Round table details


Peter Stabel (University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History)


Bruno Blondé (University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History)


Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University), Daniel Jütte (New York University), Roey Sweet (University of Leicester, The Centre for Urban History), Peter Stabel (University of Antwerp, Centre for Urban History)


In the recent highly readable textbook by Michael Kwass on the Consumer Revolution in Europe 1650-1800 (Cambridge UP, 2022), there is a remarkable elephant in the room. In this thorough and stimulating survey Kwass often mentions the fact the if there was a consumer revolution in premodern Europe, it is very difficult to say to which social layers in society this revolution is confined. He suggests, but does not give any hard evidence nor any idea of magnitude, that large parts of the population did not or only partially got involved in new consumer practices, because they lacked the means or the interest to do so. But if consumer revolution there was, it could only have succeeded in changing societal relations or economic patterns of supply and demand, if most people in society indeed participated. Social inequality and its relation to consumption and display are therefore elements that have been neglected too much in historiography of premodern Europe. Overall material culture and social display in premodern society is still very much seen as status-driven. Even in commercialized societies such as the late medieval Low Countries, noblemen wore silk dress, while wealthy urbanites, who could sometimes mobilize larger capital, as a rule wore woollen clothing, as expensive as the silk noble dress, bit visually very different. This period is, however also characterized by poor townspeople wanting to emulate the dress of their wealthier neighbours. In late medieval Bruges even the very poor wore similar clothes, made of similar fabrics and dyed in similar colours as wealthy bourgeois, a pattern that strangely and almost paradoxically changed into stark distinction in the late 15th and early 16th century when dress was made of cheaper fabrics but fashion cycles made re-use also more difficult. Changing inequality rates met therefore changing fashion. It is this relation that we want to explore.

In this Round Table we want to address tentatively some of these issues.

  • What is the relation between status and wealth?
  • Are poorer social strata willing or able to spend a substantial part of their income to conform to fashion cycles in dress or housing and interior design?
  • How does the changing balance between distinction and emulation work? And do governments (at whatever level or religious bodies) interfere successfully in this process (through for example sumptuary laws, social convention etc.)
  • Do higher levels of social inequality and periods of depressed or rising standards of living interfere with display?
  • What part of the population is involved in consumer revolutions, and what part is necessary to generate structural change?
  • What is social distinction in late medieval and early modern street life? And how is it articulated in material culture and behaviour?
  • Are there important gendered patterns and do these change over time?