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Self-fashioning and fashion

A recent influential book on Renaissance “self-fashioning”[1] sets a wider context for the kind of anxieties that are under the surface in these images of fashion.

. . . in the sixteenth century there appears to be an increased selfconsciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process. Such self-consciousness had been widespread among the elite in the classical world, but Christianity brought a growing suspicion of man’s power to shape identity: “Hands off yourself,” Augustine declared. “Try to build up yourself, and you build a ruin.”[2] This view was not the only one available in succeeding centuries, but it was influential, and a powerful alternative began to be fully articulated only in the early modern period. When in 1589 Spenser writes that the general intention and meaning that he has “fashioned” in The Faerie Queene is “to fashion a gentleman,” or when he has his knight Calidore declare that “in each mans self. . . / It is, to fashion his owne lyfes estate,” or when he tells his beloved in one of the Amoretti, “You frame my thoughts, and fashion me within,”[3] he is drawing upon the special connotations for his period of the verb fashion, a word that does not occur at all in Chaucer’s poetry. As a term for the action or process of making, for particular features or appearance, for a distinct style or pattern, the word had been long in use, but it is in the sixteenth century that fashion seems to come into wide currency as a way of designating the forming of a self. This forming may be understood quite literally as the imposition upon a person of physical form—”Did not one fashion us in the womb?” Job asks in the King James Bible,[4] while, following the frequent injunctions to “fashion” children, midwives in the period attempted to mold the skulls of the newborn into the proper shape.[5]

But, more significantly for our purposes, fashioning may suggest the achievement of a less tangible shape: a distinctive personality, a characteristic address to the world, a consistent mode of perceiving and behaving. As we might expect, the recurrent model for this latter fashioning is Christ. Those whom God in his foreknowledge has called, Tyndale translates the epistle to the Romans, he “fashioned unto the shape of his son” (8:29), and thus the true Christian, Tyndale writes in the Obedience, “feeleth. . . himself. . . altered and fashioned like unto Christ.” “We are exhorted,” Archbishop Sandys remarks in a sermon, “to fashion ourselves according to that similitude and likeness which is in him,” while in the 1557 Geneva translation of the New Testament we read that Christ “was disfigured to fashion us, he died for our life.” If Christ is the ultimate model, he is not even in the New Testament the only one: “In all things,” Paul tells the Corinthians, in Tyndale’s translation, “I fashioned my self to all men to save at the least way some” (1 Cor. 9:22). This principle of adaptation is obviously not limited to the propagation of the Gospel: in Richard Taverner’s Garden of Wisdom (1539), for example, we are told that whoever desires to be conversant with public affairs, “must. . . fashion himself to the manners of men,”[6] and this counsel is tirelessly reiterated.

Thus separated from the imitation of Christ—a separation that can, as we shall see, give rise to considerable anxiety—self-fashioning acquires a new range of meanings: it describes the practice of parents and teachers; it is linked to manners or demeanor, particularly that of the elite; it may suggest hypocrisy or deception, an adherence to mere outward ceremony; it suggests representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions. And with representation we return to literature, or rather we may grasp that self-fashioning derives its interest precisely from the fact that it functions without regard for a sharp distinction between literature and social life.


[1] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980). [Back]

[2] Augustine, sermon 169, quoted in Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 30. [Back]

[3] Faerie Queene, “A Letter of the Authors Expounding His Whole Intention in the Course of this Worke”; Faerie Queene 6.9.31; Amoretti 8. Citations of Spenser’s poetry are to The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932-57). [Back]

[4] Job 31:15. The OED, from which many of the following examples are drawn, cites the late sixteenth-century translation of La Primaudaye’s French Academy: “The seede. . . receiveth not fashion presently upon the conception, but remaineth for a time without any figure” (sb 2b). There is an illuminating discussion of self-fashioning by Thomas Greene, “The Flexibility of the Self in Renaissance Literature,” in The Disciplines of Criticism, ed. Peter Demetz, Thomas Greene, and Lowry Nelson, Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 241-64. Greene’s starting point is the assertion in Pico that man may choose to fashion (effingere) himself in whatever shape he prefers. [Back]

[5] See David Hunt, Parents and Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France (New York: Basic Books, 1970), p. 132. The OED cites Richard Mulcasteis Positions: “If the infirmity in fashion be casual. . ., exercise. . . will make that straight which was crooked” (sb 2a). [Back]

[6] Richard Taverner, Garden of Wisdom (London: 1539), p. Bviiiv. I owe this reference to Richard Yanowitz, “Tudor Attitudes Toward the Power of Language” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1978). [Back]

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This page last updated on 28 August 2006. © Michael Best, 2002.