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Fashioning the Early Modern Courtier

May 16th, 2018

St John’s College, Cambridge – Old Divinity School


This one-day conference will explore the ways in which clothing contributed to the gendered (self)fashioning of the courtier in early modern Europe (ca. 1550 – 1750), examining both its symbolic significance and its action on and interaction with the body.


Recent historical research has emphasised how early modern courts were crucial sites for the elaboration and diffusion of specific corporeal models aspiring to shape the ideal man and woman. Fashion, then as now, provides a very material setting that has the power to promote specific patterns of thought and action.


Our speakers will explore how male and female courtiers skilfully constructed their identity and negotiated their social status through sartorial trends and beautification techniques. Rooted within a broader culture of corporeal interpretation, fashion represented an effective way of asserting political allegiance and even expressing criticism ad hominem.  Sovereigns could assert their power by clothing the royal entourage and enforcing vestiary policies. Courtiers in turn could play a role in shaping the image and body of the monarch through gift-giving.


Embracing a corporealist perspective, we endeavour to integrate a semiotic reading of dress with accounts of its fundamentally embodied nature, both in its creation and in its wearing. Symbolic sartorial practices engaged directly with the material body, re-shaping and de-forming the silhouette. Clothes and accessories could provide support and protection, whilst sometimes constituting a hindrance to even the simplest of movements.


We will also investigate the diffusion of new fashions, materials, and techniques. Circulation patterns within the court will be analysed alongside interactions with the city and mutual influences between international centres of power. We will reconstruct the complex network of tailors, craftsmen and merchants which orbited around the court, moving across all social classes and providing a key point of connection between aristocratic courtiers and urban bourgeoisie. We will also consider alternative dissemination mediums such as portraits, early examples of single-leaf broadsheets and bound books displaying fashion plates.


Gathering an international group of speakers including fashion curators, makers, and academics from a variety of fields, the aim of our conference is to challenge traditional top-down models of fashion circulation as well as provide a more nuanced and complete narrative bringing into play all the different actors involved. We also seek to demonstrate how a study of the clothed body provides a privileged gateway into the world of court politics and a unique opportunity to access the courtiers’ embodied experiences.


The full programme is available on the Conference Website.

To attend please register here.

St John’s College, Cambridge – Old Divinity School

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