Dress Matters : Clothes and Social Order in Tallinn, 1600-1700

Abstract: This dissertation explores the relationship of clothes and social order in early modern Europe. The period has often been characterised as inert and immobile, with especially middling and poorer people living in a sartorially drab world, but a number of historians have demonstrated that it was also a period of profound material change, with consumer demand, democratisation of fashion and global trade engendering cosmopolitan sensibilities earlier than thought. Based on an examination of seventeenth-century Tallinn, I analyse how social order influenced sartorial expression and how clothes shaped order through affirmation, negotiation and subversion. The interaction between clothes and social order was complex, with both elements acting as moving parts within the ideal. While on the normative level, clothes were thought to have the primary function of visualising order, on the everyday level clothes could often obscure order and complicate the desired visualisation. Through the circulation of clothing as fungible items and as mediators of intricate emotions and social relations, much of clothes’ complexity in the seventeenth century stemmed from their resistance to being anchored to a single function, whether manifesting status, demonstrating appreciation or helping poor people survive. The results arrived at have two key implications. Firstly, Tallinn, while undeniably an unequal and hierarchical society, was hardly static. The inherent dynamism suggests that social order, rather than being considered as an independent structure, should be viewed as negotiable and requiring the participation of people, space and materiality. Secondly, the study problematises the chronology that has a modern consumer society gradually replacing the ancien régime of fashion. Rather than an uncomplicated narrative of progress, I argue that aspects of both systems co-existed in parallel within a society that did not necessarily demonstrate any of the other tendencies assumed by proponents of ‘consumer revolution’.