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New Fenwick Fellow’s Research Explores 14th Century Fashion

September 22, 2015

photo of Kristina Olson

Kristina Olson

By Jamie Rogers

A medieval society in which men were issued fines for their pants being too short and women were fined for their sleeves being too long has more in common with modern day capitalism than you think.

As George Mason University’s 2015-16 Fenwick Fellow, professor Kristina Olson will connect the dots between the two societies and explore how written works by Dante Alighieri and others addressed the restrictions on the display of wealth in Italy during the 14th century.

The fellowship is awarded annually to tenured, tenured-track or multi-year appointment term faculty.

Olson, a professor of Italian at George Mason, said that between 1265 and 1380 Italy experienced the rise of the merchant class, which became rich through banking and trade—what we know today as capitalism.

These people displayed their newfound wealth by wearing expensive garb. Meanwhile, the long-standing aristocracy was experiencing a decline in wealth and in numbers, she said.

Rivalry developed between some of these aristocrats and the wealthy working class, so to prevent petty outbursts of violence, sumptuary laws were enacted as one way to regulate wardrobe.

Officers measured men’s pants, (the shorter, the more offensive), the length of women’s dress trains, their décolletage and dress sleeves. More fabric meant the garment cost more and was subject to a fine, Olson said.

“They would even sometimes come to their homes, knock on their doors and look through their closets to see what they were wearing,” she explained.

“The big deal about looking too rich is that you don’t look like the social class you belong to.”

Olson is researching which families were at odds and how these families behaved around each other, specifically concerning clothes and jewelry. She’s also exploring how these rivalries and laws were portrayed by authors of the day.

The works of Italian authors who lived at the time—Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarch—may provide insight into what the world was like, she said.

The information she collects about the Italian families will be used to create a database that will be included in Columbia University’s Digital Dante Project.

As part of the fellowship, Olson receives an office in Fenwick Library and an award of $5,000 to support her research. She will also work on a book.

Dr. Olson’s research will enhance our collective understanding of medieval and early Renaissance history and literature, and appropriately expand the Libraries’ holdings in these areas,” said John Zenelis, university librarian and dean of libraries. “The University Libraries is pleased to support her important research through the Fenwick Fellowship.”

Olson will present the results of her work in spring 2017 at the annual Fenwick Fellow Lecture hosted by the University Libraries.