Legally Fashionable

medieval fashion, florentine women

Last September, when I was in Florence taking an Italian course, I got to study a little bit of Italian literature. One of my professors happened to be the author of a book of stories taken from 14th century writings called, Racconti italiani del Trecento 1 by Antonio Sabatini. I really enjoyed reading from this book because it was so well written and the stories chosen were very entertaining. One of them inspired me to write this article.

Medieval Florentine ladies stay one step ahead of fashion police

Medieval Florence, like many European cities, had ‘sumptuary laws’ to regulate luxury items, with an emphasis on women’s clothing. However, these laws proved difficult to enforce upon the clever Florentine women. All clothing was regulated, but there were few – if any – prosecutions brought against men, while a multitude were levelled at the fairer sex.

Did this stop Florentine women in the Middle Ages from expressing themselves with their fashion sense? Not at all. First of all, you could buy a license granting special permission to wear a banned item. Alternatively, one could simply wear the forbidden clothing and pay a small fine each time. Some Florentine men willingly did this to keep the ladies in their life happy.

Catch me if you can…medieval florentine women fashion

For some women, outwitting the authorities became a game. Even with ‘fashion police’ patrolling the streets and denunciation boxes in situ to submit accusations, these elegant ladies were not easy to catch. If an extravagantly dressed damsel saw an officer, she could duck into a church where the fashion police were not allowed and try to outwait him, or she could try to talk her way out of the fine. These ladies became adept at arguing law as the following story shows.

Around 1384, a new official arrived in Florence to take charge of the Office of Women, which was responsible for enforcing the sumptuary laws. This position was always filled by someone from another town, since no local man wanted to take on the fashionable Florentine ladies. After the new official had been in charge for a while, his superior called him in to ask why there had been no changes to the fashions on the street. The official answered that he and his deputies had tried their best, but they simply couldn’t legally fine these women.

He said, ‘I’ve spent my whole life studying the law. But next to these women, I feel like I know nothing at all. Your women always find reasons why the laws don’t apply to them. Here are some of the reports from my deputies:

  • There was a woman wearing a hood with an extravagant fringe. The deputy said, “It’s forbidden to wear a hood like that. What’s your name? I have to report you.” The lady refused to give her name. She lifted off the fringed ornament and said, “Look, this is just a wreath and I’m not wearing it now.”
  • He saw another wearing forbidden buttons. He said, “Signora, you are not allowed to wear those buttons, there are too many and they are too expensive.” She replied, “Of course, I can wear these. The law applies only to buttons and these are not real buttons. See, there are no buttonholes.”
  • He approached another wearing ermine and demanded to know her name to report her. She replied, “You can’t report me. This is not ermine. It’s lattizzi.” When he asked, “And what is lattizzi?” She replied, “It’s…like an animal.”
Italian literature, racconti italiani,

Racconti italiani del Trecento 1 (in Italian) by Antonio Sabatini. You can order one by contacting Sabrina.berlingaccini@alice.it

The Florentine women were not only fashionable but they kept informed about the laws and made sure their wardrobe stayed just ahead of them. It must have been frustrating for those trying to enforce the laws but good for the fashion industry. The city of Florence tried to regulate women’s clothing for a few hundred years before realizing the impossibility of the task and giving up.

This article by Margo Lestz first appeared in The Florentine, The English-speaking news magazine in Florence, 6 November 2014.

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10 thoughts on “Legally Fashionable

    • The laws applied to everyone, but they were only enforced on women. Unfortunately, women have been second-class citizens throughout most of history, but they used their resourcefulness to get around these laws.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Just because Jeff may be biased doesn’t mean he can’t also be right… 😉

    Margo, thankfully European history is long and rich- that means you still have thousands of stories yet to discover and share. So fascinating!

    I love the interesting stories you find to share with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You can’t keep women down! Your article is really interesting and I think that it would make for a good paper on the struggle of women in the law throughout history, a struggle well fought and almost won! Today, in the US at least, women have really broken through the field of law, and your article just shows how far back that battle goes! Bravo! (Brava!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I actually thought of you when I wrote it. I know that you would’ve had so much fun back then – going through those big legal books looking for loopholes. 😉 I can just hear you in your briefing…”Ok ladies, the law says ‘no extravagant buttons’ but the legal definition of button is ‘a clothing fastener’…so if it doesn’t fasten anything then technically it is not a button, therefore you cannot be fined for buttons that serve no purpose.” 🙂

    Like

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