The Materiality and Historical Dress of Early Modern Hunting – An Interdisciplinary Approach
by Dr Dustin M. Neighbors
As a pastime, a ritualised behaviour, and a means of survival, the practice of hunting was embedded in early modern society as a socio-cultural activity that was pursued by both elite and non-elite inhabitants across Europe in the 16th-17th centuries. Hunting was also an important activity within court cultures that facilitated different forms of sociability, at times serving as a cultural mediator. However, the pursuit of hunting was not merely a recreational activity, it required physical strength, knowledge, expertise, and considerable economic investment. As such, the hunt was a significant cultural practice that shaped social, political, and diplomatic interactions, and often served to project and exact royal and noble authority—authority over animals, people, estates, and landscapes. The culture and practices of hunting are often rooted in display and performativity. Thus, it is not surprising that the hunt, unlike any other early modern social activity, both required and contributed to a rich and varied material culture that included hunting historical dress. The materiality of the hunt not only consisted of a wide range of garments and forms of dress for royals and the nobility that took part in hunting, along with their servants, but hunting was also bound up with the materiality of the built and natural environments that were connected to key hunting grounds and forests. Therefore, combined with the visual nature and financial accounts detailing early modern hunts, the descriptions and depictions of hunting practices and hunting excursions recorded in 16th-17th century manuscripts, textual sources, artwork, and imagery emphasised its centrality to early modern life. Moreover, these sources and hunting history are reinforced and magnified by the survival of material sources such as riding jackets, leather jerkins, crossbows, hunting lodges, and the animal trophies that adorned the built environments of hunting.
Yet despite the evidence indicating otherwise, traditional scholarship has viewed premodern hunting as a frivolous activity unworthy of analysis or has excluded the hunt from early modern narratives. (1) As such, many scholars are largely unaware of the functions of hunting within specific historical societies and cultures, masking its significance as a culturally driven and contextualised practice. More importantly, the study of hunting remains blind to the significance and nuances of not only gender, especially women’s involvement in the hunt, but also of the materiality, dress history and environments of the hunt. In fact, hunting garments have remained underexplored in the field of historical dress and fashion despite being a staple article of clothing in the wardrobes of royals and the nobility in the premodern period.
Seeking to address this gap and to build on the work of Janet Arnold, Dr Neighbors will discuss the results of his project, funded by the 2023 Janet Arnold Grant, examining the clothing and material culture of early modern hunting using both material and digital analysis. This presentation will not only illustrate how dress and materiality played an important role in the sociability, visual culture, identity of hunting participants, and practices of hunting within 16th and 17th century European societies, but Dr Neighbors will also exhibit, for the first time, the digital renderings of the hunting garments that were produced during the project. The research and digital renderings reveal that the historical dress and material culture of hunting did not match the perceived or idealised culture of the hunt that is often depicted in historical paintings and tapestries as an extravagant spectacle, but rather the realities of early modern hunting practices relied on material culture that was durable and pragmatic, with hunting clothes having a specific purpose; often consisting of both a variety of textiles and fabrics, shapes and colouring, and construction techniques, and a single form of dress that was worn and used by both men and women across Europe.
(1) Thomas T. Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 1. Richard Almond, Medieval Hunting (Stroud: The History Press, 2011), p. vii.
This event will be online only.
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