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Historical Fashion: the Worldly and the Weird
By Michal Strutin
July 19, 2022

I didn’t have to do much clothing research for Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus. About 3500 years ago, commoners’ clothing—especially for escaped slaves—was purely practical. Desert dwellers’ plain cloth gowns and robes and head coverings kept them relatively cool in summer and warm in winter. Any wealth that people had back then, they wore, especially the women: bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings. Mostly gold and silver. Much of the rest of their wealth was on the hoof.

The necklace of a king’s daughter from the 12th Dynasty (1991 – 1802 BCE), featuring gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet.

 

Egyptian royalty did dress with style: slim sheath dresses for women covered with elaborate gowns. Their jewelry included gemstones, such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise. They also bathed more than the hoi polloi. Many among the royalty shaved their heads and wore wigs. Why? Head lice prefer clean, healthy scalps over the heads of the unwashed. No living hair leaves lice no hair to hide in. Desert dwellers—Noa and her sisters—had few water resources so they used camel urine as a rinse substitute.

 

Galabeya.

Now I’m writing a historical mystery trilogy set in the Late Renaissance. One of my sleuths is originally from Cairo. Egyptian clothing hadn’t changed much from ancient times to 1571. He works as a merchant, selling woolens from the Levant to sellers in Venice. As the ship he’s on enters the Venice harbor, he changes from his galabeya to more worldly Italian clothing and wonders aloud, “Why do people north of the Middle Sea prefer these tight doublets?” complaining of the fitted jacket. “And do short breeches and tight stockings keep you warmer in winter or cooler in summer than a galabeya? No.”

 

Who wore comfortable clothing in the sixteenth century? The lower classes, the people who had poor housing, dreary food and not enough of it, questionable hygiene, all the discomforts of poverty. They wore broadcloth dresses and shirts, the men in building trades and such wore leather tunics. Fancy shoes? Not for them.

 

Portrait of a young Venetian noblewoman ca. 1570, by Giovanni Antonio Fasolo. See at Laura Morelli’s website. An art historian, Morelli also writes historical fiction focused on Late Renaissance Venice.

The well-off in Venice and elsewhere in the fashionable cities of 16th-century Europe wore clothes of fine linen, high-quality wool, satin, and velvet as well as silk from China. And, for the sake of fashion, women wore clothing that constricted and elongated their torsos. The bodice of a fashionable gown rose from below the waist in a flat, linear sweep to just above the nipples, pushing up mounds of snowy breast.

 

Loads of slashed, stuffed, and ruched fabric puffed up the arms of both sexes and the shoulders of men. Layers of underwear weighed down women. Men wore codpieces that showed off seemingly engorged genitals. And upper-class women suffered their feet with fashion-forward stilts–chopines.

 

Codpieces begin with a logical explanation: men’s hose back then were two pieces: one for each leg, tied together at the top. When men’s jackets came down to their thighs and further, their genitals were covered. Then came tight-fitting doublets, raising men’s jackets to their hips and higher. So men’s genitals were exposed to the elements and anyone in view. Enter the codpiece.

 

Henry VIII, studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-50

Pretty quickly, codpieces became statements of virility and power: embroidered, bejeweled, shaped and stuffed so that the wearer appeared permanently erect. A portrait of Henry VIII of England is a noted example of this top-dog studliness. Some also say that the codpiece served a part in the protection against rampant syphilis in that period. The term “cod” is a Middle English word meaning “scrotum.”

 

Venetian chopines, 1590-1610

Chopines were popular, especially in Venice, from the 15th to the 17th centuries. These platform shoes, usually made of wood or cork, may have been introduced by courtesans, but became popular with privileged women, showing off their high-society status. Ostensibly, they kept women’s feet from being sullied by dirty streets. Venetian law limited the chopine to three inches, but few took it seriously. The tallest chopines were 20 inches high, and most women wearing chopines required attendants to keep them from toppling. Chopines became so popular  in 15th century Spain that the majority of the nation’s cork supplies went towards producing the shoes.  

 

Curiosity sent me looking for other strange historical fashions. Ignoring the visual noise and the ads, this site includes not only chopines, but also lotus shoes for Chinese women whose feet had been fashionably broken in childhood, hobble skirts that impeded walking, corsets that impeded breathing… See a trend? These were fashions associated with women without agency, women whose social status and authority depended on their fathers and husbands.

 

Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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