Book Review: Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy by Eugenia Paulicelli


The sartorial splendor described in Eugenia Paulicelli’s Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy seems cut from a Tim Burtonesque wonderland—perfumed horses, courtesans draped in yellow veils, “gigantesses” perched precariously on mammoth chopines and sleek, black-clad courtiers crossing a Venetian square with graceful nonchalance. It’s a cinematic world, the inhabitants ever so conscious of their visual impact and driven by, as the author explains, “the awareness of making and molding one’s own identity…according to an external, public gaze.”(62)

But, as Paulicelli makes clear in this excellent, thoroughly researched text, the self-consciousness of these early modern Italians was merely a reflection of much greater underlying themes. The evidence (and the author) clearly establishes that beneath the practiced “naturalness” of sprezzatura, serious attention was being paid to serious issues. There was the question of national identity during a politically unstable time. Who was an Italian or, more specifically for this study, what did an Italian look and act like? “And, then, a new quandary: what to make of this emerging idea: la mode? Was fashion an expression of freedom or one of immorality and deception? What, by god,could be made of this new generation of men touched by “the contagious infection” of fashion? (205) Finally, there was the “problem” of women: feted and adorned, perhaps, but also trapped in the tyranny of a society that denied them access to intellectual and civic life. Some were beginning to take a stand.

Paulicelli charts early modern sensibilities through close examinations of seminal texts, including Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, costume books by Cesare Vecellio and Giacomo Franco, the work of the neo-feminist nun Sister Arcangela Tarabotti and of the moralist Agostino Lampugnani. It’s a lively selection of sources, which she puts to rigorous use through illuminating quotations as well as generous inclusion of other contemporary and early modern sources. We get, for example, not only Castiglione’s words on sprettazura, but snippets of a somewhat truculent letter he penned to his mother. Send me that velvet cape, he chides, otherwise, “If I go [to Rome] I will have to wear my old cloak with fur, which is worn out. Do you think this is a decorous dress to be worn in the company of so many gentlemen?”(67)

While she touches on a great many objects important to the early modern wardrobe—for example, gloves, armor, wigs, the guardinfante (farthingale), textiles, the codpiece—Paulicelli does this through the lens of cultural attitudes and technological advances. The guardinfante, a relatively recent import from Spain, gets a particularly caustic attack from Lampugnani, who recounts tales of prisoners escaping by hiding under a woman’s skirt, miscarriages and “malformed children” caused by its “iron devices”—and, if that isn’t bad enough, social improprieties: “women could easily rest their elbows and hands on them and use them as a little table on with to put their snacks.” (216-17) It’s ironic, then, that Lampugnani, with his blatant mistrust of fashion, was the first to use the word moda in his text La Carrozza da nolo, ovvero del vestire e usanze alla moda.

Of the most inspiring chapters was that which described Sister Arcangela Tarabotti. Although she was forced to take the veil by her father, in truth, nobody could shut her down. “I cut my hair,” she wrote, “but I did not uproot my feelings. I reformed my life, but my thoughts, like my hair, the more they are cut the more they grow, continually multiplying.” (186) From her guarded Catholic confines, Tarabotti fearlessly attacked the male patriarchy and society’s double standards. She spoke out for women’s intelligence and against the male tyranny that restricted the lives of women. And her voice was clear and unabashedly angry. “What else is it but ingratitude when that country under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, that country which once triumphed against the uprising of Baiamonte Tiepolo by means of a woman, finds itself engaged in degrading, deceiving, and denying liberty to its own young girls and women more than any other kingdom in the world?” (179) From her austere religious surroundings, she composed “the first in-depth, sustained response to the long tradition of polemics on female luxury.” I was grateful for the introduction to this early modern firebrand.

I write too much—for, in truth, it’s impossible to address the myriad of issues, attitudes and details that Paulicelli has expertly compiled in this text. Just put this book in your hands. In fact, I’m going to read it again, without you, my audience for this assignment, in my head…just me and the luxury of yellow-veiled courtesans, giagantesses on chopines, sleek couturiers, perfumed horses and early angry feminists.


Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy by Eugenia Paulicelli is available through Ashgate Press.

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