Extensive work on the subject of clothing as a valuable item has been carried by Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass in their book Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (hereafter referred to as Renaissance Clothing). In it they describe how items of clothing came to make part of the annual wages of an employee, who must be kept, clothed and fed by his master. The payment for clothing often represented several times the actual sum paid to the employee.[xxxi]
It also describes how articles of clothing might be given to retainers as gifts, particularly at Court where Elizabeth gave her own gowns to her ladies in waiting, or had gowns made for them. This of course leads to the issue of whether clothing as a form of livery is effectively enslavement.[xxxii]
Renaissance Clothing turns then to examine the inherent value of clothing, and the manner in which a garment can be taken down into its constituent and equally valuable individual parts – either for reassembling into another garment, or in the example of gold and silver thread, can be melted down and the metal recovered once the garment is no longer fit to be worn. ‘The value of clothes was thus directly connected to the expense of the materials from which they were made. Because of their value, the materials often had long and complex afterlives’.[xxxiii]
Additionally, Janet Arnold has carried out extensive work on the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth, and in her work Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d.[xxxiv] many illustrations and itemised lists show the incredible level of detail and work which went into a gown or garment of the period. Items are scattered with gold embroidery, with jewels and pearls, and incredibly costly materials are used both as outer and inner garments. Indeed, the black tips normally associated with the monarch’s ermine, are in fact the tip of the tail cut into the normally white ermine’s coat. Thus in depictions of Elizabeth wearing spotted ermine, we can appreciate the incredible level of work which went into it.
In Renaissance Clothing there is a further examination of the cost of items of clothing contrasted against the costs of portraiture. Stallybrass and Jones draw our attention to the fact that the commissioning of a portrait was often significantly cheaper than the actual commissioning of the garment itself[xxxv]. They also discuss the manner in which a garment or article of clothing is often represented in incredible detail – but the actual portrait of the sitter is not. They conclude that such expensive items should be shown to their full impact, and therefore would be sent ahead to the artist to paint in some detail, whilst the sitter themselves would only appear for a short time. One interesting observation is that paintings were often named for the outfit of the sitter, not for the sitter themselves, and that subjects might hire outfits for a sitting rather than wear their own clothes.[xxxvi]
We can draw parallels in Lisa Jardine’s book, Worldly Goods, where Jardine cites the now famous van Eyck painting, the Arnolfini Marriage as an example of ‘a celebration of ownership – of pride in possessions”.[xxxvii] The details of the painting are a renaissance inventory of their wealth, a display of their status and importance.
These facts in themselves may seem to have nothing to do with the theatre, but there are several knock-on effects. For example, if clothing is so costly, what do you do with it once it has served its purpose? If you’re given an outfit as a servant on the death of your master or mistress, which you might be forbidden from wearing due to the sumptuary laws, but which represents a significant financial investment, what do you do with it? The answer lies within the theatre and with the clothes dealers. In some cases an individual represents both.
As stated, one obvious outlet for second hand clothing was the theatre. Plays contained a variety of characters, often depicting several different social classes, and costumes which accurately represented their status were used. There is evidence that far from just putting on a crown and becoming King, the playing companies spent increasing amounts of money on lavish and elaborate costumes. Renaissance Clothing examines the entries in Henslowe’s ‘Diary’, and draws our attention to the rich and costly apparel stored both as items for sale, and as items purchased specifically for the players.[xxxviii]
Jones & Stallybrass state that a play usually cost about £6, but the costumes relating to it might cost of £20, perhaps outstripping the cost of the playhouse itself.[xxxix] They also calculate that ‘from the full inventory of Vermeer’s parents, we can draw the following, to us, surprising scale of value: 19 paintings were worth less than 8 pairs of sheets and 2 green curtains; the 8 sheets and 2 curtains were worth less than a silk apron, and a satin bodice; and the apron and bodice were worth more than a workman’s wages for 56 days.’[xl]
Clothing was inordinately expensive and in A Gurr’s The Shakespearean Stage he states that ‘The price of manufactured articles, as always in a predominantly subsistence economy was markedly higher than the cost of food. … The Earl of Leicester paid £543 for seven doublets and two cloaks, at an average cost for each item rather higher than the price Shakespeare paid for a house in Stratford.’[xli]