Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Counting the cost

The price of looking good through the ages

…I would add that he should decide for himself what appearance he wants to have and what sort of man he wants to seem, and then dress accordingly, so that his clothes help him to be taken for such, even by those who do not hear him speak or see him perform anything at all.[i]

Thus is Federico’s recommendation for the how the perfect courtier should appear in Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). A person’s dress, like their hairstyle,[ii] plays a huge part in how they are initially perceived. The drive to look good and distinguish oneself – to create the right impression – explains why fashion is, and always has been, big business; the UK men’s fashion industry is currently worth c.£21 billion per annum. But things are not what they used to be, as the changing cost of fashion shows. Celebrities and dynasts may still spend more on dress than the average Joe, but this is as nothing compared to what aristocrats and socialites of old spent on their raiment.

Royal & renaissance razzmattazz

King Henry III of England (1216-1272) was an aesthete. He invested time and money in various artistic projects during his fifty-six year reign, mostly notably the lavish rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Henry also liked to look good. In preparation for the Easter festivities in 1235, Henry had various garments made, including three robes, two cloaks and two surcoats, one with sleeves and one without. Fur was bought to line the garments.[iii] In total, the cost of the king’s dress for this one occasion was £32 3s. 4d.[iv] The sum may seem modest, but if we allow for monetary changes over the intervening seven hundred years, the approximate cost of King Henry’s garments in today’s prices is about £17,000 ($27,300[v]).[vi] The price quoted includes only the cost of fabric. Tailors employed by the king would probably have been paid between 3d. and 6d. daily (c.£540; $868), although it is not clear how many were employed on this occasion and how long they took. It is equally unclear how many tailors were employed to make the garments and textiles for the wedding of Henry’s sister, Isabella, to the Emperor Frederick II later that year. The total cost of Isabella’s trousseau was c.£380 17s. 9d., or in today’s money £202,906 ($326,969).[vii] The household accounts of King Henry III of England indicate that roughly 40 percent of annual expenditure went on clothing or clothing accessories (including jewellery). Members of the aristocracy spent similarly large sums of money of clothing, if on an lower scale to their monarch. The domestic accounts of Bogo de Clare, son of the earl of Gloucester and Hertford, indicate that just over a quarter of yearly expenditure went on cloth, clothing or dress accessories.[viii]

Much the same was true in renaissance Florence, where ‘up to 40 percent of a family’s resources could be invested in and represented by their clothing.’[ix] One of the biggest spenders was Lorenzo di Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Between 18 July 1515 and 17 August 1516 the de facto ruler of Florence bought 50 garments of 17 different styles, complete with 17 different linings. He made 15 separate orders for undergarments and head, leg and footwear. He also commissioned over 12 items of military-associated clothing and had four garments embroidered.  In total, these purchases cost Lorenzo 5,214 ducats. In today’s prices, this would be equivalent to £2,131,584 ($3,434,897).[x] Other Florentine aristocrats spent similarly large sums of money on dress. The accounts of the Infanghati family reveal that 73 florins were spent on jewellery and clothing accessories between 31 May and 26 November 1417. A further 140 florins was spent on cloth. In all, the family forked out 213 florins (£88,608; $142,785), which was probably more than the annual salary of the second chancellor of the Florentine republic.[xi]

La belle époque

The eighteenth-century elite continued to spend money on fashion, but on a reduced scale. At the apex of society, members of the royal court still spent large sums of money on clothing. Between 1771 and 1788 the total expenses of the queen of France rose from 1.056 million livres to 4.7 million livres, a 480 percent increase.[xii] On the eve of the Revolution, the clothing expenses of Marie Antionette remained high. The queen spent 212,187 livres (£1,000,196; $161,426)[xiii] on dress in 1787 and 190,721 livres (£899,011; $1,448,396) in 1788.[xiv] Festive occasions provided opportunities for particularly large expenditures on clothing. Coats made for the weddings of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI (1770), the Comte de Provence (1771) and the Comte d’Artois (1773) cost 64,347 livres (£307,369; $495,283), 35,726 livres (£170,654; $274,985) and 31,695 livres (£151,399; $243,958), respectively. By contrast, Parisian nobles were now spending, on average, no more than 3 percent of their wealth on their raiment.[xv] After the Restoration, royal expenses on dress increased sharply. It is estimated that Joséphine de Beauharnais, Emperor Napoleon’s first wife, spent 1.1 million livres (£2,654,025; $4,273,015) on clothing every year. But this dazzling excess marked the beginnings of the end for such conspicuous consumption.

Prudence & sobriety

By the start of the twentieth century, the attitude of aristocrats and leaders to dress had changed dramatically. King George V (1910-1936) was conscious that the cost of court dress should not become burdensome for those required to wear it and encouraged previously worn suits to be purchased from Moss Bros.[xvi] The king’s sensitivity to the cost of court life may have been heightened by the fate of many of his relatives, fellow European monarchs who were swept from power in a wave of revolutions after the First World War. Post war sobriety is explicable, but the preference for demure dress has lasted long. Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’, wore designer garb from Versace and Catherine Walker, but none of her outfits, currently on display at Kensington palace, really rival those worn by her predecessors.[xvii] Diana’s wedding dress, made by Emmanuel in 1981, reputedly cost £9,000 (c.£92,520; $148,600). In 1997, the auction of 79 of Diana’s dresses fetched $5,600,000, just over half of the annual sum that the first Empress of France spent each year on her wardrobe.[xviii]

Whilst the wedding dress of the people’s new princess (or rather, duchess), Kate Middleton, is thought to have cost £250,000 ($400,000), her clothing usually attracts attention, and praise, because it is cheap.[xix] In September 2011, Cosmopolitan magazine ran an article detailing Kate Middleton’s latest high-street purchase: a teal pencil skirt with black polka dots and a velvet trim boucle jacket in cobalt blue; all of which cost £65 ($104). Apparently, Kate had been deliberating over two pairs of earrings, but left one (‘a simple pair of feather earrings’ costing £8.50 ($14)) at the counter. The title of the article proclaimed: ‘Kate Middleton’s just like us! She loves Topshop too.’[xx] More recently, the frugal clothing of the prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, has hit the headlines:

While the primeminister’s wife wore an abstract dress by designer Erdem Moralioglu for her appearance on the Labour conference stage last week, Mrs Cameron opted for a high street dress – voted “the best Marks & Spencer dress yet” by The Times in May […] Mrs Cameron has found her wardrobe under scrutiny this week and seems to have been choosing affordable clothes – wearing a Uniglo sweater and Zara shoes earlier in the week.[xxi]

For a public figure with a social or political responsibility to wear their wealth on their sleeve is to court censure. Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in America, where the dress of the president and first family has always been politically difficult territory. President Obama’s ‘look’ is a careful study in sartorial restraint. His blue worsted, two-button suit designed by Hart Schaffner Marx and costing c.$1,500 (c.£930) is a wardrobe staple;[xxii] and with good reason. In a 2007 interview, David Letterman complemented Senator Obama on his dress:

 ‘That is a tremendous suit […] a very electable suit.’[xxiii]

The Jorg Gray 6500 Chronograph watch worn by President Obama is also modestly priced and, like Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, is widely available to anyone who wants a replica. The President’s watch retails at $350 (c.£217)[xxiv]; copies of Kate’s dress can be snapped up for $1,100 (c.£680).[xxv]

Adding it all up

So why has the sartorial style of rulers and tycoons lost its sparkle … and price? In part, the decline in spending over the centuries is apparent rather than actual. Certain clothing items cost more in the thirteenth century than they did in the ninteenth century because they were scarce. Items produced by hand or sourced from distant countries were in short supply and cost more to obtain. To use a non-clothing example: in 1285, Bogo de Clare paid 12d. for two pomegranates. Each fruit was expensive, costing £25 ($40) in today’s prices, because they were rare. Whilst a pomegranate may still be deemed an ‘exotic fruit’ and cost more than a Granny Smith, it is rarely more than £1.50 ($2.41) because scales of economy, made possible by the industrial advances of the nineteenth century, have improved the technology of supply. Industrial advances also mean that intricately worked cloth can be produced by machine for a fraction of the cost and speed that it took during the early 1800s. Where handiwork still forms part of manufacturing process, the ability to relocate premises overseas where labour is cheaper, has lowered sale prices. Elaborate gold brocading can now be bought online from Hand & Lock, which makes some of its products in India.[xxvi] Advances in the manufacture of cloth and clothing accessories means that it is now less possible to spend as much money on fabrics and textiles as royal and ducal families did in the past.

It may seem odd, but the development of deposit banks was another factor that lowered the cost of clothing. In pre-capitalist societies, before people had a secure place to store and save their money, wealth was worn. As Ann Rosalind Jones & Peter Stallybrass note, ‘[w]hat good does gold do lying around when it can be enjoyed in the form of food or clothes or land or buildings or any of a hundred forms of sociability? When there is no capitalist banking system, […] hoarding [of wealth] tends to bring social discredit, whereas conspicuous consumption, by sharing the wealth around, brings credit.’[xxvii] If ready cash were needed, articles of clothing were pawned. It has been suggested that the word ‘pawn’ derives from the Latin for cloth (‘pannus’). In French, ‘pan’ meant skirt and pledge. [xxviii] As economies became increasingly monetised and as banking systems developed, wealth was more commonly stored in deposit, rather than in current assets.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the declining cost of dress is political. The collapse of the French monarchy in the eighteenth century and the dissolution of many more monarchies after the First World War furthered the spread of democracy, sometimes in a roundabout way. Political emancipation – possessing the right to vote – had an enormous impact on people’s attitudes to social position. Whether in politics or business, to appear to flaunt one’s wealth, or individuality, could prove increasingly costly. In the campaign leading up to the 1960 presidential election, JFK’s wife was often criticised for her “continental” style of dress that seemed alien to many of the American electorate.[xxix] Dress is equally important in the present presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama:

While campaigning, Romney has turned to jeans and a plaid shirt, a look that says he’s down with the people. Obama has little choice but to look presidential at all times […] [He] wore a navy blue suit during the first debate, but switched to darker charcoal – a move that signaled his understanding that the public wanted more of an alpha male.[xxx]

The demonstration of one’s wealth through clothing and dress accessories had once been a key strategy in the maintenance of legitimacy and office. Today, legitimacy – certainly in the public sphere – is most frequently derived from the ability to appear empathetic, and ‘like’, others.

It’s all in the detail

The desire to express one’s individuality and wealth may have been stifled by societal mores, but it would be impossible to stem it entirely. In a market place where anyone can access designer brands and bespoke tailors and where sumptuary laws no longer exist, it is interesting to note that accessories, the finishing touches to an outfit that lurk under cuffs, collars or folds of fabric, are becoming increasingly intricate and pricey. If a bespoke Savile Row suit costs in the region of £3,000, men’s watches can easily cost many times this amount: Van Clef & Arpels’ Midnight Cerf pink gold watch with an alligator strap retails at £75,350, a pair of William & Son 18ct gold fly fishing reel cufflinks cost £3,200.[xxxi] Whilst the price of fashion has declined over the centuries, the cost of not looking one’s best, or in the words of Federico, looking as ‘he wants to seem’, can evidently still be as dear.


[i] B. Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1976), 136.

[ii] See my earlier post, ‘Hair today and … tomorrow. The Beard: a meandering history’, 14-x-2012.

[iii] B.L. Wild, ‘The Empress’s New Clothes: A Rotulus Pannorum of Isabella, Sister of King Henry III, Bride of Emperor Frederick II’, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, 7, ed. R. Netherton & G.R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge, 2011), 16-17.

[iv] A layman’s guide medieval money: one pound (£) consisted of 240 pennies (d.) or 20 shillings (s.). One shilling consisted of 20d. The only unit of specie in thirteenth-century England was the silver penny, weighing c.1.5g of silver. ‘Pound’, ‘Shilling’ and ‘Mark’ (two-thirds of £1, or, 13s. 4d., or, 160d.) are terms of account.

[v] Throughout, all conversions into dollars have been calculated via www.xe.com.

[vi] The currency conversion is based on calculations made by The National Archives, Kew. Their converter only compares prices from 1270, but the level of accuracy here is tolerable. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[vii] Wild, ‘The Empress’s New Clothes’, 10-16.

[viii] M.S. Giuseppi, ‘The Wardrobe and Household Accounts of Bogo de Clare, A.D. 1284-6, Archaeologia, LXX (1920), 1-56.

[ix] C.C. Frick, Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes, and Fine Clothing (Baltimore & London, 2002), 223.

[x] Ibid., 113, 167.

[xi] Ibid., 82.

[xii] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 35.

[xiii] The figures can only be approximate, as they have been put through two currency converters: www.pierre-marteau.com/currencyconverter/fra-eng.html and www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xiv] Ibid., 71.

[xv] Mansel, Dressed to Rule, 3.

[xvi] Ibid., 142.

[xvii] ‘Diana: glimpses of a modern princess.’ www.hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace/whatson/dianasdresses. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xviii] Ibid., 149.

[xix] C. Wischhover, ‘Kate Middleton’s wedding dress cost more than $400,000; see it up close starting today’. http://fashionista.com/2011/07/kate-middletons-wedding-dress-cost-more-than-400000-see-it-up-close-starting-today/. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxi] ‘M&S dress for Samantha Cameron’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8297386.stm. Accessed: 28-x-12.

[xxii] www.hartschaffnermarx.com. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxiii] L. Barton, ‘Near-identical suit, but still a fashion flop’, The Guardian, 4 March 2009, 10.

[xxiv] http://barackswatch.com. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xxv] ‘Buy Kate Middleton’s Wedding Dress’. http://allthingschic.net/2011/09/buy-kate-middletons-wedding-dress.html. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxvi] Mansel, Dressed to Rule, 148. www.handembroidery.com Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xxvii] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000) 28.

[xxviii] Ibid., 27.

[xxix] S. Frankel, ‘Why Britannia wasn’t so cool for Michelle’, The Independent, 29 January 2011, 3.

[xxx] E. Wellington, ‘Mirror, Mirror: fashion politics: what they wear could sway whom we elect’, www.philly.com/philly/style/20121024_Mirror_Mirror_Fashion_politics_What_they_wear_could_sway_whom_we_elect.html. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxxi] ‘The Wish List’, Spectator:Life, Autumn 2012, 56-9.

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