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Costume and Dress

Roman civilization, relief portraying woman and child at feast, servant bringing plate laden with food.

Dress and belief in Ancient Greece and Rome

Dress was a dynamic part of the religious lives of ancient Mediterranean people: it fostered identity, reinforced community and group bonds and boundaries, displayed the values of community members, and solidified institutional structures. Discover the role of costume in demarcating sacred space and festive time, facilitating ritual experience and marking key rites of passage and initiation in Ancient Greece and Rome.

An image showing schoolchildren at their books, UK, AD 1338-1344.

Sumptuary laws in medieval Europe

Every form of dress carries some indication of the status of its wearer. Status, defined as social difference, is a social relationship which dress makes visible to others. Beginning in the 13th century, sumptuary laws governing dress, food consumption, banquets, and ceremonies such as births, weddings, and funerals, were enacted across Europe to regulate public consumption and display in accordance with social status. Explore the changing relationship between dress and status in the period from the 12th century through the 14th.

Portrait of Chiara Albini Petrozzani with their children in prayer

Costume and the identification of foreigners

In Renaissance Europe, costume became an important means of classifying people of different origins, especially Muslims or Turks (a term that extended to all members of the Ottoman Empire). A new kind of publication – the costume book – showed the plurality of Ottoman society. But it also contributed to the formation of racial and gender stereotypes. Learn how costume and costume books were used to identify foreigners in sixteenth-century Europe.

An image of an engraving showing Children working in a rope factory

Costume becomes fashion

The advance of global trade in the 18th century brought new luxury items to Europe and promoted a taste for the exotic: the Cabinet des Modes boasted that “French women, particularly those in the capital which is the centre of taste, know how to imitate and to appropriate the costumes of all nations.” Barbara Lasic explains how the fascination with luxurious novelties (often publicised through stage costumes) helped to nurture an emerging fashion industry.

A painting sshowing children playing with a giant snowball.

Costume and national identity

In theatrical productions, costume choices have often given expression to debates around national identity. Michelle Liu Carriger and Aoife Monks discuss how the contested terrain of identity has played out in two countries – Japan and Ireland – over the course of the 20th century.