Flaunting: Style and the Subversive Male Body in Renaissance England

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Flaunting: Style and the Subversive Male Body in Renaissance England, by Amanda Bailey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. 190. Cloth $65.00

For Amanda Bailey, the devil is in the definitions. In Flaunting, Bailey offers some intriguing insights into English Renaissance society by tweaking definitions for terms frequently encountered in Renaissance studies. Her central thesis rests on such a tweaking. After echoing the long-established New Historicist tenet that "power . . . resides in the ability to transform the materials of dominant culture into the symbols of subversion . . . ," Bailey attempts a new twist by asserting that "certain young men of the English Renaissance ... did not assume the elite signs of privilege, but rather appropriated them for their own ends" (4) (italics mine) - a rather fine distinction. Bailey then returns to a comfortable New Historicist insistence that the theater not only produced an awareness that clothes make the man, but also that the theater "encouraged sartorial irreverence among those with little discretionary income and no social authority, and in doing so created the conditions for a subculture of style" (5). The remainder of her introductory chapter addresses other relevant definitions ("fashion," "art," "publish," and "flaunt," among others) as she differentiates her study from earlier scholarly works, and argues for a defiant aesthetics, practiced by the above-mentioned youthful subculture.

In her second chapter, Bailey demonstrates the "monstrous manners" (another useful definition for her discussion) of her subversive young men by linking the clothing laws to early modern theatrical practices. In keeping with a plethora of scholars of the English Renaissance, Bailey extends her definition of "clothing laws" to include a variety of texts that sought to influence sartorial behavior. Including sermons, anti -theatrical tracts, and satires, these texts echo the concerns of the official clothing laws (proclamations and statutes) with the behavior of the "meaner sort" which she defines as "an amorphous group of male apprentices, servants and students" (25). When Bailey cites her primary sources, she is on solid ground: it is gratifying (and not surprising) to learn that Philip Stubbes ranted against young men who rioted and flaunted daily. While Bailey then admits that the "specific behaviors associated with flaunting remain unclear," she assumes that the definition in early modern culture includes the notion that "practitioners openly wrested luxurious items of apparel from their proper place." Further, she suggests that these flaunters may have "modified the associations of items traditionally used in certain ways by a particular social group, producing unorthodox combinations" and "exaggerated a particular aspect of a given item" - assumptions not necessarily borne out by the evidence in the primary texts (46). In this chapter, Bailey also identifies the theater as a particularly vital site for the young men's subversive behavior.

Bailey concludes her theoretical chapters by proposing that the young men that she has identified were seen as an "especially subversive minority," a claim that she substantiates by close readings of three plays in the next three chapters. According to Bailey, past interpretations of these plays have been negatively affected because they ignore the presence and particularized behavior of this subversive minority in the plays. To prove this point, Bailey returns to her incisive use of definitions by reminding us that shrewishness was, in this period, a non-gendered form of class conflict: a shrew was a social outcast or newcomer of either gender, and, more importantly for Bailey, someone who challenged authority (76). …