2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Clothing and English National Identity in the Sixteenth and
Seventeenth Centuries

May-shine Lin

Department of History, National Chengchi University

This article studies the construction of English national identity through the discourse of clothing and its connection with the body in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It begins with a discussion of how nations were defined by clothing in Europe during the periods of the Renaissance and the Exploration, and particularly through printed “costume books” and maps. Then it moves to England, examining English discourse of dress and the wool cloth industry articulated by the popular writings of this period, such as pamphlets, travel writing, sermons, and maps. Such works not only expressed the solidarity of English national identity, but also displayed various textual and visual representations of Englishness. This article then connects the issue of clothing and the metaphor of the body to categorize their representations into three different images of the national body, which actually are three modes of clothing: the naked national body, the composite, and the civilized. The former two are negative representations of the English nation attributing to its lack of national costume and its inconsistency of dress under the influence of foreign fashions. English writers discerned the decay of the nation in their discussions of the country’s naked body and its composite mode of clothing, but at the same time, they searched for the reasons for this decay and England’s true national character. Those efforts led to a vision of a civilized national body that was founded upon true civility and an ordered society. This vision was also employed to promote traditional morality and the wool cloth industry. No matter which representations of the national body were promoted, they all illustrated that clothing stood out as one of the most powerful mechanisms to convey and fabricate national identity in early modern England.


Keywords: national identity, body, clothing, costume books, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England