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Materializing Identity?

Veiling in Early Modern Europe between Tradition and Fashion

Susanna Burghartz

‘Materializing Identity’ is concerned with the ambiguous evaluation of veils in early modern Europe. Recently Martha Howell has argued that in late medieval and Reformation Europe ‘the worries about dress were an expression of Europeans’ uncertainty about the link between the material and the immaterial’. The vast and rapidly growing historiography leaves no doubt about the significance of dress for investigating the interdependence of materiality, identity and self-constitution. This applies in particular to the question of veiling, a question, which is still under-researched especially in regard to early modern northern Europe. A close study of the material aspects of dressing codes and changing veiling fashions allows for the discussion of broader questions of the material, its interconnection with moral politics and issues of visibility.

Omnipresent and ephemeral at the same time, veils and veiling lay at the intersection of various cultural and societal tensions affecting moral concerns. They are an ideal research object through which to inquire about codes of social and moral distinctions. Moreover, veils assume an important place in the period’s artistic production. In Renaissance culture artists showed their specific skills through their virtuoso depiction of veils and pleats and they used the iconography of the veil for a sophisticated reflection on vision, visibility and visual regimes.

Swiss urban societies of the early modern period and those of Basel and Zurich, in particular, possess rich source material to address these questions, especially for the neglected seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The combination of sumptuary laws, court records, inventories, costume books and alba amicorum allows for an in-depth analysis of both discourses and practices. The analysis of these sources located in museums, archives and libraries in Basel and Zurich will provide crucial insights into local customs and point to the vast interest with which local urban elites engaged in questions of dress codes and costumes. In addition with portraits and paintings a close reading of different types of sources will provide new insights into a trans-regional ethnographic identity discourse in which Europe was engaged.

In combination with economic sources and the few existing material pieces of early modern veiling culture that have come down to us the rich source materials of Swiss cities permit to combine normative, praxeological and material research perspectives. Using this multi-perspectival approach will help us to address questions about how emotional communities are shaped through their interaction with material objects and artefacts.

The present project is closely interrelated with the other projects: The project’s main focus, namely the interconnection of the material and the moral, along with the mediating qualities of the material link this project on veils to the one on the uses of gold; the two projects on veils and glass share a common interest in notions of transparency and opacity as well as unveiling and obscuring; and, last but not least, the projects on veils and feathers are connected through their common interest in the relation of costume and identity, questions of texture and affect, and the interest in the specific contribution of Protestant cultures in southern Germany and the Swiss Confederation for a European topography of the material and its uses in early modern culture.


Susanna Burghartz, Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe, in: History Workshop Journal, 80/1 (2015), 1-32, doi: 10.1093/hwj/dbv028 (link)

Katherine Bond  —  PostDoc

Veils and Veiling in Early Modern European Costume Books

As this project details, veils and veiling emerge as a subject of tremendous consequence in early modern costume books, which offer rich sources for understanding the material idiosyncrasies and affective possibilities of the veil. It will be argued that veiling is portrayed in these sources to be a materially-activated form of social engagement; a practice relying on the tactility of cloth, and the gesture and sensorial perception of the wearer and observer. 

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