The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Getting Dressed with the Hermaphrodites

A guest post by Kathleen Long

(Editor’s Note: You can read Kathleen’s previous post, Dining with the Hermaphrodites, for a discussion of another aspect the novel.)

The inhabitants of the island depicted in the 1605 French novel, The Island of Hermaphrodites, live in a decidedly material world. They do not believe in anything truly spiritual, including the immortal soul, heaven or hell, or divinity in any celestial rather than earthly form. They believe in a world of material things, and in fact create and recreate themselves by means of those things. Thus, the novel deploys a rich array of signs—architecture, clothing, language, laws, food—in the service of a pseudo-ethnography of a utopian or dystopian place, an island run by humans of indeterminate or unstable gender. They live in a luxurious palace, spend much of the day getting dressed, have strange laws that seem to overturn or mock French laws and customs, eat unrecognizable food, and constantly reinvent themselves, in part through their ever-changing fashions.  

The narrator of this novel is a man who fled the Wars of Religion in France (1562-1598), decided to return home, and was shipwrecked on the floating island, which has no fixed location. He arrives at the civilization of the “hermaphrodites,” which seems to be comprised of one immense palace. After admiring the architecture of this palace, the narrator immediately enters the bedchamber of one of the inhabitants of the island. His description of this room and its denizens raises the question of clothing as a sign, echoing sumptuary edicts that tried to limit the use of luxurious clothing to the nobility of France. 

Clothing as a Deceptive Sign  

Clothing was essential in this period for communicating information about rank or social status, as well as gender. Sumptuary edicts in France dictated who could wear cloth of gold or silver, as well as jewelry made of gold, silver, and precious stones, silk clothing, and other expensive materials. These edicts indicate that an increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie, particularly merchants, were wearing these items and thus blurring established lines of social caste. They imply that identity could be shaped, at least in part, by means of clothing. This is a recurrent theme in the novel, one played on in the detailed descriptions of various robes, waistcoats, shirts, collars, and shoes. We rarely see even a small part of the body of the “hermaphrodites,” and so the clothing comes to define their fluid identities far more than any bodily appearance.   

Sumptuary edict, Folger MS 177357. Photo by Kathleen Long

The novel signals from the beginning that clothing is a deceptive sign. The first “hermaphrodite” the narrator sees is wearing a bed jacket of white satin, lined with a material like the silk velvet that was often used at the time in the place of fur—so, he seems to be wearing something like fake fur: 

I saw that they went straight to a large and spacious bed, which, with the space it left between itself and the wall, took up a good portion of the room…He, still asleep, sat up, and right away they put a little coat of white satin studded with sequins, and lined with a material resembling silk velvet, on his shoulders.  I had not yet seen what was in the bed, because neither the hands nor the face was visible.  But the one who had put the coat on him came right away to lift a linen cloth that hung very low over the face, and to take off a mask that was not made of fabric, nor was it in the manner of those worn ordinarily by ladies, because it was made of shiny and tightly woven material  (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 12) 

The narrator can see no part of the person who is in this bed because his face is covered with a veil and a mask, and the hands are gloved. But the material with which the coat is made already signals deception. 

In this passage, the narrator assumes this figure is male, using mainly masculine pronouns, such as “celuy qui estoit dans le lict” (“he who was in the bed,” 11). He does become confused when this person complains, and then admits his ignorance of what lies before him: “I had not yet seen what it was that was in this bed” (“Je n’avois encore veu ce que c’estoit qui estoit dans ce lict,” 12). When he sees a beard on this person’s face, he returns to using masculine pronouns. Later in the novel he returns to this room and sees this “hermaphrodite” once more, and he then alternates between masculine and feminine pronouns, using “le visage” (“the face,” 32) as the antecedent for the masculine, and “ceste idole” (“this idol,” 33) for the feminine. By the end of the novel, he designates the inhabitants of the island by the doubly-gendered honorific, “Lordladies” (“Seigneursdames”). The indeterminacy of gender signaled by this use of pronouns is also underscored by the elaborate clothing of the “hermaphrodites.” 

Performing Perfection: Prosthetic clothing  

The sartorial practices of the “hermaphrodites” reflect a blurring of gender lines in the use of particular articles of clothing during this period in France. Whereas certain materials were seen as more feminine, such as lace, the difficulty of fabrication and the relative scarcity of this material made it a sought-after element in clothing for courtiers. While there is no record of French noblemen wearing dresses in this period (contrary to what a certain film about Elizabeth I might suggest), their increasingly elaborate ruffs often competed with those of women. 

Lace was extremely time-consuming to make in this period, and so was extremely expensive and a sign of a certain social status. The popularity of this form of adornment is evident from the number of lace pattern-books published in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when lacework and ruffs both flourished as status symbols for the nobility and the very wealthy merchant class.1

Pattern from Giovanni Ostaus, La vera perfettione del disegno, a lace pattern-book in the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library, MS 260 -133q

Collars and ruffs could frame the face, or distract from it. Cutwork could reveal desirable parts of the body, and cover any flaws or defects, thus “managing” what the observer could see. 

Cutwork lace ruff, from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The dressing scenes in the novel emphasize the artificiality of appearances modified by the clothing, which at first seems to overwhelm the person being dressed. The collar is heavily starched, as the reference to parchment suggests. The act of dressing the “hermaphrodite” is compared to torture: 

Once this shirt was put on, the collar was immediately turned up, in such a way that you might have said that the head was waiting in ambush.  They brought him a waistcoat, on which there was a sort of little body armor to make the shoulders even, because he had one higher than the other, and right away the one who had given him the waistcoat turned down the large collar made of cutwork, as I described above, and I would have almost thought that it was made of some very white parchment, it made so much noise when it was handled.  It was necessary to turn it down in such a precise length, that they had to raise and lower the poor Hermaphrodite until it was just right; you would have said that they were torturing him.  When this was finally in the form that they desired, it was called the gift of the rotunda. (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 21) 

A rotunda from Hans Vredeman de Vries’s Variae Architecturae Formae, from the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 228- 353f. Photo by Kathleen Long. 

Details of the clothing suggest that the “hermaphrodite” is being created as a beautiful object, an object of desire. The aesthetics of this framing of the body evoke a statue-like quality in the flesh that is revealed:   

This waistcoat had a bit of a décolletage in front, as did the shirt, so as to show off the whiteness and smoothness of the chest; but beyond this opening, one also saw some cutwork lace, through which the flesh appeared, so that this diversity made the thing more desirable. (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 21-22) 

The description of this dressing ceremony also would seem to suggest that the individual is constructed by his clothing: 

After he was put together, someone came to turn up the large embroidered sleeves that covered one-fourth of the arm, while another arranged the lace of the collar quite meticulously, because it had to be raised up in order to roll it better. I also forgot to tell you that there was another collar attached to the collar of the waistcoat, of a different color than that of the waistcoat, cut out and puffed up everywhere, which folded and turned up in such a way that the collar of the shirt came over it, and it extended far out from the body of the waistcoat.   (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 23) 

These items of clothing, particularly the collars and ruffs, are depicted in very architectural terms (as the reference to a rotunda might suggest), thus linking the inhabitants of the island to the constructions all around them.  

There are hints at normativity in these descriptions as well, as clothing is used to disguise anatomical differences such as uneven shoulders, and as the poor hermaphrodite is raised and lowered to fit into his clothing, rather than the clothing being made to fit him. This sort of representation is contradicted in other moments, when clothing is made tighter or looser according to the size of the individual, and when the narrator sees chairs that adjust to the size of the person sitting in them. This underscores a tension between the normative and non-normative aspects of the text. 

Engendering the Hero 

Ruffs were very much in fashion in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century France. They varied greatly from year to year, as styles came and went, and over time became more and more elaborate. In a court where many of the men were scarred from the numerous battles of the religious wars, ruffs became of way of framing these signs of warlike masculinity, as well as a way of covering them up. 

Henri, Duc de Guise (le Balafré, or Scarface)], from the collections of the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France 

In this portrait of Henri de Guise (a Prince of royal blood who wished to be King), the ruff both distracts from and calls attention to the scar from a wound inflicted at the Battle of Dormans in 1575. Henri’s portraits prior to his injury featured the left side of his face; after his injury, we see primarily the right side, with just hint of the large scar on the left side. The scar was a sign of his masculinity (his war-like nature), but could not be featured prominently, as it could also be seen as a defect. Henri de Guise’s ruff is more “manly” than many worn by men at this time. Too much lace on the ruff could be seen as feminizing, although the distinction between women’s ruffs and men’s seems less clear at some times. 

Henri III of France was often accused of feminine dress and behavior. His elaborate ruffs and hats were particularly noticed by the authors of satirical pamphlets. His mode of dress was evidently less sober than that of Henri de Guise; while it was not unusual for the King to be more richly dressed than even his noble subjects, this contrast was used against Henri III in many political pamphlets. Nicolas Hilliard’s portrait of Henri III, painted sometime between 1576 and 1578, shows the King in clothing that was represented in a number of other works, some a good deal less flattering. 

Henri III – Nicholas Hilliard portrait recently discovered; from an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, London; Djanogly Collection (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

This negative response to Henri III’s ornate clothing is evoked in the frontispiece of the novel: 

Frontispiece of L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, Folger PR1711.A68 H4 1605 Cage

However, several decades later, Henri IV is portrayed as wearing a lacy collar quite similar to one worn three decades earlier by Henri III. While Henri III is accused of effeminacy because of his clothing, seen as resembling women’s clothes, Henri IV’s very similar attire is now deemed masculine (it doesn’t hurt that he is wearing armor in this portrait). This speaks to the changing nature of fashion in early modern France, and the changing attitudes towards dress and behavior as signs of masculinity.   

Henri IV in royal regalia; from the collections of the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy


Marguerite de Valois portrait by Hilliard; from the collections of the Denver Art Museum (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

These representations of fashion signal a few things: fashion was used to cover defects or flaws, and to manage the spectacle that the individual was presenting to his public. This management frequently involved gesturing towards the defect, particularly if it was a wound (of which there were many at the French court), in order to reinforce the appearance of manliness. But too much visibility of a less than perfect body might disqualify one’s authority, so this management was complicated, something like the game of peek-a-boo that the cutwork lace suggests. Fashion also signals more or less manliness, more or less femininity, thus signaling in itself the potential for a spectrum of gender, an idea much speculated on in this period. The question of luxury and excess is also present in these representations of clothing, and raises the question of class distinctions signaled through clothing. Thus it is problematized, as wealthy merchants begin to wear items previously reserved to the nobility (which in turn generated a number of sumptuary edicts). Clothing both signals ability, gender, and class, and subverts these categories, becoming an unreliable sign of the body and its status in the late sixteenth century. 


Kathleen Long is Professor of French in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University.  As the 2019-2020 Folger Mellon Mowat Fellow, Professor Long is preparing a translation into English of The Island of Hermaphrodites (L’isle des hermaphrodites), a book on libertine literature in the wake of the Wars of Religion, and a book-length study on the relationship between early modern discourses of monstrosity and modern discourses of disability. She is also the co-editor for a series on Monsters and Marvels: Alterity in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Amsterdam University Press).

  1. See Caroline Duroselle-Melish’s previous post on lace pattern-books for more information.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)