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An Analysis of Women’s Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status Pt III: The Renaissance

By Sarah Andrews

In the Renaissance period beginning in the 14th century, we stumble across a large paradigm shift in thought and art, including the art of dress. It was in the Renaissance that the nude bust appeared in art, corresponding to a new sense of feminine beauty. Many portraits of well-known courtesans were hung alongside portraits of kings and popes. Often an uncovered breast was made to look as if it had slipped out accidentally adding a heightened sense of eroticism (Yalom, 58-59). Elite women were idealized in art and sumptuously decked out in court. However, the Renaissance was also a time of persecution of women, for with its brilliant high culture, it was also a time when witchcraft was arduously pursued by both Catholics and Protestants. Most of the witched condemned to burned at the stake- estimated at between 60,000 and 150,000- were women (60). The Renaissance glorified the young and nubile, while pictures of witches show them with hanging dugs, symbolizing advanced age and infertility. It was the flip side to the high-culture homage to female erotic beauty (61). One of the most famous burnings of the period was of Joan of Arc in 1431. One of the charges brought against Joan of Arc was that she committed heresy by wearing men's clothing. In the end she probably did so in order to preserve her modesty on the battlefield, but nevertheless her choice of dress aided her captors in finding an excuse to burn her at the stake (Knight, pars.19-22).

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In the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, the Church dictated much of what constituted acceptable dress. The Bible implies that dress originated out of an instinctual desire to be modest, and this was taught by the Church from the days of ancient Rome until the early twentieth century (Hiler 4). In 14th Century Italy the Chevalier de La Tour Landry wrote a book for the education of his daughters citing examples of virtuous women known for their modesty, meekness, obedience, patience, forgiveness and charity. - traits he related to the supreme model of womanhood: the Virgin Mary (Yalom, 40-41). And yet this very reverence and imitation of the Holy Mother lead to a fashion revolution. In the early fourteenth century an alarming image of Mary sprung forth form the brushes of Italian painters near Tuscany. The Virgin Mary was depicted offering her bare breast to the infant Jesus. There are earlier isolated images of the nursing Virgin, but the Early-Renaissance proliferation of nursing Madonnas was a unique phenomenon which captured the Western imagination for centuries to come (Yalom 40).

It is not surprising that at the same time that fashion grabbed unto the ideal of the bared breast. The fourteenth century poet Eustache Deschamps favored the wide-open neckline and tight dress with slits on the sides, "through which the breast and the throat could be more visible" (Yalom, 39). Not only was the breast revealed in increasing measure, but also undergarments within the dress served to displace the bosom. The natural lines of woman became a forgotten ideal, and the body was no longer viewed as a whole piece as in the Aristotelian manner, but rather was divided with a particular emphasis on the breasts. The overt sensuality of the Renaissance woman certainly suggests she had power, at least of a sexual sort.

In the early 15th century the poet FranV ois Villon places words of lament on the tongue of an elderly prostitute who mourns the loss of her former charms, "Those sweet little shoulders, those long arms and nimble hands, little breasts and fleshly hips." The standard of beauty for breasts was that they should be small, white, round like apples, hard, firm, and wide apart. The standard for hips was soft, round, and fleshy (Yalom, 54). It is understandable that she should lament, for youth was highly prized, and older women were shunned as reminders of mortality. The Italian writer Agnolo Firenzuola imagined "fresh and leaping breasts, moving upward as if unwilling to remain forever oppressed and restrained by clothing, demonstrating their desire to leave their prison" (Firenzuola, 76). This quote reveals the new eroticism attached to clothing, which seductively constrained the most interesting parts of a woman's body. Not only is the waist emphasized but also the tapering of the waist in girl-like, youthful fashion. Tight lacing is in vogue through the second half of the 14th Century (although the Italian women had displayed their figures much earlier). The waistline is sharply curved and accented by an excessively full skirt, which splays out from the hips. Sleeves are tightly fitted and extend almost to the knuckles. The necklines are increasingly low (Brooke, 52). For droopy breasts, there was the remedy of sewing into the top of one's dress " two pouches into which the breasts are squeezed so that the nipples are thrust upwards" (Yalom 39) Again the foundations beneath costumes urged the feminine form to retain it's youthful appearance.

Women's breasts were extremely marketable as well as fashionable. It is no wonder woman began to use foundations to uplift and display their wares. Venetian prostitutes often floated in gondolas down the canals garbed in costumes that revealed the breasts completely. The wet nurse could earn at least as much as her working class husband. Her breasts served a two-fold function, they nourished the young as well as preserved the youthfulness of the higher-ranking wives who would not sacrifice their high, tight breasts as dugs to be milked. But by being a commodity she invited ill treatment. In a home a wet nurse might expect to be treated little better than a cow who might grant sexual favors. (Yalom, 160).

The Renaissance brought a change in the way women's bodies were perceived. The body was dichotomized into pieces with the breast becoming almost an entity of their own. In many cases newly eroticized costume became a way for women to display their breasts as commodities for sale; gaining women a rather ambiguous lever for social elevation. While certainly this type of dress was functional in the sense of putting bread on the table, it nevertheless remains functionally rooted in objectification.

 

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Copyright Sarah Andrews. Reprinted at www.beautyworlds.com with permission.

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