Author: Wilkinson, Kate
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
Early Christian Dress is part of the growing and very welcome literature that addresses the construction of gender in Christian late antiquity. In her revised doctoral thesis Upson-Saia attends most closely to the ways in which male authors of letters, treatises, and hagiographical legends work to constrain the form and meaning of ascetic women's clothing. She also explores the responses to women's adoption of ambiguously gendered dress. The book builds on Elizabeth Clark's now famous argument that the study of early Christian texts tells more about male constructions of femininity (and masculinity) than it does about the "real" lives and subjectivities of early Christian women, and that scholarship most productively approaches these texts with questions concerning the rhetoric of gender rather than the experience of gender, which must remain unknowable (Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004]; idem, "The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian After the "Linguistic Turn," Church History 67, no. 1 : 1, 31).
Upson-Saia begins her study with an historical argument about the rise and solidification of Roman gendered rhetoric around clothing and adornment in the early imperial period. She chronicles the growing anxiety among Roman elite moralists about luxuria and the concomitant tendency of the newly wealthy Roman aristocracy towards mollitia , effeminate weakness. Fine clothing features consistently among those supposedly foreign imports that lead to indulgence, softness, and moral degeneracy. The sartorial excesses of Roman elite women indicate the natural weakness of women and the corrupting influence of outside luxury goods. Thus, Upson-Saia argues, the gendered rhetoric of clothing allowed Roman elite men to claim moral superiority over both non-Roman men and Roman elite women during a time when Roman women possessed and controlled more of their own wealth than ever before. The book uses a wide array of classical sources, mostly from moralizing authors, but also from poets and satirists. The author notes that not all Romans saw women's finery as negative; some praised the rich adornment of women for its ability to mark the status of an elite family. Although Upson-Saia argues that visual representations are as rhetorical as textual representations, and this is certainly true, more attention to positive valuation of women's adornment in funerary monuments and coinage, as well as to the archeological evidence of jewelry and, where available, textiles would have been welcome. Also, more attention might have been given to the ways in which the construction of feminine vice and feminine images of dress were so frequently employed not to denigrate women or foreigners, but other elite Roman men. In this, more extensive use of Craig Williams's Roman Homosexuality (2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010]) and Maud Gleason's Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995) may have been helpful.
Chapter 2 moves from an historical argument to a more general analysis of the Christian adaption of Roman moralizing rhetoric about dress. The author admits to a wide array of sources covering a breadth of time periods, from the second to fifth centuries (36). The number of sources, both Latin and Greek, is a strength, but the best of her analysis focuses on single passages and more of this would have strengthened her claim that the wide variety of sources reveal a common trend in their representation of women's clothing, especially ascetic women's clothing. Upson-Saia's analysis of the performative and status marking aspects of feminine ascetic garb are particularly interesting and analyzed well. Each of the sub-sections on "dressing ethically" is thought-provoking, but deserve a more lengthy treatment. This is especially true of the tantalizing section on the power of certain forms of dress and adornment to undermine sacramental efficacy.
The real strength of the book rests in chapters 3 and 4, on gender "crises" in ascetic clothing and on the cross-dressing saints, respectively. Upson-Saia persuasively exposes the problematic nature of (male) Christian writers' call for extraordinarily modest dress in ascetic women, dress that often downplayed the femininity of the ascetic. By emphasizing difference between Christian insider and worldly outsider, authors threatened to collapse internal boundaries--and therefore hierarchies--between male and female. The chapter focuses on three case studies: veiling of virgins in Tertullian's community, ascetic feminine dress in Eustathius of Sebaste's communities, and two clothing controversies in the career of Augustine. The fourth chapter of Early Christian Dress gives a clear and convincing argument for understanding the tales of the cross-dressing saints of the fifth to seventh centuries as narratives which allow their heroines certain gender liberties while consistently reminding the audience of the women's true, natural gender. The disguised ascetics are all undressed, often literally, for the audience who never experiences them as anything other than women. Their nature is always their destiny.
Early Christian Dress is a well-written and well-edited study with much to offer the scholar of early Christianity and of women's and gender history. The book is suited to an academic audience (notes and bibliography comprise about one-third of the total pages), but selections could certainly be used in undergraduate teaching as well. If the early sections attempt, perhaps, to do too much in too little space, the final chapters take a more leisurely and satisfying pace and are rewarding reading. This book proves that matters of clothing in the early Christian era should be of great interest to both the social historian and historical theologian, and Upson-Saia's work should provoke continuing research.