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October 27, 2010

CCNY Exhibit Shows What Not to Wear Over the Ages


What not to wear Final

That illusory, often tongue-in-cheek, concept of “fashion police” might be the modern creation of disapproving designers and critics, but it is as old as the ages. In fact, centuries ago the wrong outfit could get you in legal hot water. 

For example, during the Renaissance, Italian cities fined women whose hemlines were too high or necklines too low. In 15th Century England, Parliament dictated what types of cloth different members of society could wear.

Fashion dictates in societies past and present is the theme of a new City College of New York Libraries exhibit, “What Not to Wear: Rites, Ranks and Regulations,” that runs through December 31, 2010. It is on display in the Cohen Library Atrium, located in CCNY’s North Academic Center (NAC) building, 138th and Convent Ave., Manhattan.

“This exhibit takes a historical and cultural approach to fashion, documenting instances when dress has been dictated not by style but by law and custom,” said co-curator Daisy V. Domínguez, reference librarian & exhibits coordinator in the Cohen Library.

“At different points in history and in different regions of the world, regulations on dress have been used to reinforce the social order, to control recently colonized groups and to further protectionist policies. Clothing continues to hold special meaning and relate to specific cultural rites even unto this day,” she added.

Comprising reprints from the Cohen Library’s 677-volume non-circulating Costume Book Collection, the exhibit highlights sumptuary laws regarding dress codes issued in societies as far apart as Europe, Asia and America. 

In Renaissance Italy, for example, city governments levied monetary fines on citizens wearing offending garments such as a hemline that was too high or a neckline that was too low.

Apparently, some Italian authorities are still up to it today. It was reported last week that the town of Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples, intends to prohibit women from wearing provocative clothing. Women who wear miniskirts or show too much cleavage could face fines of up to $700 if new regulations are approved. 

During the reign of Edward IV in 15th Century England, Parliament issued a number of restrictive regulations defining what types of cloth could be worn, by which members of society, and how the cloth should be cut. Purple and gold clothing were the preserve of certain noblemen and statutes were enforced by sheriffs.
The exhibit includes Chinese silk brocade as an example of a fabric forbidden to commoners in Imperial China. Not only was the silk material and gold embroidery restricted to the upper class, but the color green was related to a specific rank in the Emperor’s court and it was illegal for peasants to wear it.

Similar laws existed in other cultures, including parts of Colonial America where, for instance, lower class Puritans were prohibited from the use of lace, silk, gold, and silver in clothing.

“What Not to Wear” is co-curated by Shea A. Taylor, chief of reference in the Cohen Library, and Sydney Van Nort, CCNY Libraries archivist. 

“In addition to introducing patrons to historical sumptuary laws and rites regarding dress in Britain, China, Italy, Japan, and the United States, (the exhibit) offers ideas for how scholars can use the exhibit,” said Professor Van Nort. “One way is that it may be used by aspiring fashion designers; by anthropology students interested in the projection of social hierarchy, power and control in various cultures throughout the world, and by students tracing the history of the dress reform movement.”

For more information on the exhibit, please call the Cohen Library at (212) 650-7271. To look at the non-circulating Costume Book Collection, please make an appointment with Professor Sydney Van Nort, at (212) 650-7609.