Luxurious habits of Venetian nuns
Forbidden fashions in Renaissance Italy
Who would have thought that once upon a time in Venice, nuns wore make-up, fur and high heels? That's what the textile historian Isabella Campagnol discovered when rummaging through the city's archives. In her book Forbidden Fashions, she charts the secret dress codes once found inside the ancient capital’s now shuttered convents. It's an unlikely tale linking nuns with luxury fashion, as she told K magazine.
A forlorn air hangs over the former convent, Santa Maria degli Angeli, situated at one end of the island of Murano in Venice, where Isabella Campagnol was raised and where she likes to walk. The church dates back to the 1180s when Ginevra Gradenigo, a Venetian noblewoman, forced to become a nun, donated the land to build a monastery. You can imagine Ginevra’s soul hovering behind the vacant windows.
Wandering through the grass garden in front of the ominous facade, Campagnol was reminded of a mention in Casanova's memoirs of happier times, and an outfit worn by one of his lovers who lived inside. “There was a detailed description in the conclusion of his memoirs, The Story of My Life, she said.
Between his writings and the footnote, she realised that she was on to something big; that nuns once dressed up in style. The resulting story, documenting their glamorous dress habits, has been turned into a book, Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, which was published by Texas Tech University Press, as part of the Costume Society of America series, in 2013.
Campagnol is currently working on the Italian release. She completed it using hundreds of dusty volumes from state and church archives, which have documented convent inspections.
Most telling was the complaints lists she found, detailing when rules had been broken. "A footnote made mention of a nun being denounced for wearing an extravagant outfit," she explained recently, from her home inside a converted glass factory on Murano. "I was intrigued."
She wore blue velvet?
There was more: “a small, folded slip of paper in which a nun anonymously denounced some of her fellow sisters for wearing lace cuffs, and powdering their hair, like any other 18th century noblewoman”.
In fact, lace would seem like a minor offense. “They wore so many things, from high-heeled shoes to corsets; from face powder to perfumes; tantalisingly transparent silk veils, instead of the prescribed heavy muslin ones; gold earrings and other jewels – even velvet coats lined with furs”.
Although the story of nuns and fashion has never been told before, it was not entirely unknown. “Foreign visitors were accompanied to the monastery parlours with the specific purpose of being shown the beautiful nuns. Technically, it was forbidden for the nuns to receive any kind of visitors, besides close family members. But, especially in the 18th century, it was common to organise visits to the parlours, and host entertainment like concerts, banquets and even balls.”
Catholic hierarchies vigorously protested this but “irregular events continued in many monasteries until the end of the Serenissima Republic. Even the Pope was informed and, occasionally, unruly nuns were threatened with excommunication, but this did not stop them.”
So why was it tolerated? The patriarchs agreed that a large number of these women had been incarcerated against their will. “Many were noble women and were essentially locked up to save their families from having to pay a dowry for multiple daughters.”
Many were noble women and were essentially locked up to save their families from having to pay a dowry for multiple daughters.
The nuns were rebellious, “Probably the most shocking outfit was not a luxurious one but a sexy outfit,” Campagnol said. “During a hot and humid August in the late 17th century, a nun from the Monastero Santa Maria dell’Orazione in Malamocco on the Lido, received a male visitor dressed in a very flimsy and transparent chemise and nothing more.”
There was a whole culture that evolved around not only the wearing of, but the making and financing of, the apparel. “Since any clothing that was not prescribed by the order was forbidden, fashionable nuns could not have their clothes made easily.” The sisters needed to pay fellow nuns that could sew, embroider or make lace, or make them themselves or, more difficult, obtain dresses from the outside world.
Creating a system, “they used nuns who belonged to the lower classes and entered the convent with lower dowries, who were expected to work as servants to the aristocratic choir nuns,” she said.
Nuns were supposed to wear their regulation habits but it’s clear now many had more extravagant taste. “Fashionable clothing was expensive,” she said. “Religious rule prescribed that the dowry money should not be available to the nuns. It was to be kept by the abbess and every year, according to need, each nun would have been given the fabric she needed to make herself, or have made inside the convent, a new religious habit.”
In reality, most nuns, even the most aristocratic, worked for profit, “They baked and sold confections to people outside the monastery. They also made and sold lace and this was the most profitable business.”
They couldn’t rely on rich husbands to buy expensive dresses. “So with their work they made money, money that should have gone to the abbess but they kept their earnings secret and used them to finance their shopping.”
In the 15th century, there were around 2,100 nuns living in the city’s 30 convents. Most of the nunneries were closed or repurposed by Napoleon, after the fall of the Republic in 1797.
Campagnol’s future plans include a book on the lavish furnishings used by the nuns to decorate their cells, though her latest book is a travel guide.
“After the rigorous academic research that was needed to write Forbidden Fashions, I did a project, My Pretty Venice, with my sister Beatrice. I wanted to do a carnet of girly things to do in Venice, like unique shopping ideas and unusual spa trips. I wanted to include the story of the women in history in Venice, so I included portraits of illustrious Venetian women, from important artists, like Rosalba Carriera, the Rococo painter, to fashion designers like Roberta [Giuliana] di Camerino, [renowned for velvet handbags], to show the mark left here by these and many other women.”