Spring 2016

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Art History


Women are rarely accorded prominent roles in the grand narrative of history. More often than not, men are the principal characters, and the shadow they cast over the timeline of our past is so ubiquitous it eclipses the stories of most women. As figures caught in the shadows, women’s individual personalities and actions have often been obscured by the personalities and actions of the men they have lived alongside. For this reason, historians are consistently faced with the challenge of extricating the lives of women from the events recorded by men in the written documents that typically constitute history. One way to meet this challenge is to move away from our principal reliance on written documents and records, and instead focus on the objects that women have left behind. Objects of dress are particularly fruitful areas of such inquiry, and few periods placed as much significance on dress as the Renaissance. This paper, then, is a study of female dress during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in both Northern and Southern Europe. Here, “dress” functions as an umbrella term that encapsulates any decorative object used to modify the body. This definition includes items that are not necessarily visible on the body, such as perfume, and items that are not always attached to the body but developed out of dress practices, such as embroidery. I will analyze these accessories and various types of clothing in an effort to understand how women asserted their identities in a society that sought to stultify them. The historian Yassana Croizat has noted, “a systematic study of how Renaissance women invented, circulated, and used fashions to consolidate their authority has yet to be made.” This paper attempts to take the first steps towards such a study. In the following pages, I will evidence that women used dress as a weapon with which they could dismantle the barriers society confined them within. Dress afforded women the unique opportunity to construct self-images of their own making that were not informed by the desires and needs of the men they lived along side. Furthermore, dress not only allowed women to construct their own self images, but also gave them the opportunity to circulate those images within spaces that were otherwise inaccessible to them. Women like Isabella d’Este were limited in their ability to travel and Mary Stuart was imprisoned; yet during their lifetimes they retained astonishing amounts of power and continue to be relevant historical figures today.


Note: Access to this thesis is restricted to Skidmore community.