Sex Fashion Revolution of Fourteenth Century

De novo modo’: The birth of fashion in the Middle Ages

Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study:When Men Were the Fashionable Sex : the Fashion Revolution of the Fourteenth Century at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium Manhattan, NY.
Over the course of the fourteenth century, a truly revolutionary change took place in the clothing of upper-class European men.  Beginning around 1325, the long, flowing, nearly unisex robes which had formed the foundation of aristocratic men’s clothing for centuries were suddenly replaced by much shorter, tighter clothing. Far from being unisex, these clothes were cut and carefully tailored, using newly invented techniques, to hug the body and display the legs, demonstrating gender differences in the clearest possible way, something which Western clothing has done ever since.  The new clothing also consisted of separate pieces carefully chosen to complement one another, rather than being composed of overlapping robes as the earlier ensembles had been, and this too became the new norm in Western clothing.

This new silhouette, which at least one historian has identified as the ancestor of the three-piece suit, swept rapidly across the elite ranks of Western Europe in the 1330s and 1340s, but this was merely the introduction to an even more revolutionary development:  it was at this time that Western clothing began the process of rapid and continual change which we now refer to as fashion.  Thanks to the lavishly illustrated manuscripts of the time, we can watch these changes almost as they happen,  decade by decade through the fourteenth century.  And thanks to the same lavishly illustrated manuscripts, we can experience vicariously the increasing beauty and richness of men’s clothing as it became a more and more important factor in establishing social status in the Middle Ages.

Laurel Ann Wilson, Ph.D., a writer in residence in the Library’s Wertheim Study, is associated with the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies. A self-described opsimath, that is, one who acquires learning late in life, she earned a Masters and a Ph.D. from Fordham UniversityColleges respectively.  Her original interest was in medieval textile technology, which led to her award-winning master’s thesis on the linen industry in medieval England.  Since then she has been investigating the emergence of fashion as a social phenomenon, which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation, as well as of many subsequent conference papers given in places ranging from Montreal and Stockholm to Knoxville and Kalamazoo.  Her current research involves sumptuary law and its relationship to fashion, with two articles in the works and the hope of an eventual book.