Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge: CUP, 2000. 384pp. ISBN 0 521 78102 7 Cloth; ISBN 0 521 78663 0 Paper.
Jerome de Groot
University College Dublin

De Groot, Jerome. "Review of Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 14.1-4 -<URL:

  1. This important book configures and reconfigures our emerging sense of material culture during the Renaissance period. Taking in a wide variety of theoretical concepts and primary texts, the book presents a compelling case for more consideration of discourses and situations hitherto committed to the margins of scholarly inquiry. In particular, Jones and Stallybrass argue in impressive depth for the importance of clothing in constructing Renaissance identity and subjectivity:

    To understand the significance of clothes in the Renaissance, we need to undo our own social categories, in which clothes are prior to objects, wearers to what is worn. We need to understand the animatedness of clothes, their ability to 'pick up' subjects, to mold and shape them both physically and socially, to constitute subjects through their power as material memories (2).

    They take this initial point and spin an argument encompassing a range of concepts from the construction of gender roles to memory, class, economics, drama, textuality and portraiture. Along the way they pioneer a newly inclusive approach to Early Modern culture, considering text, textile, jewellery, starch, spinning, weaving, and needlework. Many of these aspects of Renaissance life had been considered before, particularly with reference to the agency and status of women, but this book synthesises all such arguments in an holistic manner, suggesting that it is only through a consideration of the entirety of material culture that we will come close to an understanding of the complex varieties of Early Modern identity. In particular, the book considers the interaction of a variety of gendered practices and spaces, presenting a culture in which clothing both constructed and marginalized whilst it destabilised and undermined. Their point is crucially provisional and conflicting: "clothes as material memories, constitutive of the subject; clothes as a currency whose circulation makes and remakes the subject" (269).

  2. The book is split into three sections: "Material subjects,""Gendered habits" and "Staging clothes". Jones and Stallybrass open by considering in a relatively straightforward manner how clothes work to constitute the Renaissance subject, before moving to analyse in depth the relationship between the material culture of clothing and Renaissance constructions of femaleness. The first part includes an important reconsideration of the ability of portraiture to present not the inner self or the subject but rather to present the props and tropes of performed wealth and elite opulence, a key movement away from psychological insight to a material consideration of the physical implications of the portrait. The second section appropriates the female "habits" or spaces of weaving, needlework and spinning in order to argue that such pursuits were deployed intentionally by (mainly elite) women as they "reworked and transformed the imagined boundaries of the domestic and the political, the private and the public" (13).

  3. The two distinct opening sections are brought to something of a conclusion within the concluding three chapters that concentrate upon how clothing operates in the theatre. This leads to a number of interesting conclusions regarding the role, performance and construction of gender on the stage. Particularly, the interest here is on the simultaneous materiality and insubstantiality of clothing: how it can at once be a powerful memorial of the dead and a destabilising concept that undermines cultural constructions of sexuality and gender: "the power of clothes to shape and to resist social identities" (221). The body on stage is male, but if it "is also imagined as permeable, open to transformation by the materials which it assumes and which, in turn, shape it" (13).

  4. This sense of the doubleness of clothing and the possibility presented within (as well as the innate constrictiveness) runs throughout the volume. Clothing is at once constructive and at the same time subjective and inveterate. The main problem with such an approach, or, to be less cynical, the thing to be celebrated and taken from this volume, is that it becomes key to argue each specific case on its particularised merits rather than attempt any kind of simplistic overview. This is not so much reductive as challenging - Jones and Stallybrass come to clear conclusions about their particular fields of inquiry, but are refreshingly contingent about anything else. Their final section is "the end(s) of livery." They suggest, rather than dogmatically argue, and this opens up a genuinely new field of inquiry. Jones and Stallybrass argue cogently and clearly, switching genre and medium easily but stitching the raw materials into a coherent and impressive whole. The book has a huge and important array of reference and is very well illustrated. This work should become both key in its own right and influential in suggesting a new approach to the study of the period overall.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)