Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | May 5, 2019
By Francesca Scantlebury
The infamous witch trials of early modern Europe saw tens of thousands of victims convicted and executed for the crimes of suspected witchcraft and sorcery. With the mass hysteria and angst about witchcraft spanning over multiple centuries and countries, it is no surprise that the cataclysmic events of the era still fascinate many to this day.
From the recently closed exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean museum, to the current touring exhibition Waking the Witch curated by Legion Projects, surviving objects related to witches continue to provide a popular attraction for museum goers and occult history lovers. Yet, one area of witchcraft which has so far received little attention, clothing. Crystal balls and grimoires are two kinds of objects which are often displayed within exhibitions and are used to show the ‘tools’ of alleged witches, but garments are typically missing from the story.
In spite of this absence though, many of our traditional ideas of witch’s clothing come from the early modern era, including the pointy hats and black robes worn by the Hogwarts students of Harry Potter. Through pamphlets, woodcut illustrations, and treatises against witchcraft, many stereotypes and myths were spread about witches and their attire, but in reality, those accused of witchcraft were probably dressed no differently to their neighbours. In an era of extreme paranoia, it would even have been considered especially foolish to dress in a manner particularly associated with witchcraft.
Through investigating beliefs on witches and their connection to clothing though in the period, a look at distinctive ongoing prejudices could also help establish why certain parts of the population were more likely to be accused of witchcraft. Although both men and women could be suspected of performing magic, up to 85% in England alone of those accused were women (1). A long-lasting bias in particular was one against female textile workers who were associated with ‘weaving’ and ‘spinning’ spells. Perpetuating this connection were publications such as James I’s famous treatise against witchcraft, Daemonologie, which specifically associated women spinners and knitters with sorcery. In one extract witches are accused of cursing men with impotence upon their marriage by ‘knitting so manie knottes upon a poynt,’ (2) (a lace that attached a man’s hose to his doublet) whilst casting a spell.
Alongside such myths and stereotypes spread about witches, clothes also played a part in securing confessions during trials and after executions. In one such trial in Holland in 1586, the accused was made to put on new clothes that had been sprinkled with holy water amongst other methods to extract a confession of witchcraft. Through doing so, the suspect not only was considered more likely to plead guilty to her supposed crimes, but the removal of her own clothes was also thought to take magic out of her possession. Clothing was believed to be a way in which witches could hide their spells successfully, and through forms of educations and entertainment, this opinion became further widespread across Europe. In William Shakespeare’s popular play, The Tempest for example, the principal character Prospero uses his cloak as the source of his magic, deliberately taking his garment off when deciding to give up his power.
After executions, there are also many cases of clothes being burned after their wearer’s death. As clothing was not always the cheapest commodity, to go to the lengths of burning them suggests they would forever be ‘tainted’ by their relationship to the witch that wore them and believed to possess harmful magic and spells. Though belief in witchcraft may no longer be prevalent today, it is easy to see how attitudes and actions such as this have shaped our views concerning witches’ attire and have been passed down through the centuries into our collective consciousness today.
1. Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco: Pandora, 1993), p. 23.
2. Donald Tyson, The Demonology of King James I: Includes the Original Text of Daemonologie and News from Scotland. (Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2011), p. 74.
Bibliography/ Further Reading
1. Barstow, Anne Llewellyn, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora, 1993.
2. De Waart, Hans. “Witchcraft and Wealth: The Case of the Netherlands.” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, 232 - 249. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
3. Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
4. Krause, Virginia. Witchcraft, Demonology, and Confession in Early Modern France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
5. Tyson, Donald, The Demonology of King James I: Includes the Original Text of Daemonologie and News from Scotland. Llewellyn Publications: Minnesota, 2011.