Dress Down Sunday: The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo

published 1957

about life in the late 14th and early 15th centuries in Italy


Monna Margherita’s gowns [might be] of expensive silk, velvet and damask.

Her underclothes, on the other hand, were somewhat scanty. Next to the skin she wore a shift of fine linen,
of which four are mentioned in the inventory of 1394, and eight in a washing-list in 1397, as well as four belonging to [adopted daughter] Ginevra and five to Margherita’s niece, Caterina. But these shifts were apparently Margherita’s only undergarments: there is no mention of drawers or nightgowns – though, like her husband, she had nightcaps to wear in bed. 

Above the shift, in winter, came a lining either of fur or woollen cloth, worn immediately over the shift and under the gown. Margherita had four of these – one of cloth and three of fur – respectively, of otter, cat and miniver. (In summer, of course, the gown was worn immediately over the shift.)

observations: See earlier entry for more details of this non-fiction book and author.

Iris Origo has gone carefully through the lists and account-books of Francesco Datini and his wife Margherita, and as I said before, I naturally found the clothes lists the most interesting. And it was not just me: a tweet on the 1st post was RT'ed many many times, and the blog got many visitors - the magnet fact being that fur was less expensive than sumptuous materials, so your best clothes were not your furs in the Italy of the time. 

Origo lists the trousseau for the Ginevra mentioned above, including:
The only underclothes mentioned are 13 shifts at 26 soldi each, but presumably others were made at home and included with the rest of the linen, of which the list is missing.
She also tells us:
Margherita had two belts… The amount of silver was regulated by the sumptuary laws, which in 1330 forbade any silver belts at all; later on they merely specified that none must weigh more than 5 ounces. Apparently, however, Margherita liked rather heavy belts, for when she received one weighing only 3 ounces she returned it to Domenico di Cambio. “I had it made,” he replied somewhat huffily, “as is the fashion here for the noble ladies of Florence, and could not guess that she wanted one like a peasant woman’s.”
Origo speculates a couple of times on the likelihood that the merchant and his wife slept naked – their bed was piled up with covers and furs for warmth, but there is no mention of nightgowns, so we are left guessing.

Sumptuary laws were an attempt to limit luxury dressing, on economic, class and moral grounds. Origo several times quotes from a popular preacher of the time, San Bernadino of Siena, obviously a thundering busybody full of grumpy opinions on everything. There is a rather unnerving quote from him on trousseaux:
Whereof is this dowry made? Often, most often, it is the fruit of robbery and usury, of peasant’s sweat and widows’ blood, and the marrow of unprotected orphans. If a man took one of these gowns and pressed it and wrung it out you would see, flowing out of it, a human being’s blood!
Like the sweatshops of today.

One thing has changed since Origo wrote her book – in the chapter on food she felt it necessary to explain what lasagne and ravioli are….

More info and pictures on 14th century shifts at this splendid blog, Barefoot Sewing and Other Adventures. The picture of dress-making at home is from the book.


  1. Back to earth with a bump today Moira. Not feeling it I'm afraid.

    I do like the woman multi-tasking in the second picture. I can't imagine a man mastering the art of drawing water from a well at the same time as obviously thrashing her husband at table tennis....the stronger sex indeed!

    1. Excellent description of that picture! The crime stories will come drifting back...

  2. Moira - This really is an interesting look at the clothes of the time. I can see why you found those lists so fascinating. What I find interesting is the way attitudes towards furs have changed. As you say, they didn't necessarily mark great wealth at this time. Then later, they did as it become less easy to get them. Now, the animal rights movement, the conservation movement and so on have had a powerful effect on thinking, so that it's no longer fashionable and trendy to wear genuine fur as it once was. I just really find interesting the way fashion changes as our thinking does.

    1. Margot, yes, I like the way our assumptions can be challenged, and the way attitudes can be changed over short periods too, as you say, the idea of fur has changed so much in our lifetimes...

  3. I like the part about sleeping naked under furs. I could do with some furs to sleep under... it has been unusually cold here lately and most houses here just are not set up to keep one really warm.


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