Cycle

Fourteenth-century writer Franco Sacchetti recounts one tale of a Florentine women stopped by a sumptuary official for wearing too many buttons on her bodice, relative to her social ranking. She defiantly replied, “They’re not buttons, they’re coppelle {ornamental metallic discs taped directly onto fabric}. They have no needle holes for thread and no buttonholes around them!” By the time coppelle joined the list of prohibited trims, their wearers would have already found a dozen other embellishments to emulate them. When all else failed, women literally ran from the law into the nearest church, an official sanctuary preventing any prosecutions within its walls.

While Florentine governments may have set out eagerly to disempower their female populace, in the end tables were dramatically turned on them. Virtually no recordings exist of successful sumptuary law prosecutions. Of the cases that did go to court, women would often represent themselves on trial, and the laws that did remain intact were subject to ridicule.

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