La differece of being woman

Research and Teaching of History

Area: Essays

Appearance of the Body and Beauty: Feminine AdornmentIsabel Pérez Molina.


Concern about the adornment of the feminine body, that is dress, jewellery, cosmetics and other adornments, already appears in the Roman period and it is a recurrent theme in Christian texts during the institutionalisation of Christianity.

Hesiod in his Theogony and in Works and Days makes a suggestive description of Pandora in which her ornamentation is emphasised. Pandora is moulded by Hephaestus and adorned by Athena. The latter adorns her with silver clothing, an intelligent veil, garlands of flowers and a crown made by Hephaestus. This is the first characteristic of Pandora, adornment. The second, related to the first, is falsity. Zeus sends Pandora to Epimetheus as a trick because Prometheus, brother of Epimetheus, had stolen the divine Olympic fire to give it to men. Pandora, symbol of the uncontrolled woman and, therefore, feared, opens the box or jar (píthos) that contains the evils of the world.

Later, Tertullian, who lived between the second and third centuries, in De cultu feminarum, states that adornments are suitable for the woman, Eve, who is condemned and is dead, to cover over her death and to dress her up to give splendour to her funeral. The medieval treatises De ornatu also speak on this subject, as well as other texts, amongst them medieval and modern legal texts, that is, the sumptuary laws.

The sumptuary laws try to protect masculine honour through the honourableness and honour of women. That is, masculine honour and feminine honour are directly related to the feminine body, the covering of the feminine body, decency, classifying woman as pure-chaste or impure depending on whether her sexual behaviour fits or not with the rules imposed by the patriarchal order. Because of this the codes of honour are reflected in the law, part of the symbolic body, of the dominant discourse.

On the other hand, and contradictorily, the ideal of feminine beauty that has dominated in western patriarchal societies since, at least, Ancient Greece, conceives women as the object of masculine desire. Women, turned into objects by the masculine subject, would become mere adornments, objects to be looked at from the outside and whose value depends on their capacity, as woman object, to attract the attention of the subject man. The patriarchy invents an ideal of feminine beauty, which is distributed on the different levels of its discourse, to which women should tend, inciting them to follow it if they want to feel valued, although it only be as objects of the desire of the other and setting out from the premises of the other.

However, if feminine adornment were to refer exclusively to the conversion of woman into an object in order to make herself attractive to men, the sumptuary laws wouldn’t make any sense, since –why prohibit or punish something that reinforces the dominant system itself? In this sense, according to Michel Certeau, it is also necessary to consider that the authorised appearance of the ‘real’, that is, its representation, camouflages the practice that is really behind the fact in itself. In the case of feminine adornment, its official version, for which the objective is for women to be able to attract men, would hide feminine desire itself, that which goes beyond male intervention, to exist as woman subject and contact with the maternal genealogy. This meaning of feminine adornment would explain the existence of the sumptuary laws better.

The Double Discourse of the Patriarchal Symbolic Order

It is not by chance that the condemning of the adornment of the feminine body in patriarchal discourse should arise not only in the Christian moral treatises but also, and, particularly, in laws. Legal inscriptions make up the body as part of the social or collective order, structuring the wide category of subjectivity required in specific periods. Which means that feminine adornment, to which quite a lot of literature was devoted, was not a moral problem, but rather political.

During the medieval and modern periods sumptuary laws on luxury and dress were passed all over Europe. A substantial part of these rules referred specifically to women, and their meaning went beyond the strictly economic, being written into the framework of control over the body of women and the demarcation of the limits and divisions created by the patriarchal society for them.

The rules that could regulate social differences between people also regulated them in a differential way according to the honour of the women, that is, making the distinction clear between the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ or ‘honourable’ ones, above all between the prostitutes and the rest of women. Modesty, for example, meant that the measure of the cleavage was regulated. To not attract attention indecorously with dress, a symptom of sexual immorality, or not waste the money of the husband, which it was supposed that women were prone to do, were some of the objectives of these laws. Women in the city dressed in a way that the men of law and priests considered improper for honourable women and they related the more of less suggestive ways of dressing to the propensity to have reprehensible sexual behaviour for the women of that time, such as adultery, sexual relationships outside marriage, etc.

In the territories of the Spanish monarchy, both the Catalan and the Castilian legislation promote this kind of law, although in Catalonia, during the Middle Ages, it would be above all the ordinances of the cities that would be responsible for it. As far as the general legislation is concerned, the Castilian law looks at this subject more widely, with a series of arrangements that appear collected together in the Novísima Recopilación.

The political character of feminine adornment is revealed when the use of the same categories applied to women, that is, their classification into honest and dishonest, is translated into different, or even contradictory norms, in Castile or in Catalonia. In Catalonia, unlike what we see in the Castilian legislation, the prostitutes or ‘vile’ women can dress as they like, but they cannot cover themselves or wear a cloak or cape as ladies can. The Castilian legislation, on the other hand, is more restrictive towards prostitutes than towards the rest of women. On this subject there is a law dated in 1534, later ratified by a decree in the year 1623, which obliges: "...that women, who publicly are bad, and earn through it, may not wear gold, or pearls or silk, under penalty of losing the silk clothing, and with it what they were carrying, and with regards to the gold embroidery and trimmings, understanding what is generally prohibited (...) there is much more reason for this class of people to understand (...) what is prohibited to all women, the said public women are not to be able to wear either in their homes or outside of them; but what is prohibited especially for them should be understood as in their homes, but rather outside of them, as has always been interpreted and customary...".

In both legislations we see differences in dress according to the degree of honesty attributed, according to the civil state and according to the social status. In Catalonia, the married women wear their head covered with veils. The widows are dressed in black. Sometimes, it seems that this colour becomes so fashionable, that the authorities restrict its use to family members close to the deceased person, because of the cost of this dress and so that the town does not look like a funeral procession. Concerning this the Constitution says "Per quant en los casos", put down in the Constituciones de Catalonia. Also as regards restricting the luxury of the dress, including ‘cloths’ and ‘strange girdles’, under the penalty of 10 pounds and the seizing of the clothes, the Constitution says "Considerant los grans", enacted by Felipe V in the year 1702.

As far as the Castilian legislation is concerned, similar provisions exist that prohibit luxury in dresses, and cloths of or with gold and silver, although they are treated in different ways at times, as we have seen particularly in respect to the attitude towards prostitutes.

Laws, as part of the symbolic body of the dominant patriarchal ideology, and in line with it, on regulating how the feminine body has to be covered, will place their emphasis on underlining the division between honest and dishonest women. As a reward, the “honourable” women will sustain a social role that is subordinated to men but they will, in exchange, receive “masculine protection” with respect to male violence, a violence that for the women “without honour” will constitute a permanent threat. This protection, that will always be relative, will be dependent on obedient and subordinate behaviour on the part of women, which should also be discreet, particularly in the case of virgins.

However, the beautiful women were not the ones who behaved in accordance with the laws or the patristic literature. These, considered ‘demure’ or modest women, had fewer probabilities of marrying unless they had a good dowry. In a period when women were able to choose few options outside of marriage, this would have an influence on women’s concern for their own appearance, at least as much as it does nowadays, in the present-day version of the same subject, taking on different forms according to the ideals of the time and their historical context. Thus, the other face of western patriarchal discourse is consists of the obsession with or the enormous emphasis placed on the appearance of women’s bodies, which are turned into objects with the aim of being looked at, and many times valued according to this criteria, this being a form of control of the body and life of women. That is, the emphasis on the appearance of the body of women and the ideal models of beauty would reflect and reproduce the patriarchal relationships of power between men and women.

Women Give Their Opinion Of Feminine Adornment

In accordance with Milagros Rivera, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and we could say also in the seventeenth century, we can see three attitudes amongst educated women towards feminine adornment. The first, which would be that reflected by the text of Mary Astell, shows itself to be against adornment, seeing it as a way of keeping women as idiots and subject to the power of men, cultivating their bodies instead of their souls, to attract masculine desire. This position was adopted by many humanist women during the Renaissance, the puellae doctae, such as Isotta Nogarola, Laura Ceretta or Luisa Sigea de Velasco. Laura Ceretta wrote a letter to Augustinus Aemilius entitled “Curse against the adornment of women”, in which she denounces women being more interested in their physical adornment, cosmetics and jewels, than in the adornment of their minds. Mary Astell’s text would be a continuation of the line initiated by the humanists, lamenting that “whilst your Beauty casts a lustre all around you, your Souls (…) shou’d be suffer’d to over-run with Weeds” or that women should accept that their souls were given to them “for the service of our Bodies, and that the best improvement we can make of these, is to attract the Eyes of Men”, throwing away their charms (physical and spiritual) “on vain insignificant men”.

A second position would be taken by those women who protested against the sumptuary laws and were of the opinion that women should have the possibility of adorning themselves since it was the only thing that they had of their own. Finally, a third position would be that taken by Christine de Pisan, in the fifteenth century, that held that not all women adorned themselves in order to attract men, but rather for themselves, out of a correct taste or inclination towards elegance in dresses, etc. This position, although earlier than the humanists who defended the first, constitutes the synthesis of the other two, breaking the duality or dichotomy that they represent.

Remnant of maternal genealogy?

Is it a coincidence that it is Athena who in the Greek-Roman myth adorns Pandora? Does this myth reflect a relationship between women with respect to feminine adornment that was perhaps more evident in the time of Hesiod?

Milagros Rivera has studied the meaning of feminine adornment in depth. According to this author, the understanding of the controversy about why or for whom women have adorned themselves becomes difficult if it is not understood that women have lived in a patriarchal society that has obligatory heterosexuality as one of its basic institutions. The condemning by patriarchal discourse of women’s adornment, or should it be said its contrary, to conceive adornment as something that women do in order to attract men, often taking it to a point of exaggeration and manipulation, would be inscribed within those parameters that, through the institution of obligatory heterosexuality, repress attitudes or actions and manipulate their end meaning.

In this way, the practice of adornment of the feminine body would, in its original meaning, be part of the maternal order, connecting with women with the feminine origin of human life from the flesh, the bond with the mother. This independently of the fact that during the Renaissance and later, as we have seen, some women who had an opinion on the matter might do so against feminine adornment, a position that should be understood in the context of obligatory heterosexuality as a key institution of the patriarchal order.

A life in search of feminine freedom

Mary Astell (1666-1731) was born in Newcastle, daughter of a middle-class family in terms of income, properties and educational level, but in reduced circumstances in later years and after the death of her father. Upon his death, she was living in a feminine home, in spite of having a brother and a tutor who was her uncle. The latter took charge of her education, which included Latin, French, Mathematics and natural philosophy. At the age of 22 she moved to London, where she settled in the area of Chelsea. She began to write good quality religious poetry until in 1694 her Serious Proposal to the Ladies was published in which as well as feminine adornment she makes a proposal for women’s education. Between this date and 1709 she published eight books, amongst which are to be found, apart from that cited above, Some Reflections Upon Marriage, published in 1700, where she criticises matrimony, which she rejected, remaining a spinster. In 1709 she also opened a school for the daughters of boarders of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.

Her work A Serious Proposal to the Ladies was celebrated by educated women of her time such as Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, the countess Ann Coventry and princess Anne of Denmark, particularly for her proposal to create a kind of university or educational community for women.

Teaching suggestions

For secondary school pupils or university students:

Look for information about feminine adornment, both on the level of written sources and from their own observation. Write an essay of the material found followed by a critical commentary.

For pupils of secondary education:

Look for advertisements where there is advertising of products related to dresses, jewellery, cosmetics, etc. for women. Describe them and comment upon them. Do they seem sexist to you?

Ask your mother, your aunts, your grandmother, if they adorn themselves or not. Whether the answer is affirmative or negative, ask why.

Cover of the 3rd edition of the work A Proposal to the Ladies.

Cover of the 3rd edition of the work A Proposal to the Ladies.

Birth of Pandora from the Earth

Birth of Pandora from the Earth

Evolution of crinolines between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Evolution of crinolines between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Retrato de Luisa Sigea de Velasco

Retrato de Luisa Sigea de Velasco

© 2004-2008 Duoda, Women Research Center. University of Barcelona. All rights reserved. Credits. Legal note.

Related Essays
  1. 1. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, Mary Astell.