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JRS Fashion and Gender in Renaissance England

ENGL 200.302
instructor(s):
MW 3:30-5
fulfills requirements:
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major
Junior Research Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major

In our modern age, we tend to associate the word “fashion" with superficiality, trendiness and frivolous purchasing. Yet, as the late Coco Chanel once said, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only … fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Following Chanel’s formulation, what if we were to revisit the category of fashion not as fundamentally separate from social, political and economic issues but as deeply in dialogue with the issues of its moment? To answer this and other questions, this course will turn to Renaissance England, when the word “fashion" in its modern sense of "rapidly-shifting styles of dress" was just starting to come into being, and when the influx of foreign materials and styles provoked anxiety about the economy and national identity. Examining both literary and visual sources, we will explore the politics of fashion in conjunction with issues of gender, race, class, global trade, and even political intrigue! What can "sumptuary laws," which banned the lower classes from wearing certain materials, tell us about fashion and social mobility? How did England’s growing obsession with calico (called "Indian cloth" in the period) produce anxieties about England’s economic and moral constitution, and who did these fears target most? What connections can we draw between the depictions of Turkish women in veils in English travel logs and contemporary debates about hijabs? 

Students will become familiar with the sartorial vocabularies used to discuss political and social issues, in addition to examining the dominant styles of clothing in the Renaissance. Assigned texts may include William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the Exchange, and Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, as well as a variety of visual sources (paintings, frontispieces, and costume sketches). No prior experience in visual criticism is required, though students will learn some fundamentals over the course of the semester. As this course is a Junior Research Seminar, students will complete several research exercises which may include close readings, visual analysis, keyword research using the Oxford English Dictionary and data analysis using python code, in addition to a 10-page final paper or creative project.

Major requirements: Fulfills Sector 3, Pre-1700 Seminar, Pre-1900 Seminar, and JRS