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13.06.01, Denny-Brown, Fashioning Change

13.06.01, Denny-Brown, Fashioning Change

Fashion as a system of constantly changing aesthetic sensibilities developed in the Middle Ages. At times, the association of clothing to change is imbedded in the vocabulary, as in the "investiture" of a bishop. Sometimes it is pivotal to the way we read literature--so "poor Griselda" is stripped naked of her peasant garb before being decked out in finery marking her transition to wife of a noble man. We may recognise the attention- seeking behaviour of the English "gallant" who dons a French codpiece. Andrea Denny-Brown addresses each of these circumstances within medieval literature, and instead of focusing on the social implications of the clothing, she highlights the potential for reading changes in clothing as a philosophical discourse on the mutability of life. Fashion becomes an organizing principle in discussions of cultural change and material (mortal) transience. As she describes it, medieval clothing and fashion become "philosophically and phenomenologically significant objects" (2) used to discuss weighty issues, which were often hidden within lighter, more frivolous texts. The author argues her case using the three examples/characters listed above, providing a detailed interpretation of relevant medieval literature within its historical and social context. The analysis is based on her reading of Boethius' Consolatio Philosopiae, a text pivotal to her understanding of the medieval approach to the materiality of dress. Her work harmoniously combines literature (Latin, English, and Anglo-Norman), reception studies and socio-cultural history, drawing together both familiar and little read texts. Detailed research and the plentiful use of examples (including images) provides for an engaging book with some fascinating insights.

Her introduction provides a basis for reading the trope of changing clothes as psychological. It opens with a discussion of the second- century Christian writer Tertullian and his decision to put aside the toga for the philosopher's pallium. In defence of his own change in sartorial garb, he wrote a text on ornamentation through which, Denny-Brown argues, changing his clothes is seen as a philosophical statement. Along with a discussion on Chaucer's "Proverbe," the stage is set to see clothing and fashion as a trope for discussing cultural change. The first two chapters provide the literary foundations for the author's thesis and the following three chapters address each of the situations that provide the medieval evidence.

The first chapter, "Fortune's Habits: Boethian Lessons on Clothing and Being," introduces the two figures from the Consolatio which will provide the symbolic framework for reading the medieval texts: Lady Philosophy and Fortune. Denny-Brown argues for seeing this text and its characters as providing the most ubiquitous theory of change for the medieval period. The purpose of the Consolatio is to increase the understanding of the desire for material goods so that the desire might be escaped. As she points out, the materiality of Boethius's pain is clear from the beginning as he complains of being stripped of all his possessions, including his own clothes. In response, Lady Philosophy comes to Boethius to teach him that the ties to worldly goods are what shackle the soul. The importance of materiality for the concept of change is attributed to the role of Lady Philosophy's garments. Made by her own hand, their dirty and torn state represents the neglect of philosophy. At the same time, it is her garment, picked up and folded, which wipes away the film from Boethius' eyes, allowing him to see more clearly. In contrast to Tertullian's adoption of the pallium which had social consequences, Boethius' loss of possessions and his own clothes is used to discuss the pursuit of human happiness in the context of material deprivation.

Chapter two, "Fashioning Change: Wearing Fortune's Garments in High- and Late-Medieval England," is in part a look at the reception of the figure of Boethius' Fortune in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. One of the characteristics of medieval representations of Fortune is her wheel, whose turn changes the status of those positioned upon it. The clothes of those pictured on the wheel invariably reflect their status. Those at the top are dressed richly with abundance while those at the bottom are naked. Images are used in this chapter to highlight the shift from the fashions of those positioned on the wheel to the later circumstances in which Fortune's clothing is used to represent her changing nature. One of these images adorns the front cover of the book; one half of Fortune is white while the other half is black. The original image (a black and white copy of which is found in the book) links a prosperous family to the white side of Fortune and a poorer family to the black. Fortune and social standing are represented as linked. The shift from the wheel to Fortune's clothes eliminates the idea of loss while maintaining the notion of change. In this way, Fortune is shown to represent the self- fashioning consumer.

The next three chapters relate these literary uses of fashion and change to different groups: the clergy, women and the desire for ornamentation, and English gallants.

"The Case of the Bishop's Capa: Vestimentary Change and the Divine Law in the Thirteenth Century" compares and contrasts two texts that deal with ecclesiastical dress. This chapter explores the justification of sartorial changes among medieval ecclesiastical hierarchies as an interaction between biblical authority, urban renewal, and criticism from outside of the ranks. The first, William Durand's (1230-1296) Rationale Divinorum Officiorum dedicates one of its eight books to vestments. It provides an allegorical interpretation of the fifteen elements of the bishops' costume. Apparel for the clergy was being redefined in the thirteenth century, but it was also a time when the changeability of fashion in the secular world was a negative marker. The challenge for Durrand was to justify the change from biblical directions on ecclesiastical garb which require only eight garments. Allegorical interpretation of the clothes could, for example, justify the use of gold, which, other than as a sign of ostentation and wealth, could also represent faith. Durrand presents the additional layers in the bishop's vestments not as a change from biblical prescriptions from God but as more reflective of their original purpose. Denny-Brown posits that the Rationale was a response to the type of satirical poems such as the "Song Upon the Tailors." This poem in the Goliardic tradition celebrated changeability not only in its content but in its form as it occasionally slips from Latin to Anglo-Norman. This story of one piece of cloth and its various transformations has a clear ecclesiastical subtext and highlights the paradox of stasis and change. I wonder whether the explanation of Durrand's work might have benefitted from discussing the tailors' poem first. This would have better prepared the reader for the significance of his work.

The chapter dealing with women and their supposed desire for ornamentation focuses on translations of Boccaccio's story about Griselda. These treatments of Griselda respond to the use of clothing and fashion by the developing middle classes, movements which also stimulated the development of sumptuary laws. "In Swich Richesse: Povre Griselda and the all-consuming Archewyves" the author proposes that the figure of Griselda exemplifies the Boethian ideal of non-attachment to her clothes and possession. Her changing clothes is a consistent motif, to the extent that Denny- Brown describes it as an obsession (115). She continues by asking whose obsession and notes that it is the onlookers who respond to her vestimentary changes. Unlike her husband Walter, who sees her inner virtue, it is the onlookers who are attracted to the intricacies of her clothing. In a similar way, the readers of the translations, the nouveaux riches merchants and their spendthrift wives are enticed by the descriptions of her finery. Griselda becomes a fitting model for the archewyves whose attachment to their own finery is condemned. Griselda demonstrates the higher moral position gained through the lack of attachment to material goods.

The final chapter engages with the English gallant men who epitomized the changeability of medieval fashion. Their readiness to adopt new fashions and then lose them through the influence of fortune links these characters to the uncertainty and instability of English life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Denny- Brown analyses two poems, the fourteenth-century "On the Times" and the fifteenth-century "Treatise of a Galaunt." The first of these poems alternates lines of Latin and English punning upon the word "jack." A peasant garment of France, the jack eventually became part of military attire for English foot soldiers. The term jack is also used to represent a commoner and is a nick-name for John. Denny-Brown posits that this poem epitomizes the unruliness of the gallant, especially in the context of disorder in England in the early 1380s. In a similar vein, the second poem is linked to the social disorder of the Jack Cade revolt. The role of fortune is again highlighted in this chapter by the discussion on dice and their association with "losing one's clothes." Like Boethius at the start of the book, Fortune plays a role in stripping away those elements that provide identity. The materiality of clothes in literature has been shown to have provided a means for medieval readers to examine the value and potential benefit of losing one's possessions.

The book is easy to read and well-referenced, with endnotes for each chapter at the end, the header indicating the chapter to which they pertain. Although clearly aimed to facilitate the reader's access to the notes, I would have preferred footnotes as it saves having to constantly flick between pages. Considering the frequent references to works in different languages, I was pleased to see the original along with its translation in the text, for ease of comparison. There is also an extensive bibliography and seven-page index. This book would be useful for scholars of medieval literature, as well as historians interested in material culture and textiles.