Clothing as a Reflection of Economic Status, Familial Association, and Religious Affiliation in The Book of Margery Kempe 
(Rachel Arnold, Holy Cross '99)

 Social scientists have attributed two major functions to clothing; to provide concealment in the name of modesty and to protect the body against inclement weather. The significance of clothing, however, goes behind mere protection. One of the first analyses of clothing as a symbol of position within society was published by Thorstein Veblen, in his Theory of the Leisure Class of 1899. In this work, Veblen suggested that the wife’s clothing is the showcase through which the husband displays his wealth. The higher the income, the more the husband can indulge his wife in extravagant clothing. Many of the same principles continue to permeate modern day society. The economic system of capitalism, the principle upon which the United States, and Veblen's critique, is based, asserts that each member of society has an opportunity to obtain financial security. As such, the display of personal wealth is often correlated with intelligence and dedication. During the time of Margery Kempe, medieval England was in the initial stages of transition from land-bound wealth to a mercantile and cash economy. Thus, the socioeconomic groups who were capable of lavish displays of wealth were no longer exclusively nobles. The successful merchants were eager to imitate the extravagant lifestyle and appearance of the traditional aristocracy. 

As an author, Margery Kempe exercised her ability to write about clothing in order to substantiate the image she wished to present. The references to specific types of dress in The Book of Margery Kempe begin within the first chapter of the book. Margery has a vision of the Lord sitting upon her bed "clad in mantle of purple silk." Both the color and texture of the cloak seen in her vision are indicative of royalty. In the Middle Ages, as well as modern day society, purple is a color that is frequently associated with royalty. In Margery’s time, peasants would be unable to afford either the brilliant dye or the silken material. The most coveted fabrics of this time period were those which had made the longest journey. Possession of Cyprus silks or Venetian velvets easily distinguished the wealthy from the peasant. When Margery describes the appearance of the man in her vision, whom she identifies as the Lord, the people of her time would immediately identify him as a man elevated status. 

Our first glimpse of Margery’s appearance is revealed in the second chapter. Margery reflects on her proud demeanor that was evidenced by her showy manner of dressing. She describes the ornate costume in which she once promenaded through town, "she wore gold pipes on her head, and her hoods with the tippets were fashionably slashed. Her cloaks were also modishly slashed and underlaid with various colors between the slashes."Clothing fitting this description, expensive textiles of an underlayer exposed through slashes and gold wires set off by streamers in a headdress, was at the height of fashion; sources indicate that it was an imported luxury. Margery conveys her confidence and vigor when she exclaims, "she knew full well that people made adverse comments about her." It could be argued that she used her dress to assert her financial superiority over her neighbors. "She was enormously envious of her neighbors if they were dressed as well as she was. Her whole desire was to be respected by people." It is likely, however, that Margery exaggerated her extravagance in appearance in her earlier years in order to emphasize her subsequent conversion from a prideful to pious woman. 

Clothing was not only a means of displaying wealth and status, it was also an effective means of exhibiting religious devotion. In the third chapter, Margery introduces religious conversion demonstrated through clothing. She describes wearing a hair shirt, an uncomfortable scratchy garment that was a common symbol of public penance. Although Margery wore the hair shirt under her clothes, not as an outward symbol to society, her reference is a testimonial of her conversion. From the outset, then, Margery introduces herself through her costume; the shift of dress within the first three books describes her radically transformed outlook on life. Her clothing, in addition to other symbolic events, is continually used throughout the rest of her book as tangible evidence of her interior state. The most important reference to clothing as a sign of her piety is her unflagging efforts to wear white clothing. 

 The Significance of White Clothing

In the time of Margery Kempe, consecrated virgins were considered to be among the holiest of individuals. The theory behind the practice was that by the renunciation of sexual expression the virgin could devote her life and love entirely to God. Although Margery is clearly not a virgin, she is the mother of fourteen children, we witness her in Chapter 11 convincing her husband to renounce sexual expression and allow her to live a chaste life. Margery wishes to demonstrate to society that she is a woman of virtue, which she accomplishes by the wearing of all white clothing. The use of white as a symbolic image is present throughout The Book of Margery Kempe and serves a dual purpose. By wearing all white, Margery is able to align herself with the holy women she wishes to emulate, in addition to displaying her conversion to the world. 

In Chapter 15, Margery has a vision in which the Lord proclaims to her, "And, daughter, I say to you that I want you to wear all white clothes and no other color, for you shall dress according to my will." In medieval times a woman's status (as a man's) could be distinguished by clothing. Cloistered virgins, who by definition must be unmarried women, were the only members of society who were permitted to wear all white. The standard costume of medieval women consisted of primarily dark shades, and in the case of noble women, was accented by bright jeweled tones. During this time of poor sanitation, white clothing was impractical for women of all classes. The starkness of white denotes a much stronger connotation than simple impracticality in the work place; it also symbolizes adherence to spiritual values. This association can be documented in Matthew 26, in which all of the inhabitants of heaven are clothed in white, indicating purity and goodness. The reader is provided with evidence that Margery knew and understood the link between white and holiness. In Chapter 6 Margery has a vision of the Virgin Mary as a child in which she is clad in, "fair white clothing and white kerchiefs." 

In medieval times it was customary for a virgin to wear a ring given to her by the bishop at the time of her consecration. This ring is akin to the ring a man gives his wife in the ceremony of marriage. By accepting the ring, the virgin is pledging their life and love solely to the service of her Lord. On more than one occasion, Margery likens her relationship with God to that between man and wife. In Chapter 15, the Bishop laid his hands on Margery solidifying her vow to live a chaste life and accept the white mantle and ring of virginity. The acceptance of Margery as a virgin by the church was essential for Margery’s sense of self. In Chapter 21, Margery reveals that in her vision from the Lord, he tells her, "For though the state of maidenhood be more perfect and more holy than the state of widowhood, and the state of widowhood more perfect than the state of wedlock, yet I love you, daughter, as much as any maiden in the world." Therefore, although she did not fit the technical definition of a virgin, she believed that God saw her as a maiden, and thus she had a right to conduct herself as such. 

Margery frequently returns to the significance of white clothing throughout her tale. For a married woman to clad herself in white was considered taboo by Margery’s society. Given the magnitude of the statement her clothes would be making, Margery describes herself as initially reluctant to embrace her calling. In Chapter 15 Margery replies to her vision, "Ah, dear Lord, if I go around dressed differently from how other chaste women dress, I fear people will slander me. They will say I am a hypocrite and ridicule me." We see in later chapters that Margery explains that her prediction of society's reaction was accurate. Much like the adverse reactions she encountered in Chapter 2 by dressing above her station in society, many viewed her wearing of white as form of false advertisement. In Chapter 44, Margery admits that, "she suffered pain and abuse for wearing her white clothes." However, since Margery views suffering in the name of the Lord as virtuous, she is eager to emphasize the slander she must endure due to her appearance. She is able to equate the persecution she endures as a result of her clothing to the persecution Jesus and his apostles endured due to preaching their beliefs. 

Atkinson, Clarissa W. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe. Ithaca:  Cornell University Press. 1983. 

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