The Opposite of Custom

Fashion, Sumptuary Law, and Consuetudo in Fifteenth-Century Northern Italy

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
M. Christina Bruno Associate Director, Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University, USA

Search for other papers by M. Christina Bruno in
Current site
Google Scholar
Restricted access


Fifteenth-century Italian urban and ecclesiastical authorities sought to regulate the laity's conspicuous consumption of dress, sometimes resulting in canon law petitions for exemption on the grounds of custom. By exploiting an ambivalent definition of custom according to status, wealthy men and especially women successfully sidestepped regulation. Critics of luxury such as the Franciscan Observants, who encountered similar arguments in confession, countered this permissive understanding of custom with alternate criteria for determining proper dress tied to the morality of the economic behavior that made luxurious dress possible. Overlapping definitions of custom drawn from canon law and moral theology thus provided both fashionable people and their confessors a way to negotiate and contest their status.

Contributor Notes

M. Christina Bruno (ORCID: has served as Associate Director of the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham University since completing her PhD in History at Fordham in 2018. Her research focuses on fifteenth-century Italian Observant Franciscans as legal practitioners and administrators. She also teaches a course and study tour on the Camino de Santiago at Fordham.

  • Collapse
  • Expand