Fashioning Change: Wearing Fortune's Garments in Medieval England

Article excerpt

Almost from the moment of Fortune's inception as a literary and cultural trope, clothing emerged unchallenged as the goddess's material good par excellence, central as it was to the core symbolism of losing (or being stripped of) one's goods and status. Lucian imagined Fortune as the costume designer and supplier for the "pageant" of life; Boethius depicted his own physical despoilment as the point of departure for philosophical truth; and myriad later writers explored the idea of mortal man at various stages of prosperity clinging to Fortune's wheel in various stages of dress and undress. (1)

As the Middle Ages progressed, however, this sartorial symbol of worldly transience inevitably took on additional forms and meanings. Boethius's conception of Fortune as the controller of worldly prosperity provided writers throughout medieval Europe with a highly effective theoretical structure through which to explore the pleasures and dangers of materialism. As I discuss in this article, Fortune's figure became through the high and late Middle Ages a focal point for specific historicized notions of material change. Representations of Fortune not only chart the trajectory of medieval ideas about clothing and its vacillations, but also illustrate the cultural integration of more subtle Boethian views about the important and multifaceted role objects and ornamentation play in subjectivity and self-conception, and determinism and free will. What began as a symbol of the lack of control mortals have over their own material circumstances, I argue, also becomes by the end of the medieval period a symbol for the power wielded by the self-fashioning subject. Later medieval representations of Fortune's materiality and materialism fetishize the dividing line between external and internal motivators for personal transformation. Fortune no longer merely strips and re-clothes her hapless victims at whim, but takes on these material transformations herself, either through a process of repeatedly stripping and clothing her own body or through wearing garments that themselves perform aesthetic change. Stylistic change stands in for change in circumstance, and in the process the developing concept of fashion's never-ending fluctuations gets mapped more consciously onto the larger Boethian cycle of having and losing. Fortune's material lessons still include clothing's revelatory potential, but they add to this clothing's cultural role as appropriator and mediator of various gendered, classed, and raced historicities. Ultimately, I argue, medieval authors' sartorial manipulation of both Fortune and those over whom she exerts control creates in the goddess a figure for the emerging conspicuous consumer--one who embraces, rather than fears, material changeability, and as such is decidedly in charge of his or her own material destiny.


One of the few critical attempts to historicize medieval Fortune's changing iconography underscores the importance of the twelfth-century's commercial and economic changes to her development. Alexander Murray posits that the emergence of the wheel in twelfth-century visual representations of the goddess may reflect the explosive new money-based economy of this period as well as the social instability that came with it: "the growing prevalence and vigour, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, of up-and-down social movement." (2) Equally--and in many respects, more profoundly--influenced by that period's increased focus on money, commerce, and social mobility, however, is Fortune's sartorial representation. While the majority of recent costume scholarship locates the birth of Western "fashion" in the revolution of dress and tailoring that began in the mid-fourteenth century, Sarah-Grace Heller's recent study locates a clear "fashion system" in the commercial developments of twelfth- and thirteenth-century France, where desire for novelty, discourses of spending and shopping, unique sewing and styles, and fashion vocabulary abounded. …