Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sartorial Strategies: Outfitting Aristocrats and Fashioning Conduct in Late Medieval Literature

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sartorial Strategies: Outfitting Aristocrats and Fashioning Conduct in Late Medieval Literature

Article excerpt

Nicole D. Smith, Sartorial Strategies: Outfitting Aristocrats and Fashioning Conduct in Late Medieval Literature (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). 296 pp. ISBN 978-0-268-04137-3; 0-268-04137-7. $35.00.

Nicole D. Smith's Sartorial Strategies follows other recent studies of clothing and fashion in late medieval literature, including Heller's Fashion in Medieval France (2007), Wright's Weaving Narrative (2009), and the work of Jane Burns. It seeks to highlight notable examples of late medieval French and English literature that present positive 'sartorial strategies' and virtuous uses of dress. The first chapter looks at garments in Marie de France's lais, focusing especially on the lady's tighdy laced bliaut and the hero's knotted chemise in Guigemar, concluding that Marie uses such garments to respond to twelfth-century clerical invectives against the new fashion for gathered or tightly drawn clothing. Smith characterizes Marie as 'a solitary voice in twelfth-century romance that purposefully recasts clerical critiques of fashion towards positive ends' (p. 24), allowing fashionably drawn-up aristocratic clothing to be refigured as a sign of virtuous restraint, rather than excess.

The second chapter jumps to the Continent and to transvestism, looking at the cross-dressing female knight of Heldris de Cornuäl's thirteenth-century Roman de Silence. Smith reads the heroine's cross-dressing as kind of 'secular counterpart' (p. 66) to some of the reflective piety of the canons of Lateran IV which restricted dress and promoted auricular confession. She concludes that morality, rather than gender, is examined in the romance's use of dress. Attempts to bring in modern theories of gender identity and cross-dressing (pp. 89F) appear somewhat misguided and are quickly dismissed. The chapter is most involving in its close reading of attitudes towards cross-dressing in the text, noting that Silence's transvestism becomes 'a kind of moral barometer' (p. 20) with which to investigate other characters. …

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