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

Laurel Ann Wilson, Fordham University


In the early fourteenth century a drastic change took place in the clothing of upper-class European men, a change which swept rapidly across Western Europe. The flowing, unisex robes which had formed the foundation of aristocratic clothing for more than two centuries were suddenly replaced by much shorter, tighter clothing, carefully cut and tailored to reveal and emphasize men’s bodies and legs. Available types of garments increased greatly, and the pace of change quickened dramatically as well. Most scholars of fashion and dress consider that these events mark the observable beginning of the Western fashion system, but this premise has for the most part been ignored or discounted by medievalists. The result is that a notable development in late medieval society has never been contextualized, nor has it been used as a means of investigating the society in which it took place. This dissertation thus has two primary goals. An attempt to understand the beginnings of a fashion system necessarily implies a theoretical distinction between fashion and non-fashion. Since the field of fashion studies is still defining itself, there is as yet no single accepted theory or even definition of what fashion is. My first goal therefore was to posit a workable theory defining both fashion and non-fashion. I argue that fashion centers around the positioning of change as a commodity in itself. My second goal was to demonstrate the existence of fashion as a phenomenon which is new in the fourteenth century, through a combination of visual, textual, and material evidence. I have made extensive use of manuscript illuminations, together with works of literature, wardrobe accounts, and sumptuary laws, to illustrate the new types of clothing, the increased pace of change, and the new attitudes towards clothing which distinguish the fourteenth century. It is my hope that this work will stimulate further investigation of this complex subject.

Subject Area

European history|Medieval history|Textile Research

Recommended Citation

Wilson, Laurel Ann, "‘De novo modo’: The birth of fashion in the Middle Ages" (2011). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3474156.