Cryptic Costume Cartography- Proto Ethnography in Renaissance Europe

Cryptic Costume Cartography- Proto Ethnography in Renaissance Europe

@Mark O’Connell Sept, 2015, no reproduction without permission


Woodcut illustrating the discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci, 1505.

“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish The Birth of the Prison (1977: 27)


The late 1500’s and early 1600’s saw the beginnings of an encyclopedic approach to the knowledge of dress. The costume books of Cesare Vecellio, and the efforts of Germanic artists to represent the indigenous peoples of what is now Kerala in India, both illustrate proto anthropological and ethnographic explorations. In her article “Mapping the World: The Political Geography of Dress in Cesare Vecellio’s Costume Books” (Paulicelli, 2008) Eugenia Paulicelli explores the development of a proto-ethnography in the efforts of Vecellio to catalogue and illustrate costume–contemporaneous and historical–both at home and worldwide. Paulicelli describes a discernible “language of the dressed body” in the non-verbal communications of dress. The permeability of the nascent Italian social de-stratification at the time contributed in part to the necessity for Vecellio’s books, as it was increasingly hard to differentiate between the traditional aristocracy and newly wealthy mercantile classes as luxury goods proliferated. The concept of creation of the “other” and the European gaze shaping cultural perceptions is explored by Christian Feest in “The People of Calicut: Objects, Texts, and Images in the Age of Proto-Ethnography” (Feest, 2014). The graphics done by the German Renaissance artists Feest examines, hold the aboriginal iconography up to an implicit European standard, and these limited viewpoints and flawed representations came to be codified as iconographic mnemonics for these indigenous peoples. Both Paulicelli and Feest speak to the power of image and text performing both normative functions, as well as purveying of inaccurate didactic social or colonial information; a process that goes far beyond their stated ambitions of categorizing and documentation.

(Full paper upon request)

I had the great pleasure of examining: De gli Habiti Antichi e Modérni di Diversi Parti di Mondo (1590), by Cesare Vecellio during a recent visit to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto:

fig.1. De gli Habiti Antichi e Modérni di Diversi Parti di Mondo, (Cesare Vecellio, 1590)


Tupinamba Bonnet

Fig.2. Tupinamba Bonnet.

fig.3. “Nobelman of Calicut” ca.1505-1520


Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Breward, Christopher.”Cultures, Identities, Histories: Fashioning a Cultural Approach to Dress.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 2, no. 4 (1998): 301-313.

Feest, Christian. “The People of Calicut: Objects, Texts, and Images in the Age of Proto-Ethnography.” Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas 9, no. 2 (2014): 287-303.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory.Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Paulicelli, Eugenia. “Mapping the world: The Political Geography of Dress in Cesare Vecellio’s Costume Books.” The Italianist 28, no. 1 (2008): 24-53.

Riello, Giorgio. “Things that Shape History: Material Culture and Historical Narratives.” (2009): 24-47.

@Mark O’Connell Sept, 2015, no reproduction without permission

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  1. […] The concept of nationalist consciousness building through dress has been used throughout history; even when there wasn’t a national dress to draw upon. During the nascent years of the formation of the country that we now know of as Italy, in his 1590 volume: Degli Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo Renaissance proto-ethnographer Cesare Vecellio used a symbol of a naked peasant holding a bolt of fabric as a symbol of the Italian national identity. The goal was to unite the dichotomous regions of the Italian peninsula that was at that time a fragmented series of feudal city states, that with the exception of Venice were controlled by other European powers (Paulicelli, 2008: 26).… […]