A woman’s clothing, how she adorns herself, the makeup she wears, and her hairstyle…these things eternally hold very deep symbolism all the world over. It is often something that is controlled for the sake of modesty, honor and religious piety. What women wear, how they look, is the world’s obsession. It communicates whether she is of means or no, what she thinks about herself, what she wants others to think about her. It speaks of her personality and her beliefs. It speaks of a great many things.
Isabella Campagnol offers us an incredible front row seat into what clothing and adornments meant for women in Venetian nunneries in her invaluable scholarly work: Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents.
Venice (as with all of Europe) placed ladies into nunneries for centuries. You can read about it in my book Venice, as well as my other posts (Virgins in Venice by Mary Laven and Naughty Nunnery Parlors). Noble parents might have birthed 7 noble daughters, but inflated dowries meant only one, perhaps two of them could make an excellent match. The rest went into enclosure…forced, beaten, tricked, guilted into going. Yes, of course some went willingly and wanted this pious life. But most didn’t. Being a very young woman sent into a nunnery, to spend the rest of your life there completely closed off from the world, was a horrifying fate for many. And nothing could stop them from having worldly desires.
As we see in Campagnol’s book, just because you’ve lost your worldly freedom doesn’t mean you’re going to follow the rules; Venice’s noblewomen broke them, again and again and again. From curling and showing ones tresses when they were to keep their hair completely covered, to transparent fabrics where solid ones should be, to hiding, coveting and wearing gems and adornments when these items were forbidden, to smuggling in or making and wearing every sort of item out of luxurious fabrics that were not allowed. Noble nuns even found ways to dye their hair in secret, wore makeup and furs. They wanted beauty, individuality, status, comforts, and freedom. Despite confiscations, punishments and shunning, the enclosed women pushed back.
Campagnol also shows us another side to the equation…a great many women who being disposed of, were left destitute of their basic clothing and linen needs. Once having lived in a comfortable world, they were now forgotten and left to suffer without a great many items, their urgent letters and requests falling on deaf family ears.
Campagnol’s book is an eye-opening treasure. Undressing countless archives for the fashion facts, she gives us a glimpse into the sometimes dazzling yet often cruel world that many women experienced behind the veil.