Clothes and clothing

Wearing one’s status

Many playing companies in Shakespeare’s day owned elaborate costumes and took great care of their stock of clothing. A range of elaborate or outrageous costumes is called for in The Taming of the Shrew (such as the wedding outfits worn by Katherina and Petruchio). Clothing was hugely significant since what one wore was a symbol of status in Elizabethan England, and was used as a conspicuous display of wealth as well. There is a clear demarcation between the ‘silken doublet’ and ‘velvet hose’ Lucentio gives Tranio to wear and the ‘linen stock’ and ‘kersey boot-hose’ worn by a bedraggled Grumio. Contemporary courtiers were renowned for the wasteful extravagance of their outfits (echoed in Tranio’s ‘pearl and gold’), doubtless horrifying the careful parents who, like Vincentio, had saved hard to provide the necessary finance. 

Elizabeth I and courtiers, Procession PortraitFake appearance

Because such store was laid on appearance, it was easy to use one’s external image as a means of concealing true identity. Thus Lucentio and Hortensio forego their gentlemanly status by dressing as tutors (something Hortensio finds demeaning) in order to gain access to Bianca. Meanwhile Tranio and the Pedant dress ‘above their station’ (Vincentio being a far wealthier merchant than the mousy Pedant) in order to impress Baptista. Although comedic, it is unnerving how easily others are duped by these disguises.
Later in the play, Petruchio makes a moral point when he mocks the rich clothing that hides a person’s inner character:
And now, my honey love, 

Will we return unto thy father's house 

And revel it as bravely as the best, 

With silken coats and caps, and golden rings,
With ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things, 

With scarfs and fans and double change of brav'ry. 

With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav'ry.
Act 4 Scene 3     
Instead he reminds Katherina that inner worth does not depend on outward show but comes from an honourable mind: 
For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit. 
Act 4 Scene 3     
Such words echo the biblical teaching that God does not judge by outward appearances, but by integrity of character:
But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.
1 Samuel 16:7 KJV     
Shakespeare alludes to this verse in other plays. In Pericles, Simonides warns that ‘Opinion's but a fool, that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man’ (Act 2 Scene 2) and in Richard III, Richard’s ironic advice is based on the same idea:
Nor more can you distinguish of a man

Than of his outward show; which, God he knows,

Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart.
Act 3 Scene 1     

Dressing to rebel

Elizabethan society was becoming increasingly more fluid as ‘new money’ from trade ventures and banking vied for significance with the ‘old money’ of landownership. Many young men arrived at Elizabeth I’s court hoping to catch the aging queen’s eye and thus elevate their status. To do so they had to ‘dress the part’ regardless of actual fortune. This freedom to be whatever you dressed yourself as is captured in The Taming of the Shrew.
There was an element of transgressive behaviour linked to wearing clothes that hid one’s identity. Elizabethan sumptuary laws placed numerous restrictions of the kind of clothes and fabric worn by men and women of different social classes – even the colours of clothing were regulated. Whilst the nobility could wear ‘any silk of the colour of purple, cloth of gold tissued, or fur of sables’, the lowest members of society were forbidden to wear ‘satin, damask, silk, camlet, or taffeta in gown, coat, hose, or uppermost garments’. 
Sumptuary laws warned against wearing clothes that deliberately misrepresented one’s social status or occupation – in other words, they were a means of social stratification. This helps explain the shock to observers of Petruchio’s bizarre clothing at his wedding. Not only does it humiliate Katherina’s social status but it makes him a laughing stock among the people of Padua. Petruchio’s disregard for clothing and custom was as socially transgressive as Katherina’s shrewish behaviour which flouted expectations of feminine behaviour.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.