about The Dictionary of Fabrics: Cultural Memory Materialized




“I will deeply put the fashion on / And wear it in my heart” —Henry IV Part 2

The Dictionary of Fabrics is a project that aims to help students of all disciplines and walks of life engage with fabrics and fashion terms mentioned in Early Modern English literature, especially as they appear in Shakespeare’s works. In “The Fabric’s the Thing: Literal and Figurative References to Textiles in Selected Plays of William Shakespeare,” Nancy J. Owens and Alan C. Harris write that “by understanding the historical and social context of the terms used in the plays, the reader has a clearer understanding of the meaning of the plays as as well as a deeper appreciation of the importance of textiles used in dress throughout history. In addition, the analysis has validity for our own age as we use material in apparel to state aspects of, conditions of, issues in, or beliefs about our culture.” Understanding the context of fabrics mentioned in Shakespeare can lead us to a richer, more vibrant understanding of his work, and give us a way to engage with the time and context in which it was written.

Fabrics, especially those used in clothing, help us establish our identities. Owens and Harris write that these materials are “a ‘package’ of form and associated meaning that connects each individual to socially created, modified, and perpetuated cultural patterns.” Understanding the way people dress and what materials they value or devalue can help us understand their culture. The Shakespeare Globe Trust tells us that “in Shakespeare’s time, clothes reflected a person’s status in society—there were laws controlling what you could wear.” These laws were called the sumptuary laws, and although they eventually failed, the clothes one wore reflected a person’s status. The penalties for violating the law could range from the loss of property, the loss of a job, or the loss of one’s life.

Materials and Fabrics Used in Elizabethan Era Clothing tells us that upperclass people “wore clothing made of velvets, furs, silks, lace, cottons, and taffeta. Knights returning from the Crusades returned with silks and cottons from the Middle East. Velvets were imported from Italy.” To contrast, lower class members typically wore wool, linen, and sheepskin, and were restricted to dull colors. Fabrics that typically belonged to the upper class were frequently worn by prostitutes in part to give men the fantasy of sleeping with an upper class woman.

To subvert sumptuary laws, some people began slashing their clothes, which exposed the color of the fabric linings (see: doublets). Actors were the only people in Elizabethan society allowed to wear clothes that were above their station. The realm of the play was the only arena in which people could wear whatever they wanted without punishment. The theater and the brothel were similar spaces in this sense, though one was legal and the other wasn’t.

As an embroidery artist, my first encounter with the fabrics mentioned in Shakespeare was an exciting, multidimensional experience. It occurred to me that people who haven’t worked with fabric on a regular basis might not be able to engage with the text in the same way, and I wondered if I could create something that would help people experience this aspect of his work. For example, what exactly is changeable taffeta, the fabric that appears in Act IV of Twelfth Night? What’s the history of this fabric, and how is it used now? Knowing that this fabric is iridescent, sturdy, and noisy when one walks sheds light on the context in which it is mentioned. Contextualizing different fabrics can help us arrive at a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s characters, how they speak to each other, and the world they inhabit. It can make reading the plays a lot more fun.

During my research I was repeatedly struck by the way fabrics and fashion-related terms are used to make puns and/or comment on women’s sexuality. For example, when Leyontes erroneously beliefs his wife to be adulterous in Winters Tale, he calls his wife a “flax-wench.” In our current context, it might be hard to understand how the world flax could be employed as an insult, but during that time period, flax was associated with the workaday world; a flax-wench was “a woman of the lower class employed in making clothes from flax” (Sandra Clark).

The issue of women’s labor in the manufacture of garments is impossible to ignore. As Ellen Reiss writes in Clothing and Emotion, “The agony of millions of people has accompanied the manufacture of garments—has accompanied labor as such through the centuries. This agony includes children working at looms; young women jumping to their deaths during the Triangle fire because exit doors were locked; sweatshops; bodies sickened from horrible working conditions; lives spent in poverty. All this horror has arisen solely because that beautiful, kind oneness of selves and earth which is production has been forced to have as its basis the supplying of profit to some individuals.” Issues of gender and labor are incredibly intertwined in early modern times.


I hope to give people the opportunity to learn more about the context of certain fabrics by providing them with a digital resource that includes instructive videos, photographs, quotes, and my own notes. During my research, I came across some incredible texts, including Sandra Clarks’s Shakespeare and Domestic Life: A Dictionary. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the domestic aspect of Shakespeare. I have provided a comprehensive bibliography for those who are interested in researching this subject further.

Currently, the project includes 12 fabrics/terms. I’ve provided an interactive blog space where students, teachers, scholars, artists, and anyone who is interested can interact and contribute their thoughts and ideas about the information presented here. To contribute to the blog, please contact me through this contact page with a short description of the topic you hope to cover.


I decided to add this resource to my own personal shop where I sell embroideries. Creating things is one avenue through which I engage with text, and it cannot be separated from my research. Thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out to me with any questions, concerns, or ideas.

I would like to thank Flickr Creative Commons for providing all of the photos for this project. There are no known copyright restrictions on any of them.

This project was born out of The Graduate Center, CUNY’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program.

Bio: Madeleine Barnes is a writer, visual artist, and Doctoral Fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She works mainly at the intersection of poetry, material culture, and queer theory. Her chapbook, Light Experiments, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press.

This project is dedicated to the memory of Sally J. Pardini, beloved grandmother.