The Clothed Savage Meets the Naked Gentile: the perception of “Otherness” in sixteenth-century England

Written by Emily Austin

Identity is created by unconditionally adopting that with which we are raised:   values, ideas, principles, and clothing choice. The culture we accept is what we consider to be normal. From the very beginning of existence, humans create a dichotomy between what is comfortable and known, and what is foreign, different, and “other”; in other words, they develop a sense of what is good versus what is different. The idea of otherness is created in conjunction with personal and group identity. Identity, then, inherently creates a barrier between groups of people with differing cultures. Awareness of otherness is an ingrained aspect of human nature. This is paramount in the division between the indigenous peoples of North America and those of England in the early contact period; identification presents both anxiety and envy.

Since division is a fact of life, there must be ways to easily and readily identify said divisions, how else would one know who to discriminate against? Apparel has always been the easiest method of separation. There are different standards of dress for the different genders, for different ages, for different religions. Geography also plays a role. Back before the time of demarcated modern political boundaries, regions could be deciphered by costumes.

Art historian Michelle Mosely-Christian notes: “Clothing is understood as a cultural construct representative of people, and also of place”1. Clothing is one of the main features of a culture, along with language, religion, and morality and values. It gives a glimpse into a people’s culture, hints to their values, and also connects them to a place. Climates require specialized clothing, thus why Russians love fur and Hawaiians love leis. A universally understood language is sight. Vision as vernacular has appeared throughout history and more specifically in the context of the fashionable other, on maps. Clothed figures appearing inside boundaries of areas or around the edges of a map, as sixteenth –century England is known to do, show how each region dresses, hints to what the culture is like, and also gives an idea as to climate and resources 2.

 Figure 1 Sebastian Munster, Europa as Queen of the World, from Cosmographia, 1544

Otherness has always been abhorred. It has been a cause for anxiety and thus causes avoidance and distaste. It is the fear of the unknown, mostly, the fear of deception and of deviance. Human nature commands that the culture one is familiar with, the one that is normalized, affects the worldviews and paradigms for all aspects of their life. Culture, an extremely cherished and sometimes threatened system, is reluctant to change. For a member of one culture, other’s preferences seem to be “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”3.

During the period of substantial European colonization that began in the 1400s, English fashion centered on a complex type of modesty. It was required to cover the whole of a woman’s body, from floor length skirts fluffed by underskirts to ruffs (pleated and ruffled collars) around the neck. Men wore sleeved-overshirts and breeches, their legs covered with tights, and finished off the look with a codpiece. Modest, to be sure, however the garments worn were intricately detailed: “embroidery, jewels, lace, ribbons, and many other forms of decoration…[were used] to express their own sense of style” 4.

http://b86a38.medialib.glogster.com/media/43bba03adc2f913b45349be121f9994d5e5602a29916cb95d3a92d5c478d98a3/elizabethan-era-clothing-law-for-women-1.jpg

http://b86a38.medialib.glogster.com/media/43bba03adc2f913b45349be121f9994d5e5602a29916cb95d3a92d5c478d98a3/elizabethan-era-clothing-law-for-women-1.jpg

How to Dress Like an Elizabethan Woman

The English were very much set in their culture. They disliked change so much that they developed a fear of the “degeneration” of society due to taboo costuming. This fear leaked into their fear of expansion, which allowed “wealth and power…[to come] into the hands of new people who lacked the lineage and background of the “better sort”’5, the cultural maturity of the nobility or even just the English themselves. If the status quo is at risk, there is a threat of anarchy, of the loss of power, of having to rid themselves of their precious ruffs.

Shakespearean-era Costuming

As evident from their wardrobe, the English valued modesty. However, they also had a strict social hierarchy; those that were not of a specific type of nobility were not allowed to wear certain luxurious clothing 6. Though these sumptuary laws were rather difficult to enforce, if a commoner stepped out into the public sphere wearing silk, then they would in theory be arrested, and punished for their imperious deception of rank. Other values included the meekness of women (their clothes were bought for them by the men in their lives), luxury, cleanliness, or at least an imagined sense of cleanliness (in the 16th century most everyone smelled at least a little bit), and evident, distinguishable differences between the genders.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bf/Ch2Opechancanough.jpg/125px-Ch2Opechancanough.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bf/Ch2Opechancanough.jpg/125px-Ch2Opechancanough.jpg

http://www.cogsci.indiana.edu/farg/rehling/nativeAm/namap.gif

http://www.cogsci.indiana.edu/farg/rehling/nativeAm/namap.gif

The indigenous people of North American during the early contact period had somewhat different attire. When discussing the fashion of the American people, you cannot. It is impossible, due to the wide variety of the peoples. It is very similar to discussing Africa as if it were one solid country with one group of people. “Most tribes were domestic, but the Lakota followed the buffalo as nomads. Most engaged in war, but the Apache were particularly feared, while the Hopis were pacifistic. Most societies were ruled by men, but the Iroquois women chose the leaders” 7. (video of American culture as related to the buffalo) American dress varied as greatly as their languages and religions. However there were some common themes. Simplicity, in amount of clothing as well as design was valued along with utility. Some American men would shave half of their heads, the side that would come into contact with their bow, so as not to be in the way. Moderation was key, as there was no room in an American woman’s (or man’s) day for the cleaning of intricate layers of cloth 8.

A typical American outfit could include a draped piece of tanned animal skin around the waist, to cover the genitals. This was worn by both men and women, girls of all ages, and boys over twelve. Modesty is evident, but the level of what was considered modest to the indigenous Americans and to the English contrasted. For decorative purposes the indigenous Americans would use dyes and beads, feathers and fringe. Painting on their skin was prevalent, and for this the English have distaste 9.

Ideology shared by both the English and the indigenous Americans, “clothing [was considered] a fundamental demarcator as well as the most immediate emblem of the difference between the two people”10. Status was important to both sides, as it is a communal characteristic of humans to be obsessed with power and organization. The indigenous elite dressed in more ritualistically ornate clothing, more decoration and more paint, similar to how English nobility dressed in elegant luxury to a sometimes ridiculous extent. The English had created a beloved status structure, with which they described savagery as “dependent on social status as much as ethnicity” 11. In this way, they could compare the indigenous Americans to the lowest members of the English caste system, though that was not always the case, as they could also be seen as more pure than even the top of the English hierarchy. Both cultures were relaxed by this fact that they shared in the value of demarcating social status visually. Along with clothing, “physique and carriage provided valuable indicators of one’s place in the world” 12. The English respected the elite American’s posture and composure.

The “Other” is a social construct of vastly little importance to society as a whole, yet a great importance to individuals when judging civilizations and other peoples. The English sometimes used the indigenous peoples of North America as a “before shot”, a microcosm of life before greed, excess, and luxury. The fashion obsessed English were not so much afraid of the newness of American fashion, but afraid that they may be proven wrong in their fashion choices.


Footnotes:

[1] Mosley-Christian, ‘Confluence of Costume, Cartography and Early Modern European Chorography’, Journal of Art Historiography 9, 2013, 1

[2] Mosley-Christian, ‘Confluence of Costume, Cartography and Early Modern European Chorography’, Journal of Art Historiography 9, 2013, 9

[3]Churchill, Winston., “The Russian Enigma.” Speech, BBC Broadcast from BBC, London, October 1, 1939.

[4] Advameg, Inc. “Fashion Encyclopedia.” Sixteenth-Century Clothing. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/European-Culture-16th-Century/Sixteenth-Century-Clothing.html

[5] Ordahl Kupperman, Karen. “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization.” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 54, no. January (1997): 193-228.

[6] Queen Elizabeth I. “Elizabethan Sumptuary Statues.” Address, Queen Elizabeth I, Greenwich, June 15, 1574.

[7] Independence Hall Association. “Diversity of Native American Groups.” ushistory.org. http://www.ushistory.org/us/1a.asp (accessed October 1, 2014).

[8] Ordahl Kupperman, Karen. “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization.” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 54, no. January (1997): 193-228.

[9] Ibid

[10]Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid


Works Cited

Advameg, Inc. “Fashion Encyclopedia.” Sixteenth-Century Clothing. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/European-Culture-16th-Century/Sixteenth-Century-Clothing.html (accessed October 1, 2014).

Independence Hall Association. “Diversity of Native American Groups.” ushistory.org. http://www.ushistory.org/us/1a.asp (accessed October 1, 2014).

Leed, Drea. “Overview of Elizabethan Outfits.” Putting on an Elizabethan Outfit. http://www.elizabethancostume.net/overview.html (accessed October 1, 2014).

Moseley-Christian, Michelle. “Confluence of Costume, Cartography and Early Modern European Chorography.” Journal of Art Historiography Number 9, no. December  (2013): 1-22. https://sakai.wlu.edu/access/content/group/2014_15_FALL-HIST_180_02/Week%20FOUR%2C%20Moseley-Christian.pdf (accessed October 1, 2014).

Ordahl Kupperman, Karen. “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization.” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 54, no. January (1997): 193-228. www.jstor.org/stable/2953317 (accessed October 1, 2014).

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Publie dans International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.” Other/Otherness. http://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/collaborateurs/publicationsJFS/OtherOtherness.pdf (accessed October 1, 2014).

Churchill, Winston . “The Russian Enigma.” Speech, BBC Broadcast from BBC, London, October 1, 1939.

Queen Elizabeth I. “Elizabethan Sumptuary Statues.” Address, Queen Elizabeth I, Greenwich, June 15, 1574.