Put some Respect on my Breeches

Put some Respect on my Breeches

Material Culture and Display in Renaissance Italy

In renaissance Italy over fourteen different sumptuary laws were put into effect from 1550-1650 in Florence and 8 different time in Sienna.[1] These laws were to limit the amount of luxury and spending people could spend on rich textiles like velvet and silk. Fashion overall was changed by these laws and led to a large change in material expression especially for the middle class. For rulers and aristocrats, spending for fashion was a must have especially in Italy, the Netherlands and France. Italy’s laws led to the consumption of textiles in curious ways that would evade the eye of anyone who would try to fine them. Anyone above the age of 20 could report someone else.[2] Fashion and royalty went hand in hand; if you did not have expensive taste and did not spend money on clothes and textiles you simply did not have “honor and dignity of the nobility.”[3] On the other hand, peasants during this period had close to no fashion, and the clothes they did wear were not even completely functional as we might like to think of them today. The middle classes however had an aspiration to be wealthy and to have that dignity that Giovonni Pontatano spoke of in that previous quote.   

In Sienna as well as the rest of Italy, there was a clear distinction between classes based on how one dressed. Hats for example, were a must have for any man to be respected as such.[4] Hohti speaks on how the average Italian attempts to spend and show off wealth in the same way we know elites to do. She stated that we need to rethink possession and possessing when talking about the middle class. A social class that is not allowed to show material wealth, and whose wealth is highly distributed through their own communities.[5] The Italian middle class knew how to dress and knew what was expected of higher classes and would often try to get away with dressing up to impress others in higher income areas. Therefore, we can determine that the middle classes knew about social mobility, how to achieve it, how to look the part and how to participate in fashion even with upper classes. This is important because it validates the non-conspicuous spending of the middle classes to show off their identities and wealth.    

Shopkeeper and his Wife in their bedroom, Italy, circa 16th Century, MET Archive
Portrait of a Man, Italian, Circa 1525, MET Archives

An interesting example she uses is the secondhand textile dealer Mariano di Tomosso, whose taxable income according to the state was 10,000 Lire, which is already relatively high for the middle class.[6] However, when looking at his clothes and textiles his family held postmortem, he would have been the richest person in his neighborhood by a great deal due to the storages of textiles and furnishings they possessed. So, there is a collection, a sort of bank account that renaissance Italians participated in by buying and selling clothes and textiles and storing them in their homes. Hohti stated interestingly that every artisan or shopkeeper would participate in this grey market of buying and selling, pawning, their textiles, clothes and other goods like cutlery and jewelry to raise extra cash.[7]

The more decorative and precious textiles and clothes were saved for celebrations and special events. Expensive tapestries and coats of arms were typically kept in trunks for safe keeping. A textile dealer’s house would be crammed with furnishings with immaculate textiles and embroidery to show off their wealth and to pass on to their family after death. Shopkeeper Vincenzo di Matteo had a taxable income of only 320 lire, but his house had an abundance of furnishings, mattresses, bed sheets, a gold coat of arms and many other chests filled with items of high value.[8]

Like many young people today using second hand websites to buy their clothing and items, the average renaissance person often bought their furnishings and clothes from second hand salespeople in public squares or streetside. No websites were involved but credit would be established between different people to ensure payment, but that credit could be something like a “cloak and two women’s dresses.”[9] These secondhand dealers were called rigtteri and were essential to the function of trade within Sienese as well as greater Italian fashion industry.

Renaissance Bedroom (Google Images)

In conclusion, the middle class and upper middle classes in renaissance Italy truly conspicuously consumed. By adding trunks of storage for their fashionable goods they were able to save generational wealth and hope to move up in social order. Artists and textile/clothes dealers especially held a powerful economic position in their communities because of the non-taxable income they were able to accumulate through credit and trade. Furthermore, for them, the display of goods such as rich textiles was to be done at home or in your shop where customers could see what honor and prestige you had as a business owner. The secondhand market was key in the facilitation of the exchange of textiles and home goods. The home was where the middle class could display their wealth and keep the textiles and furnishings acting as a very liquid bank account.


[1] “Sumptuary Laws,” Refashioning the Renaissance, accessed May 6, 2022, https://refashioningrenaissance.eu/archival-work/sumptuary-laws/.

[2] “Sumptuary Laws.”

[3] Paula Hohti, “‘Conspicuous’ Consumption and Popular Consumers: Material Culture and Social Status in Sixteenth-Century Siena,” Renaissance Studies 24, no. 5 (2010): 654–70.

[4]

Hohti. Pg. 655

[5] Richard Wunderli, Peasant Fires, The Drummer of Niklashausen (Indiana University Press, 1992).

[6] Hohti, “‘Conspicuous’ Consumption and Popular Consumers.” Pg. 657

[7] Hohti. Pg. 658

[8] Hohti. Pg. 658

[9] Hohti. Pg. 659


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