Fashion in Renaissance Venice

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Expensive fabrics were reused and refashioned many times to keep up with new styles - and records of rented clothing hint at how women were lured into prostitution.

Thomas Croyat Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Woman in Venetian clothing Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Venetian women were renowned throughout Europe for their beauty. They dressed extravagantly thus displaying their families' wealth.

But even artisans' wives were well dressed and Patricia wanted to find out how that was possible when fabric was handmade and could be incredibly expensive. She discovered that clothes were constantly reused so that women could keep up with new styles. There was also a trade in renting clothes dominated by women as dealers and clients. Contemporary accounts suggest that this trade was used to lure women into prostitution. They were tempted by beautiful garments and then, finding no way to pay off their debts, were forced to prostitute themselves.

Men dressed sumptuously as well. Pietro Aretino wrote in letters in the early 16th century about gifts of clothing from patrons. He described the weight of gold trimmings and the sensuous feel of silk against the skin. So dressing up can't have just been for show, there was a lot of enjoyment in it as well.


Venetian banking documents Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission There's a 16th century proverb, "never enquire who owns the clothes a person is wearing."

Patricia discovered a number of sources of information revealing the high costs of clothing in Renaissance Venice. For example, a man's red velvet gown, worn for state occasions would have cost 100 ducats. This was clearly out of the price range for the average citizen, making up one tenth of the annual income of some Patrician families. The tax declaration of the Dona family, which included 3 brothers, revealed an income of less than 1,000 ducats.

Hence even wealthier citizens left clothing to relatives or servants in their wills.

The records of the second-hand dealers were a rich source of information on the use and re-use of clothing. Here there are descriptions of the service of adapting and fitting clothing to sell or rent. Often the fittings occurred in the shop, but for their wealthier clients, second-hand traders would provide home visits.

The renting of clothing was governed by a strict code of conduct. Court records reveal a case against a Jewish moneylender who rented out a garment during carnival time that had been left as a pledge. The item was ruined and the owner sued.

Thinking History

Man dressed in historical costume as Venetian citizen Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Was sumptuous display merely window dressing? If the Venetians hired their outfits and their furnishings are we just seeing an elaborate sham?

Renaissance society was highly theatrical, social relations often a matter of performance art, one that needed suitable settings, whether this be on a domestic scale or in the public arena. We are inclined to forget, in our throw-away society, just how much money was invested in cloth, tapestry, fine tableware; it made sense to borrow what was appropriate for each performance. But because something is theatrical, does this make it less real? In rituals, whether tiny like shaking hands or grandiose like throwing a banquet, we act out our relationships to each other.

Equally, on a public scale, ceremony and ritual made concrete the way that government worked: John Guy argues that 'power was about splendour and magnificence'. In Venice civic ritual was extended to take in as broad a section of the population as possible. And if the majority bought into the idea of Venice as exceptionally blessed and acted it out in civic ceremony, can it be called a myth? It could be said that display itself is part of reality.

If you are interested in the debate on the relationship between appearance and reality it is taken up in the OU course AA305 The Renaissance in Europe: A Cultural Enquiry.


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