Suddenly, in the 1340s young Italian men began to wear cropped tunics, drooping hoods, and large purses hanging from elaborate metallic belts. Meanwhile, their leggings began to cling to their muscular legs. This new silhouette was both mysterious and daring. Where was it invented? Who was responsible? And how did it spread?
Fashion’s Measure: Preaching, Chronicle-Writing, and the New Look of the 1340s
By Emanuele Lugli
In: Fashion Theory . Published online 09.07.2019
A new study by Emanuele Lugli was recently published tracing out the events, which led to this new and – in the eyes of the contemporaries – strange and amoral fashion.
Reading chronicles and other sources, he reveals how the new fashion reflected the moral admonitions of the preaching orders – the Franciscans and the Dominicans – and their obsession with the linkage between clothes and morality. Through their writings and preaching, they set their mark on the systems of control of the clothing and textile industry in the Italian city-states of the 14th century.
The essay takes as its point of departure, three texts written between 1339 and 1342. The Dominican priest made the first, a precisely dated comment, Galvano Della Flamma from 1340, in which he recorded the deplorable state of affairs in Milan and claimed that it had been adopted from the Spaniards and the Germans, while the hair fashion and the beards were imported from the French.
The second – and in no small extent identical – characterization of the new fashion was penned by Giovanni Villani, who, writing about Florence, claimed that this “deformed change in the outfit” was brought about by the Frenchmen, who came to Florence together with Walter of Brienne. These new garments, he described as short and tight outfits. Characteristically, he claims, no person could put them on without the help of another. To this ensemble, he adds the belt with its showy buckles and metal ends as if it was a horse girdle and a large purse, worn “just about the pelvis in the manner of the Germans”. Their hoods with their long liripipes hung from the shoulders. At the same time, they wore long beards to appear fierce, Villani wrote.
The third reflection stemmed from the hands of Cola di Rienzo, who wrote in 1343 about the fashion in Rome, mentioning the lengthy peaks, the tight clothing in the “Catalan” style, and the way of wearing daggers on the behind in their elaborate belts. To this, he adds the beards and, the hats perched on top of the heads, an element, which came to at a later stage.
Traditionally, the arguably new and revolutionizing fashion has been explained as either a trickle-down affair from the international French, Luxemburgish and Bavarian courts competing for the power invested in being crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor. Or it has been explained as a result of the proto-capitalistic culture of the elites in the Italian mercantile city-states and the development of their luxurious “brands” through the invention of new accessories and manners of tailoring. The latter also needed to fit the old clothes of the plague’s victims to the few survivors. To be alive was witnessed by conspicuous consumption.
Lugli, however, presents us with quite another explanation, arguing that “the new look of the 1340s represents a peculiar, pre-modern instantiation of fashion” as revealed in the “emergence of a specific modality of discourse as evidenced in the records of the new look”. This perspective is reaffirmed through a close reading of not just the chronicles, but also the civic statutes and guild regulations carefully delineating the parameters of the “fashion business”. Reading of these texts, Lulgli points out that they were all about size and measuring – not the ridiculous long liripipes, the tight-fitting tunics or the broad belts per se, but rather a system of measured proportions gone haywire.
Through this work, Lugli makes us aware of the overall idea of “measuring” as the epistemological key-note, which even today continues, he claims, to define what fashion structurally is all about.
Weight was a ubiquitous measure used to avoid loss of wealth in the form of precious metals – whether coins, golden ornaments or jewellery. In a world of textiles transformed through the import/export and wholesale business of cloth and silks, equivalent measures, albeit of another type, had to be taken to secure standards of not just quality, but also length and width.
Since the beginning of the 13th century, civic authorities posted these standards in the form of iron stocks or cuttings in the walls of the Cathedral or City Hall next to the local market. Cities also appointed trusted individuals to oversee and police these official standards. Often, these trusted individuals were recruited among the mendicant orders, whose friars were keen to control conspicuous consumption as well as trained in measuring and algebra.
Another feature was the role correct measurements featured in the algebraic textbooks presented to the students in the abaco schools intended to teach math and accounting practices. However, patterns as such were a later feature.
Sumptuous Laws and Measures Taken
The reason was that sumptuary laws early on did not just ban pearly buttons, ermine trimmings or dyed feathers. They also restricted the width of trains, the breadth of trims, and the length of ribbons – as well as the reversed order. Naturally, this led to new fashions in the 13th century, such as when women’s dresses became aggressively long, yet gradually tight around the bosom. Such long tunics were covered with surcoats and often lined with fur. Against such wanton display of affection, measures were recommended to be taken by the friars and preachers, just as the Benedictines had fought against the long and pointed shoes of the 12th century, which continued into the 15th-century admonitions against the height of plateaus.
A World at War
Arguably, the craze for the new 14th century looks with its short tunics and magnificent sword belts derived from the military. In a world, in which professional armies and cannons added to the overall experience of insecurity and devastation, this new martial look aimed to both shock and repel. Suddenly the carefully measured system of social classes expressed through their outfits went topsyturvy. Rigorously defined and closely watched by the moral police of friars and preachers it came to their chagrin a regrettable downfall.
In this new world, measures were taken to outdo the moral police by such shocking tactics as dressing tight, with ridiculous long liripipes, tight belts and fierce beards. What mattered, became the ability for the new textile artists – tailors – to correctly measure a person to perfection, to retrace the accurately measured piece or panel of a garment onto the cloth with a bit of chalk, and create the individually tailored look, which came with this new fashion. Thus, the fashion industry erupted.
This is the discourse of measurement, which we need to trace, claims Lulgi, to understand why fashion changed overnight in the 1340s. A very inspiring article!
About the Author
Emanuele Lulgli is an assistant professor and teaches at the Art History Department at Stanford University. He is the author of several monographs. The first, Unità di Misura: Breve Storia del Metro in Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2014), reconstructs the revolution triggered by the introduction of the metric system in nineteenth-century Italy. The second, The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), is a quest for the foundations of objectivity through an analysis of the ways measurements standards were made, displayed, used, and imagined between the twelfth and the seventeenth century. A third book, a study of hair and the corporeal minuscule in founding notions of vitality, beauty, and desire in Renaissance Florence, is underway. Emanuele has also edited with Professor Joan J. Kee (University of Michigan) a collection of essays on the roles of size in artmaking titled To Scale (Hoboken, Wiley-Blackwell: 2015).
Read the story about Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. In 1348 he suffered a serious accident on the jousting fields in Northern Italy. This lead to a letter from his sponsor, the Pope, castigating him for his short and tight items of clothing (the brand new fashion). According to the Pope, he also enjoyed tournaments too much. In the letter Clement asked him to wear wide and long pieces of clothing in order to show maturity and dignity as well as abstain from tournaments.