Book Reviews: Forbidden Fashion


Around 1564 there were in Venice over 30 convents and monasteries, inhabited by 2,107 nuns.

Isabella Campagnol begins her absorbing study, Forbidden Fashion: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, with a startling statistic. These numbers, coupled with firsthand accounts of the convent population, throw into stark relief the reason for her emphasis on fashionable clothing and accessories in Venetian convents from the 16th through 18th centuries.  Contrary to what may be popular belief, the large number of convents and attendant nuns in Venice was not indicative of an overwhelmingly pious female population and the ability of religious institutions to inspire dedication to a spiritual life, but rather the will of powerful families and patriarchs to force their daughters into a cloistered existence, away from the relative freedoms of the daily lives they had come to know.  Venetian convents were not completely devoid of women who chose the monastic life, but the majority of women were not there out of their own willingness or personal calling.

The incredible expense of a young woman’s dowry usually meant that only one daughter in a single aristocratic family could marry. Dowries were public transactions, and competition between families for the most exuberant dowry and advantageous alliance was fierce. Unmarried sisters were shuttled off to the convent, a fate much unlike that of their single brothers, who could acquire a government position and act on behalf of their family’s interests in civic matters. The advantages of monastic life were often touted as a favorable alternative to a life of endless childbirth or betrothal to someone decades older, but these reasons were often small consolation for a young woman accustomed to a certain way of living.  Although women from the middle and lower classes were also consigned to the convent (many as converse, or servant nuns who ran errands for the choir nuns, generally of aristocratic or upper class lineage), the bulk of Campagnol’s study focuses on the practices and perceptions of nuns from the elite and upper classes, who were allowed (or took) more freedom and extravagance in dress or alteration of the mandatory habit.

Campagnol peels back the layers of complexity of this rampant practice of forced monacation with fascinating visual and textual primary sources and a clear prose style that makes vivid the world of these young, frustrated converts.  Much of the book is a study in contrasts between the lives and habits of secular and cloistered women. This alternating examination bookends the study, with the first two chapters examining each social milieu, and the appendices where Campagnol has transcribed and translated dowries for secular and spiritual marriage, giving the reader a fascinating study in contrasts between the lavish (and edited–the secular marriage dowries were too lengthy to reproduce in full!) and the relatively spare.  This not only helps establish a context for both worlds but also underscores the similarities between them, and the tenacity of many inside the convent to retain a semblance of their former lives. Campagnol demonstrates that fashion was a powerful, tangible vehicle through which young women could attempt to express and embody the life and freedoms they so desired.

A particularly interesting exploration is the similarity in pomp and material splendor between the numerous events surrounding secular marriage and spiritual marriage, the latter which is specifically named for the forthcoming change in the young woman’s dress–“the Clothing”, or taking of the veil.  The Clothing could be relatively grandiose, well-attended affairs, with invitees socializing, listening to musical entertainment, and generally ignoring the goings-on of the ceremonies, as evidenced in contemporary paintings.

Gabriel Bella's The Clothing of a Nun in San Lorenzo, late 18th century. From Isabella Campagnol's Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Gabriel Bella’s The Clothing of a Nun in San Lorenzo, late 18th century. From Isabella Campagnol’s Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

The most lengthy chapter, “Nuns and Fashion”, is devoted to material life in the convent and reveals “quiet rebellion” (p. 8) through dress, as well as social hierarchies among nuns based on the quality and beauty of clothing and accessories, and the nuances of the significance of color and fabric.  Contemporary poets and writers idealized and exalted the physical transformation of the Clothing: “…Where did she leave her embroidered shoes, she exchanged them for clogs, big, comfortable, and good for all seasons…” (p. 47-48).  Campagnol informs us that (again, most likely contrary to popular belief) nun’s clothing was not “distinguished by uniformity, but intrinsic poverty and humility” (p. 52). Thus, a nun’s clothing was marked by its adherence to the use of coarse fabrics, dull colors, and relative shapelessness.  The humble clothing worn in convents was not considered the nun’s own–after death or other separation from the convent, these garments were returned to the communal wardrobe.

Hierarchies within the convent were not only based on religious rank and family lineage, but also on the dress and personal furnishings of one’s cell.  The lines between religious humility and secular luxury in dress were not always so clear. For example, in the elite convent of Le Vergini, the inhabitants (who were not required to take a vow of poverty and chastity) wore white instead of the ascetic black, which aligned with the ultimate expressions of often conflicting messages of fashionability, purity, and power (white was the color worn by the doge, the most powerful civil position in Venice). Additionally, the choice of silk or fine cotton over wool or linen could make a nun’s habit or veil more attractive.  Campagnol also reminds us of the importance of the color and materials of clothing in Venice in general, reinforced through religious and sumptuary laws that protected the political and social power of the elite. Nuns in the higher echelons of the convent hierarchy could also alter, subtly or with grandiose flourish, the requirements and restrictions of their habit.

Those nuns fortunate enough to bring with them such luxuries as gold cloth and fashionable, embellished, and colorful clothing and accessories were able to keep these for their personal use.  These items could also return to their relatives after their death, once the customary period of time passed and the contents of their cell could be removed by family members.  Other forbidden modes and adornments worn in the convent included wide plunging necklines, watches, fans, long curled hair, and corsets, the latter of which would have been necessary to achieve the desired silhouette.  These garments were worn inside the convent within their cell, in the often festive atmosphere of the visiting parlors, or most daringly, outside the convent walls for clandestine sojourns to late night parties. Even the veil could be an accessory with mixed messages of modesty and allure, as a gauzy, transparent fabric could heighten a nun’s mystique, and they were also fashionable among Venetian society women.

Henri R. Morland's The Fair Nun Unmasked, 1769. From Isabella Campagnol's Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Henri R. Morland’s The Fair Nun Unmasked, 1769. From Isabella Campagnol’s Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Excesses were alternately celebrated by courtly and aristocratic visitors to Venice and reviled by clergy. Attempts to legislate restrictions on monastic dowries, forbidden dress and objects, and nun’s behavior never seemed to work, as evidenced by the reintroduction of such laws on limits every few years.  And yet following The Clothing, young women often had to beg their families to send money or the items they needed for later use (such as for The Profession, or taking of vows), especially those inhabiting more modest convents, where numerous items and funds were still mandatory and had to be provided by the family.  Campagnol translates letters that detail the exasperation of women with the non-responsiveness or apathy of their families to a situation that could be not only physically uncomfortable but a source of personal embarrassment and hurt.

Adding to the frustration were reminders of their former lives or the outside world through the clothing, jewelry, and furniture brought in by the putta aspese, or boarding girls, who were placed in the convent from early adolescence for their education.  These residents were allowed to wear colorful, fashionable clothing and decorate their cells as they chose. The fate of these young women could be uncertain, however.  A boarder may enter into marriage at a later date, but if it was not financially or politically advantageous for her family, she may become a permanent resident of the convent.

The misbehavior of nuns was blamed for societal and political problems on the outside, including losses in battle and the plague.  Their actions were seen to jeopardize the high standing of the city of Venice, which prided itself on a unified front of piety and upstanding behavior, thus reinforcing the image of a city blessed with cultural, spiritual, and financial superiority.  The head of the Venetian dioceses Giovanni Tiepolo states the considerable expectations and responsibility foisted upon the shoulders of these young women by church and state: “…making of their own liberty…a gift not only to God, but to the fatherland, the world, and their closest relatives” (p. 5).  Well-preserved accounts of patriarchal visitations detail the outrage and contempt directed towards nuns who refused to alter their behavior towards strict obedience and ascetic dress and actions.

Most interesting is Campagnol’s mention of the surviving written work of nuns who refused to take this criticism quietly, such as Archangela Tarabotti, who directly attacked the hypocrisy of the church and the indifference and cruelty of families who force their daughters into the convent against their will.  By 1643, two of her works were published and circulated among her friends on the outside, La tirannia paterna (Paternal Tyranny) and L’inferno monacale (Monastic Hell), as well as Il paradiso monacle (Monastic paradise), which detailed the benefits of the life as chosen by willing women.  In 1650, she published Che le donne siano della specie deli uomani (That women are of the human species), and railed against patriarchal assessments of women’s intelligence and vanity as sin (p. 165-167).

In the final chapter, Campagnol turns to the production of beautiful textiles within the convents themselves.  Briefly contrasting convents with hospitales, or temporary homes for beautiful, orphaned women who were perceived to turn to a wayward life without official guidance and instruction in the textile arts, Campagnol shows that the motivations for nuns were different than the women of the hospitales, who could change their fate and eventually leave if they so desired. Through letters and convent records, Campagnol demonstrates that the creation of beautiful embroideries and textiles by nuns was not only a means of financial support for the convents, but also a way for nuns to create alliances on the outside through strategic gifts to certain family or church members. Executing exquisite embroidery and cloth-making could serve as a source of self-esteem and creative release for the nuns; the reputation of the excellent work of certain convents reverberated far beyond their enclosed walls.

Visually illustrating this entire study are several detailed engravings of nuns’ and noblewomans’ dress from the 17th and 18th centuries. The one drawback with the reproduction of large, detailed canvases on the small page is that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the specific examples to which Campagnol draws our attention.  It is here that image searches online often are helpful.  Campagnol wisely chose one of the most intriguing paintings (Francesco Guardi’s The Nuns’ Parlor in San Zaccaria, 1755) to reproduce in greater detail and full color on the cover, where these two aspects are very significant to our understanding of the scene.

Engraving by Pierre Helyot, Choir Habit of the Nuns of San Zaccaria, 1743. From Isabella Campagnol's Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Engraving by Pierre Helyot, Choir Habit of the Nuns of San Zaccaria, 1743. From Isabella Campagnol’s Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Transcriptions of letters, dowry lists, and popular songs and poems illustrating the woes of the would-be nun make for a rich foundation for this study. Copious and detailed footnotes attest to the numerous documents Campagnol has examined and now makes available to the reader.  Especially fascinating are the transcribed and translated dowry lists, which include some intriguing items (for example, one secular marriage dowry lists “old” and “torn-up” blankets and sheets–were these for servant use? another use?), and also show the preferred provenance of certain items, such as “Slovenian-made cloth” or “Indian Cotton from Holland” on one nun’s dowry list.  This book, full of unexpected and sometimes delightful accounts, is well-worth the reader’s time, whether one is interested in women’s and gender studies, religious studies, politics and social life in Renaissance Italy, textile arts, or fashion as the forbidden and dangerous. 

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.