“In the beginning”, states the author of an essay that was submitted to the Royal Patriotic Society in Stockholm in 1773, “clothes were used for two reasons: to cover the body, and to keep the body from cold and heat”. With time, “and the propagation of mankind”, a third reason was added: “to ornate the body” according to needs, means and function. Some “performed rougher and heavier work”, others had less heavy, less rough work, and others still “were set to advise and rule” the rest. All was well. But as societies continued to grow, “Amor Sclereratus habendi” – the accursed love of possessing – took hold of mankind, and an additional two, previously unknown, reasons for the use of clothes came into being: “Pride and Self-Indulgence”. Everything changed; everything once “natural” was perverted by the omnipresent desire for “all things foreign”, for “more”, for “tastier”, for “grander”.
The tone is righteous, the address is condemnatory, and the rhetoric is almost Biblical, with a familiar narrative of a Genesis, an original Sin, and a Fall. The author provides a condensed outline of the sartorial practices: the basic instrumentality of dress (to cover and keep warm), but also the social aspects with the interaction between social creatures, presenting themselves and making claims through decorations, and the resulting complexity and conflicts between the regulating norms and the communicative practices at play, with people making claims and forming the self through consumption and sartorial practices.
The essay was one of 70 of its kind submitted in response to the question on the “advantages and disadvantages” of a national dress posed by the Royal Patriotic Society earlier that year, inviting the public to submit their replies, promising a gold medal of 30 ducats’ weight to the winner. Departing from these essays, and the rather unique insights into early modern sartorial practices that they provide, my paper focuses on the views of “correctness” and “incorrectness” in sartorial matters, and – more specifically – the different “morals” in play, structuring and governing the sartorial proposals in the essays, such as economic morals (state finances, domestic production), social morals (to dress according to station, and the fear of social confusion), religious morals (with the divine scheme, and godly versus ungodly behaviour), and national morals (with a Swedish way of things, contrasted to foreign models).
European Social Science History Conference, Valencia, 30 March-2 April 2016