Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

All That Glitters

VibratorThere is something compulsive about gold. The legend of King Midas is cautionary, but the expression ‘Midas Touch’ is usually offered as a complement, rather than a condemnation. Throughout history, golden objects have been prized above others. Think of the death mask of Tutankhamun, England’s Gold State Coach or the jewellery of Van Cleef & Arpels, Verdura and Tiffany.[i] Think also about people’s desire to gild objects of more ordinary status, from a backpack and a pair of trainers, to a barbecue grill and a vibrator.[ii] There is even a museum of gold, the Museo del Oro, in Bogotá.[iii] But as much as gold appeals, it is a substance that we have had cause to feel uneasy about, as the Prince of Morocco reveals in scene two of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

O hell! What have we here?

A carrion Death, within whose empty eye

There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.

All that glitters is not gold;

Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Had you been as wise as bold,

Young in limbs, in judgement old,

Your answer had not been inscroll’d:

Fare you well; your suit is cold.

Cold, indeed; and labour lost:

Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!

Gold confers an ethereal and transient distinction upon people during their lifetime, but, cold and inert, it cannot prevent against corporal decomposition after death, although this has never deterred people from being buried in gilded tombs (à la James Brown and Michael Jackson). As Roland Barthes said of gemstones, gold is stubborn and cruel because it is ‘nothing but itself.’[iv] Barthes actually thought gold to be ‘mediocre’, ‘a dull, yellowy metal.’ He acknowledged its power, but insisted that this derived from the fact that it was not ‘convertible or useful’ and, consequently, of no ‘practical application.’ As a result, ‘pure gold, whose usefulness was almost entirely self-referential, became superlative gold, absolute richness.’[v] Whilst Barthes emphasises the inanimate nature of gold, he nonetheless implies that it has bewitched us: we extract the ore and mould it to suit our fancies, chiefly to demarcate hierarchies within social and political relationships, but the essential composition of gold remains unaltered. Ultimately, it is gold that changes us. I can imagine that Barthes would have enjoyed Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which encapsulates the mysterious and malevolent force of gold by describing a quest to destroy the One Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.

SauronOne Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Whose Precious?

Tolkien’s choice of a gold ring was deeply significant. His trilogy simply would not have worked with any other piece of jewellery. Brooches, bracelets, circlets and crowns have a certain allure, but they do not possess the requisite social connotations for an epic concerned with obligation, commitment, sacrifice and greed. Well versed in history, Tolkien would have understood the significance of rings in creating and maintaining relationships. Since at least the nineteenth century BC, the ring has been a unique signifier of reciprocal obligations. Egyptian stone carvings depict pharaohs and their queens distributing gifts of rings to reward loyal officials.[vi] Rings were still being worn as signifiers of allegiance some 3,000 years later. Surviving gold rings from the fourteenth century are inscribed with loyalist rhetoric, including Vivat Rex et Lex (‘Long live the king and law’).[vii] Ring inscriptions could also provide good wishes for the New Year, an important time for the exchange of gifts in princely courts, or they could contain sweet nothings between lovers, along the lines of tout le vostre ([‘I am] all yours’).[viii] Regardless of their shape, ornamentation and inscription, rings have been used throughout history to symbolise the bonds that bind people; none more so than the wedding ring. Jewish wedding rings, engraved with the plauditory phrase mazel tov (‘good wishes’), tended to be particularly exquisite and conspicuous because the bezel resembled a house, representing the new couple’s home and the Temple of Jerusalem.[ix] Ironically, the gold ring’s association with marriage indicates why the social lustre of gold may have tarnished and why rings are rarely worn by men.

The Value of Work

Roland Barthes has suggested that gold (and gemstones) have lost their appeal through a gradual process of democratisation. First, the magical quality of gold (and gems) was lost as the women who typically wore them acquired a more active role within society, making the wearing of expensive jewellery impractical. Second, and consequently, jewellery was increasingly made in a variety of non-precious materials, from glass to wood. Third, the range and moderate price of jewellery meant that it became a ‘next to nothing’. Jewellery was no longer worn in its own right, but as accompaniment to an outfit.[x] Barthes’ assessment is simply constructed, but it well reflects (Western) society’s general repulsion at excessive personal adornment and the prevailing suspicion that people who devote too much time or money to their appearance are idle, shallow, or both. As Michael Kinsley has reported in a commentary on Hillary Clinton’s ‘exhausting stint’ as Secretary of State, displays of conspicuous leisure or consumption are no longer regarded as valid barometers of social significance: ‘now you prove your importance by showing others just how much you work; for us, the “the highest form of ritual obeisance is to tell someone: ‘You must be very busy.’”[xi]

Ferrari

And being busy means adopting the right clothing. In the case of men this usually means the suit. The suit is far from being the sartorial straightjacket for which it is occasionally criticised, but it has changed little in 200 years.[xii] The hegemony of this perfect, even iconic, garment seems to have convinced the majority of men that ‘a single costume fulfils a single esthetic purpose, and requires a single idea to unify its visibly separate parts.’[xiii] This effectively means that adornments to the suit are rare, subtle and (if done well) complementary. Men do lavish money on at least one dress accessory, their watch, but these precision instruments have a practical purpose – it could be said that they are the quintessential gauge of efficiency in the modern workplace – whereas a ring does not. The other point to note about watches is that they can big – think Breitling and Bell & Ross – whereas rings are conventionally small and delicate. For this reason, they are not uncommonly regarded as effete.

The belief that the ring is an inherently female accessory is a product of lingering nineteenth-century sentiments. Men’s unease about wearing gold rings is elucidated through the failed attempt to introduce male engagement rings in the 1920s. Looking to create new markets, American jewellers tried to persuade men that they should wear engagement rings along side their fiancées. A range of rings, all with very masculine – and seemingly predatory – names, was manufactured, which included “The Major”, “The Master” and “The Stag”.[xiv] The rings were produced in ‘rugged materials such as iron or bronze’ and their advertisements referenced the ‘ancient custom’ of men wearing finger rings.[xv] But the endeavour flopped. The rings did not catch on because the notion of ‘masculine domesticity’, which a (gold) wedding band symbolised, only became synonymous ‘with prosperity, capitalism, and national stability’ during the World War Two.[xvi] [As an aside, men’s difficulty with sartorial styles that challenge notions of their gender was brought home to me earlier today, when I ran into an old friend. Remarking on my (beautiful) pink loafers, he said that I must have balls the size of church bells to wear such footwear in our neighbourhood, and laughed heartily after doing so.]

The Signifying Signet

SignetAssociated with leisure and the opposite sex, (gold) rings are not widely worn by men. Aside from the wedding ring, the signet ring, traditionally worn on the little finger of the non-dominant hand, is the most common. But the signet suffers from a quite specific image problem. Whenever I have discussed having a signet ring made, friends and family have demurred. To them, signet rings are an effete and needlessly ostentatious signifier of perceived social status and worth.[xvii] Conventionally displaying family crests, they are anachronistic and unwelcome reminders of a class system. Signets are odd-fashioned in another respect. Originally used as stamps to seal and authenticate documents in pre-literate societies, signet rings seem quaint in a society that relies on technology to communicate its ideas.[xviii] The oddity and awkwardness that now seems to surround the signet ring was vividly apparent in 1871, when France surrendered to the recently unified Germany at Versailles. As the official seal had gone astray, the French Minister Jules Favre sealed the Franco-German Treaty with his own signet ring:

this, ironically for the arch-Republican Favre, was set with an intaglio portrait of Louis XVI, and had been given to him as souvenir when he acted as a lawyer in 1850-51 to the family of Naundorf, the Pretender whose claim to be recognised as Louis XVII was regarded as most justifiable.[xix]

Prince CharlesIt will be interesting to see whether the current vogue for vintage and bespoke will lead to a revival of the signet ring. It is anecdotal, but I have noticed an increasing number of women wearing signets over the past couple of years. This trend, if such it is, continues a long history of women adopting and adapting aspects of the male wardrobe.[xx] It is also noteworthy that certain firms in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter, have started to offer apps, online ordering and personal testimonies. It would appear that the jewellers are gearing up for another attempt to convince us/(?men) that the social value of gold rings remains high.[xxi] The timing is propitious. As Prince Charles, who always wears a signet ring on his left pinkie, is now hailed as a style icon, they may just succeed.[xxii]


[i] Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels, ed. S.D. Coffin (London, 2011); P. Corbett, Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweller (London, 2002); Bejewelled by Tiffany: 1837-1987, ed. C. Phillips (Yale, 2006).

[ii] JLee, ‘Top 10 Weirdest Things Dipped in Gold’. www.toptenz.com.top-10-weirdest-things-dipped-in-gold.php. Accessed: 26-j-2013.

[iv] R. Barthes, ‘From Gemstones to Jewellery’, The Language of Fashion, ed. & tr. A. Stafford (Oxford, 2005), 59.

[v] Ibid., 60.

[vi] D. Scarisbrick, Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty (London, 2007), 8-9.

[vii] D.A. Hinton, Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain (Oxford, 2005), 241.

[viii] Ibid., 240-1.

[ix] Treasures of the Black Death, ed. C. Descatoire (London, 2009), 60.

[x] Barthes, ‘Gemstones’, 61-64.

[xi] M. Kinsley, ‘A million air miles is too many, Hillary’, The Week (19 January 2003)15.

[xii] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 4.

[xiii] Ibid., 112.

[xiv] V. Howard, ‘A “Real Man’s Ring”: Gender and the Invention of Tradition’, Journal of Social History, 36 (2003), 840.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 832.

[xvii] M. Bernard, Fashion as Communication (London, 2001), 60-63.

[xviii] Scarisbrick, Rings, 9.

[xix] Ibid., 56.

[xx] See my earlier post, ‘LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)’.

[xxii] H. Seamons, ‘The Prince of Wales: Style icon’. www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/gallery/2012/jun/13/prince-charles-style-icon. Accessed: 26-j-2013.

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