Freddi, Jason. “Review of Amanda Bailey, Flaunting: Style and the Subversive Male Body in Renaissance England.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 15.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/revflaun.html>.
This work is an engaging study that negotiates a path between gender studies, cultural materialism and new historicism in its discussion of the practice of flaunting in late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England. It is important for Bailey that we distinguish the phenomena of ‘flaunting’ from what in later centuries is referred to as ‘fashion’. The latter is a phenomenon embedded in production culture and associated with the centres of cultural authority, whereas flaunting is to be understood as a performative modality associated with sub-cultural spaces and groups. Bailey takes a challenging and new look at this subculture not in order to reinvest the human subject with individuality, but to explore the subject within the history of the object. Flaunting is a cultural mode ‘positioned ambiguously within dominant culture’ which ‘pressured structures of power without breaking from or outwardly rebelling against them’ (8). The study focuses on three groups of ‘idle’ young men observed by their contemporaries for their sartorial excess and sumptuous attire: well educated young men of the gentle class (typically younger sons), young apprentices, and ‘brave’ servants. Each type is explored in the dramatic case studies that constitute the second part of the book.
The study proper begins in the second chapter, which presents an authoritative historical survey of the clothing laws of Elizabethan England, noting the political, economic and cultural sources of these laws. Bailey highlights the ways in which these laws were more concerned with the manner of the wearing of attire, than what was worn and by whom. This attitude of the authorities against what was described in some places as the ‘monstrous manner’ in which certain men dressed themselves (45), is central to Bailey’s revision of the conventional thinking about clothing laws. Bailey reads these laws as a discourse of anxiety, and in discussing the manner of the wearing, she enters the cultural landscape in order to emphasize the centrality of the theatres as the condition for this subculture of flaunting.
The theatres, from the first, had an ambiguous relationship with the sumptuary laws, since actors of one class assumed the dress of another on stage, and young boys dressed in women’s clothing, though these aspects are not noted as especially controversial. We are told by Bailey that the theatres not only provided the forum for the rioting gallants and flaunting apprentices to display themselves, but contributed to their manner of dress by renting clothing to them from the stage wardrobe. Thus, the monstrous manner of dress was generated by a putting together of theatrical costume with pieces of clothing from one’s own, usually meagre, wardrobe, and from exotic items often bought from pedlars.
The importance of how the object is used in creating a style, unlike the matter of fashion, which was determined by production, is reflected in the historic shift of the household away from production of goods to their procurement. This is the context in which Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew provides a setting for the investigation of the young men in Petruchio’s household, conspicuous for their idleness. For example, Grumio’s subversion of his master’s authority by means of his dress and the use more generally of the household ‘stuff’ of his master, makes an ingenious contrast against the much-analyzed ‘taming’ of Kate. Bailey writes, ‘Petruchio’s attempts to manage his wife’s habits of consumption bear no relation to his ability to control his servants’ extravagances.’ (59)
The chapter on Marlowe’s Edward II is not so original, though Bailey attempts to revise the conventional gender-orientated reading of this play by emphasizing style over sexuality. She finds the King’s lack of decorum a consequence of the adoption of the ‘Italian’ style, which, in its sumptuousness, undermines the dominant masculine identity of the court, and argues that this is prior to any insinuations as to the king’s homosexuality. Bailey reminds us that effeminacy in this period was identified as a quality endemic to all youths, and only towards the end of the seventeenth century did it come to be associated as a quality distinct to some men (133). This is identified by the author as a promising course for further investigation.
In the context of the increasing theatricality of the fin de siècle London metropolis, Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour is interpreted as the first of a new form of staging that satisfied the desire of the irreverent young men of London to see characters like themselves portrayed on stage (106). The play displays the ‘gallant-in-training’, as Bailey calls him, who seeks the opposite of the educative guidelines, as set down for instance in the prolific gentlemanly handbooks, by delighting instead in the extravagance of immoderate display: ‘Jonson’s gallants successfully revise the relationship among clothing, space, and the body by confronting onlookers with not simply clothes worn but with apparel preformed’ (115). Jonson’s indulgence of all manner of immoderate vice on stage suggests an increasing confusion of the stage and the street. Jonson is understood to be offering legitimacy for this sartorial subculture: ‘even the playhouse could no longer contain the very modes of impertinent display that it had inspired. The theatre found itself forced to keep up with new sartorial attitudes and behaviours spawned among those who used their bodies and the clothes they wore to animate the theatrical potential of an increasingly vital city’ (128).
This book is well researched, commandingly written, varied in tone and content, and offers much stimulation and enjoyment to both the scholar and educated lay reader.
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