Friday, July 23, 2010

Chaucer: The Medieval Tim Gunn

 Recall, if you will, the following lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
Know you not, / being mechanical, you out not walk / Upon a labouring day without the  sign / Of your profession? (1.1.3-6)
 And consider it's similarities with Chaucer's lines from the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales:
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun / To tele yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, / And whiche the weren, and of what degree / and eek in what array that they were inne, (GP, 37-41)
[Translated:  I think it is important to tell you the condition of each of them [pilgrims], as it seemed to me, how they were, of what social rank, and how they were dressed.]
Both texts, written 200 years apart, focus on the power of something called sumptuary laws.  Dating back to the Roman Empire (hence the association with Julius Caesar), sumptuary laws, simply put, regulate what people can and cannot wear (as well as other things like personal spending and food consumption.) [See for more information.  If you don't know much about the laws, I encourage you to take a look.  They're really interesting.]  A person's job (or status) dictated clothing style, making it easy to determine one's "worth" at first glance.  The laws--a sort of school dress code for the masses--were capriciously enforced--sometimes authorities cared; other times they didn't--however, you did not want to encounter the sergeant at law on a bad day, so adherence to the codes was the norm.

Throughout the "General Prologue," Chaucer scrutinizes the clothing, noting: the Yeoman's coat and hood of green, as well as sword and small shield (standard to his status and trade); the Prioresse's elegant cloak and coral bracelet, string of pearls, and gold broach engraved with an A (seemingly showy at first glance, but once understanding that the pearls are actually a rosary, it is befitting of her rank); and the Clerk's threadbare overcoat (maybe a little shabby for a 'learned' man, yet his rank and pay would not afford finer attire.  Sounds a little like being a teacher.) 

In addition to being driven by the sumptuary laws, people of the Middle Ages viewed clothing as an expression of a person's moralistic value:  Adam and Eve are dressed in animal skin to reflect the bestiality of sin, Baptism gowns are white to reflect the purity of salvation, and church clergy weary the effigy of Christ to reflect their desire to be like him.  Meaning, instead of wearing blue because of fondness of the color blue or 'cool' skin tone, one would wear blue as an indication of virginity and moral likeness to Mary.  (No, being Gothic or urban in dress does not indicate a fundamental problem with your moral core by today's standards, anyway, but in the Middle Ages you may have been considered a heretic!)

Chaucer best depicts this ideal in the "Clerk's Tale", the story of Griselda, a woman born into a family that owns nothing more than an ox stall (symbolic religious significance, obviously) who lives a simplistic, devout life until the Marquis requests her hand in marriage.  The Marquis (Walter) selects her out of all of the women in the village because of her virtuous beauty, mature and steady spirit, and obedient devotion and diligence to her father; she has no lust (in the Middle Ages lust referred to desire for all things, not just sexual need) and accepts her lowly station in life with grace and compassion.  (If you read the tale in it's entirety, you will discover that Walter abuses Griselda's obedient devotion in a ghastly manner.  Upon acceptance of the marriage vow, Walter clothes Griselda in a glorious array and this lowly woman obtains a station (and a wardrobe) worthy of her moral essence.  When Walter's didactic tyranny reaches its pinnacle and he removes Griselda from his home, she leaves in a simple shroud equal the riches in which she was previously adorned.  (A little like another holy, moral person who was stripped of his title and clothing, and removed from his home.)

Of course, when you consider the fact that many viewed placement within the feudal system as parallel to moral capability, the entire clothing situation creates a holy conundrum.  (ie.  Knights are by dictate of courtly ideals more honorable than millers and reeves.  This is like claiming that an Army General is more scrupulous than a Starbucks barista.  You know what they say about assumptions.)

Really all one can do in any fashion culture is "make it work."

And that's just what Chaucer did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tim Gunn is my homie!