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Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory.

Cambridge: Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, 2000. xiii + 368 pp. $74.95. ISBN: 0-521-78102-7.

The notion that clothing defines and reifies societal relationships, whether political, economic, social, religious, or cultural, is antithetical to modern ideas about clothing as ephemeral and subject to changing taste. In Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass argue that clothing reflected shifting ideas about personal identity in proto-capitalist early modern European society. This elegantly written book, winner of the 2001 MLA James Russell Lowell award, offers a challenging perspective on how scholars might conceptualize clothing as a literary and historical source material.

Defining clothing as "all that is worn," Jones and Stallybrass argue that it incorporates an essential intellectual tension in this era: between clothing as representative of identity beyond the individual wearer (livery), to clothing as a marker of individual identity, subject to change. As a result, the change from a notion of fashion as the materialization of collective memory associations to fashion as mere covering for an already defined individual reveals clothing as a subtle indicator of evolving societal values.

Using a wide variety of primarily English sources, including literary texts, paintings, textiles, theatrical documents, and artifacts, the book is organized into three parts. Part 1, "Material Subjects," explores clothing as currency, clothing as a social indicator in portraiture, and the politics of the use of yellow starch in the Jacobean court. Part 2, "Gendered Habits," studies the contemporary cultural significance of spinning and needlework. Part 3, "Staging Clothes," examines the ways in which theatrical costume reveals contemporary assumptions about clothing as representational, whether of transvestitism, social tensions, or the dead.

For modern readers, this is a provocative topic because it forces us to imagine the "animatedness" and mnemonic qualities of clothing in this period. Jones and Stallybrass challenge us to see that it was a central tool in the evolution of "self-fashioning" during an era of commercial expansion that put pressure on English men and women to define and redefine themselves as individuals.

Although individual chapters may be of value to faculty and students in a variety of disciplines, the book is aimed at a specialist audience of literary scholars. Jones and Stallybrass assume a detailed knowledge of Shakespeare and other literary texts, contemporary English politics and controversies. The chapter on "Yellow Starch," for example, does not identify why yellow starch has "national" implications, provide a brief description of Coriolanus, or explain the significance of the vestarianpapist debate in such a way that even a committed reader outside the field can understand without considerable extra research. Yellow starch is introduced as "foreign" (12), and described by radical Protestants as Antichrist's livery through having "decomposed the body politic by turning food into luxury fashion" (59). Blue starch is mentioned once as being common before 1610, but the relevant footnote only provides a reference to a monograph on theatrical costume. A historical definition of starch and its uses, derived from the word to stiffen rather than its "food" origin, would have provided the reader with much-needed context for understanding why yellow starch was so different from starch dyed blue (or even left "natural"). Even a knowledgeable reader might benefit from a brief discussion of the vestarian-papist controversy to comprehend the political context for why the use of yellow starch was, indeed, significant outside the confines of literary constructs.

The book also includes illustrations, many of which are helpful in illuminating the issues raised in the text. In some cases, however, the choice of one illustration over another is not clear. For example, an illustration of a needlework pattern might have helped a reader understand the actual creation of needlework imagery and its significance as a gendered activity. In the case of John Taylor's The Needles Excellency, this might have resulted in a more gendered reading of the text and frontispiece.

In spite of these caveats for the non-expert reader, this is a superb resource for scholars across the disciplines. The extensive bibliography is a valuable resource and the lively exploration of this very complex subject exemplifies the need for scholars and students to divest themselves of modern assumptions about the material world of the past in order to understand more fully the underlying cultural and societal values.


Brown University
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Article Details
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Author:More, Rebecca S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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