Clothes and the Renaissance man/Q&A with Peter Stallybrass

Peter Stallybrass

A gift from a dying friend inspired the English professor to explore the value and meaning of clothes.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

One of the walls in Peter Stallybrass’s house is covered with bookshelves filled with books, ancient in cracked leather covers and modern in paper and cloth. Ancient and modern art works, many of them textile-based, hang all around, and beautiful wood objects like his father’s recorders—one a bass recorder and a smaller treble recorder—punctuate the airy space. Stallybrass, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in English and Comparative Literature, a boyish 51, talked about his interest in clothing and texts (text and textile have the same root meaning weaving, he said in answer to a question), his love of art, and the book that just won the Modern Language Association’s 2001 James Russell Lowell Prize.

The book, “Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory,” won the James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding scholarly book written by a member of the association, the professional organization for English and modern languages professors. Stallybrass coauthored the book with his wife, Ann Rosalind Jones, a professor of comparative literature at Smith College.

The book starts out discussing the value of clothes in the Renaissance.

Q. People pawned their clothes?

A. Normally, historically, if people didn’t have bank accounts, they put money into things, above all, clothes, so when you hit rough times, you go to the pawnshop and you pawn your clothes. In [the Renaissance] even rich people use pawnbrokers. The king uses pawnbrokers. Everybody.

If you look at pawn records, 75 percent of most pawnbrokers records, from pretty much the earliest records we’ve got, from the 14th century, certainly until the beginning of the 20th century, 75 percent is normally clothes.

Q. But now it’s zero percent?

A. Yes. Because [clothes] are not worth anything anymore. Like in “Oliver Twist,” what’s being stolen there are handkerchiefs. It doesn’t make any sense today. If someone stole handkerchiefs, they’d be locked away as being crazy [laughs].

That sort of changed along with things like stopping darning socks. It’s after the Second World War.

And so once they become cheap, people can no longer get money for them.

Most people don’t have bank accounts until very late. I’m really not clear at what point most people have bank accounts. A huge amount of people still don’t. So if you walk across Philadelphia, you see these signs, “Checks Cashed Here,” and it means people haven’t got bank accounts.

Q. What else changed?

A. One of the things we were looking at in the book is the way that bodies have relatively short shelf lives in this period, and textiles have long shelf lives. And certainly expensive textiles, they’re left in people’s wills. People actually will them to their children, their servants, all sorts of people. We weren’t looking at fashion. We were looking at the opposite. We were looking at clothes as memory systems and how memories get transmitted through them.

Q. What do you mean by memory systems?

A. The first thing I wrote about clothes and how I got in it was actually very personal. The first book I wrote was with Allon White and he died of leukemia. We shared a house together for a couple of years and with anyone who shares houses, you share a fair amount of things. We were about the same size and so we shared jackets. And when he was dying, he wanted me to have some of his clothes.

I lived for 18 years in Brighton, so I’d been in one place for a very long time. And I think that Allon’s clothes became very significant to me, as both about him but about the time we spent together in Brighton, about my past in England in some ways, and so the first piece I wrote was completely, really a personal piece, and it was about Allon’s jacket.

Q. Tell me why you wrote this book?

A. I’d begun thinking about how memory is bound up with things like smell. And I wasn’t interested in new clothes. I just started talking to people, gathering the stories, which I haven’t used, of what people do with the clothes of the people they love when they die. I sometimes think that desperately throwing away clothes, which is what some people do—my father did that when my mother died. It is not very different from hanging on to them. It’s because people can’t bear to have the person you love almost there but not. I think the book is about that, a lot about mourning.

There’s a chapter about ghosts, and what the ghosts were. When ghosts come back, what sorts of clothes do they put on?

If you ask people today, when they imagine ghosts, they say they come back in sheets. But if you ask people why they were in sheets, most people don’t know. And they come back in sheets because you’re buried in sheets. So you come back in your shroud.

Q. How do you feel about the prize?

A. It’s emotionally been an enormously big deal for Annie and me because the process was very hard. Writing with the person you live with is really tough. There’s no such thing as just going home for a weekend. If you’re both there, you should be writing the book.

Q. Did you divide the research and writing up?

A. We did some of that. But we also wrote some of the best chapters together. We sat down, talked them through, sometimes just sat side by side at the computer and just talked it out.

We came at it from slightly different angles. Annie came at it from her interest in textiles and I came at it from my interest in the relationship between clothes and memory.

Annie has actually made clothes. So she was interested in relation to female labor around the making of textiles. It reflects a lot of her interest in spinning, weaving, because weaving in the Renaissance, was pretty much a male occupation, whereas spinning was mainly done by women.

This past summer was the first summer we had where really this thing was no longer hanging over us. So we didn’t really feel very much about the book itself. We were just glad to have it off our backs.

Q. The award then was a surprise?

A. The award was an incredible surprise. It also enabled us to look back at a hard process, hard to live with it and having it sit in the middle of our lives for so long, …We really felt wonderful about it, and to feel that we produced something that wasn’t just something we had to get off our back but might be of interest.

Q. What are you doing this semester?

A. [I am at] the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. We’re studying the Bible since the Bible is in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Also, I’m just looking at any image I can find of Adam and Eve I can find, pretty much up to 1700.

I think it was strange Ann and I wrote this book and really hadn’t thought very much about thinking about a foundational clothes myth. Genesis is the foundational clothes myth of all clothes myths. It’s the very first thing that happens with the Fall. The first labor Adam and Eve do is to sew. … They actually sewed together fig leaves. It’s not that they just put on a fig leaf. They sewed the leaves together and made something. So the first clothing is actually fig leaf clothing, very explicitly.

Above: Stallybrass, sitting next to a 1558 self-portrait by Abraham DeBruyn.

Originally published on November 8, 2001