Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

To Label a Point

hey bozoA few weeks ago, I went along to an interview with the children’s author Lauren Child, which had been organised as part of the Sherborne Literary Festival.[i] The discussion was meant to focus on text and image, two topics of personal interest. Instead, it focused on Child’s life and her new book, two topics of lesser interest. The promotional material for Child’s novel, Ruby Redfort: Take Your Last Breath, was impressive in its eclecticism; there were bookmarks, posters and postcards. There were also badges, which displayed the slogan ‘hey bozo’. These words meant little because I have never read any of Child’s books, but I dutifully took a badge when offered; it would have been rude not to. Whether it was the colloquial and ungrammatical slogan, or the sheer novelty of being given a pin badge when I was clearly an incongruous attendee at this gathering – for one thing, I had no children in tow – the object played on mind. In part, my reverie was fuelled by nostalgia. I was reminded of a time when badges were genuinely fun. Really! When I was younger, I received badges on birthday cards. Sporadically, I also collected golly badges by saving up tokens from jars of Robertson’s jam, when it wasn’t politically incorrect to do so.[ii] In recent years, I have tended to see the badge in an overtly political, and less innocent, context, which is undoubtedly a consequence of getting older.

Individuality & Incorporation

During the past decade an increasing number of (male) world leaders have started to wear a lapel pin, depicting the flag of their country. The American president is probably the most notable example, and Barack Obama has learned the hard way. By not wearing a flag pin in debates prior to his nomination as the democratic presidential candidate in 2008, Obama provoked a series of hard-line questions about his motivations. Apparently, the Senator had worn a pin after 9/11, but stopped when he saw badge-wearing Americans acting in an unpatriotic way.

“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead I’m going to try to tell American people what I believe … and hopefully that will be testimony to my patriotism.”

Senator Obama

Gary Oldman. Source: www.prada.com

As president, Obama now wears a pin badge every day.[iii] Time columnist Gilbert Cruz observes that ‘short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism’.[iv] British prime ministers do not wear a flag lapel pin – perhaps because of the periodic debates about devolution or concerns that it might appear too Eurosceptic – but the badge still has a role to play in UK politics. In 2009, disillusioned cabinet minister Hazel Blears wore a brooch shortly after her resignation, to devastating effect. Her enamelled accessory depicted a ship on stormy seas containing the words ‘Rocking the boat’.[v]

The prevalence of the pin badge in politics may explain its increased appearance on catwalks and within fashion catalogues. In March, Prada ran an extensive campaign with actors William Defoe, Garrett Hedlund, Gary Oldman and Jamie Bell in nineteenth-century inspired outerwear. All of the men wore plexiglas lapel pins featuring the bust of a centurion.[vi] Lanvin’s collection of floral tiepins has continued to grow and now includes carnations, roses and pansies.[vii] In a number of men’s style guides, synthetic boutonnières have been given the ‘thumbs up’ for the forthcoming festive season.[viii]

To Be or Not To Be

The history of the badge really begins in the medieval period. According to various accounts, in June 1096 the charismatic prince Bohemond of Taranto tore up his cloak to fashion cross-shaped badges for those willing to liberate Jerusalem. The knights and paupers who embarked on the First Crusade were known as the crucesignati; men ‘signed with the cross’.[ix] During the twelfth century, badges became available to penitents on completion of a pilgrimage. Pilgrims’ badges were supposed to possess therapeutic powers, but in practice these pewter trinkets were little more than souvenirs that provided lucrative revenue streams for religious centres.[x] Members of secular confraternities also issued badges. Such was the ubiquity of this little dress accessory that familiarity eventually bred contempt. Badges ‘to mock others’ pretensions’ were issued in jest and scorn. The reason Londoners are known as ‘Cockneys’ stems from a derisory badge made within the metropolis that depicted a cock laying an egg, which implied ‘townspeople’s ignorance of the natural world.’[xi]

But the popularity of the badge did not wane. The advent of heraldry and the establishment of chivalric orders during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to a profusion of insignia. Members of each order had their own distinctive emblem. The twenty-six knights who formed England’s Order of the Garter wore a badge depicting St George slaying the dragon.[xii] More generally, lords used badges to identify their followers. The Dunstable swan, a gold and white enamel brooch in the shape of a swan with a crown around its neck, is an exquisite example and shows how technically accomplished badges had become by the early fifteenth century.[xiii] The time and money lavished on this jewel indicates the importance of badges as social signifiers. Of course, this was not always a good thing, for badges indicated exclusion as much belonging.  In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews were to wear yellow badges to distinguish them from Christians. This is the same colour of badge that Jews were to wear seven centuries later in Nazi concentration camps. To convey a succinct message about faith, military power, social status or social exclusion, the role of the badge in medieval and modern times is therefore not dissimilar.

Dunstable Swan. Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_dunstable_swan_jewel.aspx

Universally Unique

The badge or lapel pin is an intriguing dress accessory because it proclaims, at one and the same time, individuality and incorporation. The wearing of a badge denotes adherence to a greater cause and the membership of, or rejection from, a specific community, but it does so in way that is personal and independent. The immediacy of the message contained on a badge and the badge’s ephemeral nature – it can be easily removed and replaced with another emblem – make it an effective broadcaster of views and inherently malleable. This flexibility has undoubtedly contributed to the badge revival that various fashion writers have begun to comment on.[xiv] This incipient fashion trend also reveals much, as with any fashion trend, about people’s need to feel individual. And here the badge may possess an advantage. The desire to be unique is universal, so attempts to be different often produce similar, if not identical, results. The U.S.P. of the badge is that people have the opportunity to sport daring political or social slogans and imagery when they feel confident to do so, and when they lose their nerve or choose to conform, they can consign the accessory to a deep pocket.

In the short-term, I fear that all of this is leading to the fact that many men will be wearing boutonnières throughout the festive season at black tie gatherings. I do have the ‘hey bozo’ badge though…


[ii] The golly badges were issued until 2002. For a dose of nostalgia, or to understand what I am referring to, see www.gollycorner.co.uk. Accessed: 25-xj-2012.

[iii] G. Cruz, ‘A Brief History of the Flag Lapel Pin’. www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1820023,00.html. Accessed: 28-xj-2012.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] A. McSmith, ‘Pint-sized assassin with Brown in her sights’. The Independent (4 June, 2009), 6.

[viii] ‘A Man and the Boutonniere’. http://artofmanliness.com/2010/07/09/boutonniere-buttonhole/. Accessed: 29-xj-2012; ‘The Hierarchy of Affection’, Esquire’s Big Black Book (Fall 2012), 159.

[ix] C. Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (London, 2006), 71.

[x] D.A. Hinton, Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain (Oxford, 2005), 193-4.

[xi] Ibid., 195.

[xii] B.L. Wild, ‘Order of the Garter’, Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Leiden, 2012), 397-98; A. Mansfield, Ceremonial Costume: Court, civil & civic costume from 1660 to the present day (London, 1980), 50.

[xiii] Hinton, Gold & Gilt, pp. 220-21.

[xiv] ‘Fashion Statement: Badges’. www.trendsforthemasses.com/2011/04/fashion-statement-badges.html. Accessed: 1-xij-2012.

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