Mary, Mary, quite contrary?

I have just finished a chapter for an edited book that examines how monarchs are remembered (for good and ill) after their reigns. My contribution focuses on nineteenth-century interest in Britain’s Stuart dynasty (1603-1714) through the medium of fancy dress costume. I suggest that the tumultuous lives of these rulers – particularly that of Mary Queen of Scots (r. 1542-1567) and her grandson Charles I (r. 1625-1649) – when re-enacted through costume, enabled people (and especially women) to construct new public identities at a time of social instability, chiefly the result of industrialisation. This is not the place to re-write the chapter, but I thought it could be the place where I include images of the various people who dressed as Mary Queen of Scots (MQS), and people associated with her, during the nineteenth century (that I know of!).

Lady Londonderry’s Ball, 1844


Mary Lowther Ferguson as MQS


The Waverley Ball, 6 July 1871


Alexandra, Princess of Wales as MQS


Watercolour of Alexandra as MQS, by Princess Louise (Royal Collection)


Punch, 1885


A satire on the prevalence of MQS costumes at nineteenth-century fancy dress entertainments.


The Earl of Dufferin’s Grand Fancy Dress Ball, Ottawa, 23 February 1896

See: Cynthia Cooper, Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876-1898 (New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 1997), 44-46.


The Countess of Dufferin as Mary of Guise, MQS’s Mother


The Earl of Dufferin as James V of Scotland, MQS’s father


The children of the Earl & Countess of Dufferin dressed as Mary Queen of Scots and her eventual husband, Lord Darnley.


The Devonshire House Ball, July 1897

LAF 1432.tif

Dowager Duchess of Hamilton, née Lady Mary Forster as Mary of Hamilton, Lady-in-Waiting to Mary Queen of Scots

Duchess of Devonshire’s Jubilee Costume Ball 1897

Lady Katherine Scott as MQS


Lady Lister Kaye as Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchesse de Guise, maternal grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots.



If the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 truly herald next season’s styles, we are all likely to be wearing face masks or head coverings come Christmas. In a series of shows, from Erdem and Richard Quinn, to Standish KA WA KEY, designers conjured with clothing as a form of disguise and camouflage to a degree that I have not noticed in recent years.[1] Working on a book about the history of fancy dress costume, this theme immediately stood out and made me think: what is it about the mask that makes it seem so relevant and appropriate right now?

Much of the immediate commentary on the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 focused on the apparent conservatism of the designers’ creativity. A convenient explanation for the (relative) lack of exuberance and joie de vivre was the pervasive feeling of ennui that we all seem to feel, as reports on conservation, humanitarian, economic and political crisis recur throughout global news cycles. In some cases, designers acknowledged the malaise and angst as a creative spur for their sartorial outlook. In his last show for Burberry, Christopher Bailey focused on ‘Time’ and heterogeneity, endeavouring to celebrate ‘a patchwork of characters and identities’. Hussein Chalayan’s menswear collection was titled ‘Périphérique’, after the highway that surrounds Paris, and focused on ‘the tensions that ensue from unintegrated immigration’.[2]

Acknowledged or not, a sense of menace and unease seemed to darken the message of many of next season’s collections, and I think this goes a long way to explain models’ covered, or at least partly concealed, heads and faces.

The mask probably has as many meanings as it does permutations. In some cultures, masks can be transformative and change the essence of its wearer, temporarily rendering them divine. In other cultures, the mask provides its wearer with a ‘breathing space’ as they seek some form of privacy in a crowded urban environment. For many people, the mask is better known as a facilitator of fun and mischief, as it (partially) conceives its wearer and consequently permits them to break or bend accepted norms of behaviour.

The literature on the form and role of face masks and head coverings is necessarily extensive because most of the world’s cultures incorporate elements of facial concealment in their rituals and festivities, and have done from an early stage in their development. Red deer skulls, for example, carved into a human face mask, have been found in England and date from the Mesolithic period, between c.10000 and 5000 BCE (below, from Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).[3] Today, the most visually striking examples of face masks (for a western audience, at least) probably come from West Africa, and here the scholarly literature is particularly rich.[4] But as Alison Kinney has shown in hood, the wearing of masks and appearance-altering headwear by groups as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan and teenagers, who conceal their identity beneath hoodies, is no less arresting in the west.[5]


The wearing of masks – however diverse the design and context – has (at least) one common element. Across cultures, chronology and geography, masks and head coverings are typically worn during a period of that anthropologist Victor Turner would call liminal, a ‘betwixt and between’ stage when conventional patterns of human behaviour and interaction are partially suspended and possibly inversed.[6] The donning of mask or head covering – whether worn as part of a public ceremony, or worn to scare people who are not welcome within a community, or worn to escape the pressures of one’s life for the duration of a party – commences a period of time that allows the wearer a physical and psychological space to (re)affirm or repudiate their place and role within the community.


The idea of social and political dislocation that came to be associated with the mask made it a problematic item of dress for governments and law enforcement agencies around the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, law codes from the Middle Ages to modernity frequently prohibit the wearing of ‘visors’ or ‘disguises’.[7] In researching my book, I learned that it is against the law to wear face masks in New Orleans beyond Mardi Gras today. Consequently, I am inclined to suggest that we have become socialised to associate the wearing of a mask with times of unease and uncertainty. This, I think, explains why it appeared, talisman-like, in a number of catwalk collections earlier this year.

The connection between societal angst and aberrant and innovative fashion is, of course, not straightforward. For example, the conventionally-held view that Christian Dior’s A-line skirt of 1947 did constitute a ‘New Look’ after the Second World War is now downplayed. The silhouette   of the couturier’s designs may have been more accomplished and strident than that of his peers, but he was nonetheless indebted to them for inspiration; in this sense, Dior was more ‘in step’ with contemporary designs than an outright trendsetter. Nevertheless, a number of scholars, including Francesca Granata, Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas and Therèsa M. Winge, are increasingly inclined to view the conception, creation and consumption of (contemporary) clothing and dress accessories as a form of (critical) commentary on society and politics.[8] Cognisant of the period in which designers, buyers, makers and models are living, these authors are more inclined to acknowledge the likelihood that incongruent forms of dress and appearance reflect social traumas or crises; Whinge, for example, argues that the ‘grotesque imagery and bodies-out-of-bounds’ aesthetic that was evident in the fashions of the 1980s was ‘influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms … It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic.’ She suggests that ‘Experimental fashion often mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive moral policing of bodily borders that characterised the 1980s and part of the 1990s and cannot be read separately from the powerful discourses of contagion, bodies and health surrounding the AIDS crisis’.[9]


In a similar vein, I think the prevalence of facial masks and headwear in the Autumn/Winter 2018 catwalk collections is a response to an ill-defined but ever-present feeling of unease. The incorporation of elements of disguise in contemporary fashions is not new, so what we are witnessing is perhaps more a difference of degree than kind. I am also not inferring that all designers to feature head coverings are, or were, fully cognisant of the mask’s myriad meanings. As Anne Hollander, among others, has indicated before, this is most likely an example of the ‘zeitgeisty’ nature of fashion; its ability to convey and articulate ideas that a majority perceive, deeply but dimly. The face mask, because of it polyvalence, is perhaps an ideal fit for designers when society’s messages become muddled.


[1] I wrote about this theme in relation to Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 2013 collection. See, Benjamin Wild, ‘Draped in the Past’, History Today, 63:9 (September 2013), 4-5.


[3] Dušan Borić et al., ‘The limits of the body’, The Body In History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 37 (fig. 11).

[4] For example, I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade, ed. Herbert M. Cole (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985); John W. Nunley, Moving With The Face of The Devil (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Phyllis Galembo, Maske (New York: Aperture, 2016).

[5] Alison, Kinney, hood (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[6] For an introduction to Turner’s work, see The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick and London: Aldine Transaction [1969], 2008); idem, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1987).

[7] For example, Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 11-12, 26

[8] Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017); Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas, Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Beirendonck (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Therèsa M. Winge, Body Style (London: Berg, 2012).

[9] Whinge, Body Style, 2.

A Traditional (Trump) Christmas? 

FLOTUS’ White House Christmas make-over has been much criticised. Photographs have certainly made it seem more frightful than festive. (Critics may have a point: I mean, who uplights a Christmas tree?) My vexation is not caused by the glitter, fake snow and willow arcade (relatively speaking), but by a Nativity scene snapped recently by a friend.

Nativity scenes are typically tacky and anachronistic because (Western) people have difficulty accepting that the King of Kings was born in a barn. Jesus’ birth is thus conventionally laden with misplaced grandeur.

The White House’s Nativity takes this to a level I’ve not previously seen. And for the record, this is not Trump bashing – Melania found this objet d’art in the Obama’s decoration box – although their approach to festive fanfare heightens the point.

It occasions little surprise that Jesus is born in the Judean equivalent of a penthouse suite, high above the hoi poli and with an external façade decorated with Corinthian columns, the most elaborate of the classical design order. That’s not all. The Gospel of St Matthew mentions the Three Kings but it is only from later sources that we learn they arrived on different animals (Melchior, from Europe, on a horse; Caspar, from Arabia, on a camel; Balthazar, from Africa, on an Elephant). Here, the trio sit on European horses. Curiously, the rider of the horse on the right has the aid of stirrups, several centuries before their likely usage.

The pets may be similarly misplaced: dogs were more likely feral than friendly, and the cat on the left is, I think, pure whimsy; cats were largely unknown in Israel and they are not, to my knowledge, mentioned in the Bible (ready to be corrected on this!).

The clothing is also anachronistic and reflective of western silhouettes of the early modern period; most men wear trousers or ‘shorts’. This may reference braccae (‘breeches’), but I think these garments were usually worn by soldiers; certainly, on encountering them in northern Europe, Romans considered them effeminate.

The life of Jesus may well be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but if it is to be told, there is surely a responsibility, perhaps more now than ever, to tell it sensitively, if not accurately. Whatever this Nativity represents, ‘traditional’ it most definitely is not.

Sin and Status: The Problem of Gold

In Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), a philosophical musing about the creation and maintenance of an ideal community, fetters of gold were worn by criminals, for this shiny, inert metal was considered worthless; to wear it, was to signify that you had become a social pariah. Ironically, the views of More, a steadfast Catholic who died for his faith, were shared by the indigenous peoples of America – uncivilised pagans in the eyes of their Western conquerors – whose lands were prized and systematically pillaged by Spanish conquistadores during the sixteenth century, as they searched for ‘yellow metal’ and the fabled city of El Dorado.

Of course, More’s thundering denunciation of gold reflects how much the metal was valued by his contemporaries. For centuries, Christian rulers had wrapped themselves in cloth of gold to signify their singular status and their steadfast devotion to God; More thought gold was corrupting, but many of his peers considered the reflective quality of this delicate material to represent inner purity. In 1235, for example, it is likely that Isabella, sister of Henry III of England, married Emperor Frederick II in a garment of cloth of gold in serico, that is, cloth woven from silk threads wrapped with fine strands of gold. The Empress-in-waiting also wore garments of arest, another cloth of gold with a distinctive ribbed weave.

Able to signify sinfulness and soulfulness, the wearing gold has long been problematic.

Roland Barthes thought gold stubborn and cruel because it is ‘nothing but itself’. He 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’. 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.

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

Over time, Roland Barthes has suggested that gold (and gemstones) have lost their appeal through a 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. Barthes’ assessment is simply constructed, but it well reflects (Western) society’s general repulsion of excessive personal adornment and the prevailing suspicion that people who devote too much time or money to their appearance are idle, shallow, or both.

The problem of gold is amply reflected in the fact that golden togs are rarely seen today. Anne Hathaway wore a Ralph Lauren liquid-gold hooded gown for the Met. Ball of May 2015 and brocading has made an appearance in recent catwalk collections – think contemporary Gucci – but there is a prevailing sense that More and Barthes were right, that gold is an oddly mercurial metal, and the master of us all.

Unmasking Fancy Dress


This article was first published with The Costume Society.

There are typically three reactions when I tell people that I am writing a book about fancy dress costume: 1. a broad smile, verging on a laugh; 2. a bemused request for clarity, along the lines of, “Really?”; or 3. both responses combined. If I go on to say the book is an academic text, a fourth response involves degrees of eyebrow arching.

The playful and bemused responses that my current book project elicits reflect the fact that fancy dress costume is at once ubiquitous and peripheral. It is probably one of the few forms of dress that all people alive today have worn, or will wear, regardless of sex, status and society, however creatively and for however short a period. A popular form of entertainment for children, especially in the West, fancy dress costume is no less appealing, and socially acceptable, for adults. Most forms of juvenile amusement cease to be publicly palatable from the time people enter their late teens, but dressing up circumvents this unwritten rule. When it is worn by adults, the contexts in which fancy dress costume appears are also extremely varied. Whilst it is often associated with celebration – and this is very much the view that Anthea Jarvis and Patricia Raine take in their book, Fancy Dress[1] – the Brexit protests in London and the global Women’s Marches that were held on 21st January 2017 to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration as America’s forty-fifth president, reveal that fancy dress costume can pack a punch and be overtly political. And yet, for all of this, fancy dress costume is typically considered frivolous.

So, how should I define fancy dress costume for my book?

First, the words of the term needs consideration. ‘Fancy dress’ appears in English in the sixteenth century, but it was not widely used until the eighteenth century, as noted by Aileen Ribeiro.[2] The term has always been a little fuzzy and in colloquial American today, ‘fancy dress’ can refer to smart or formal attire. (This is why I add ‘costume’ as a suffix). Across continental Europe, linguistic variation seems to mask a shared conceptual understanding. In France and Spain, fancy dress costume is referred to as ‘disguise’ (‘les déguisements’ and ‘la disfraz’, respectively) and in Germany and Italy as ‘costume’ (‘das Kostüm’ and ‘il costume’, respectively).

Second, it is worth looking to scholarship of the present and past. Arguably, this is something of a false friend because much of the (sparse) historical analysis has tended to focus on three chronological phases: 1. medieval and early modern carnival, 2. eighteenth-century masquerades, 3. elite balls of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In each of these periods, the reasons for donning fancy dress costume, and the people doing it, were very different indeed.

Third, to define fancy dress in what will effectively be a thousand-year study from the Middle Ages to modernity, it is necessary to consider what it is not. For me, three categories can be instantly omitted. First, fancy dress is not disguise, worn either for the purpose of camouflaging a person’s conventional identity to gain acceptance into another community, or, in the case of criminals, to remain anonymous within their existing community. When Emperor Nero dressed as a plebeian, apparently to rough up Romans, or when Heinrich Himmler shaved his moustache and wore the uniform of a discharged Gestapo agent to avoid identification in 1945, the costumes worn by these men were imaginative and incongruous on a personal level, but congruent with the society they sought to join. The anonymising dress of a criminal effectively places them beyond their community which is an extreme few fancy dress participants seek to go. Second, fancy dress is not religious or ceremonial clothing. In many cultures, the garments worn by spiritual and social leaders on important public occasions can appear unusual – for example, ecclesiastical vestments and shamanistic dress accessories – but these items of clothing tend to possess fixed meanings that do not appreciably change over time, chiefly because they are symbolic of the entrenched beliefs of the society in which they appear. A final category to be excluded is clothing worn for re-enactment. This is perhaps more contentious, for Pat Poppy has argued that re-enactment was a form of fancy dress in her 1997 article for Costume.[3] To my mind, the adoption of period-specific clothing and comportment may appear incongruent, but the desire for authenticity and accuracy restricts personal imagination. Typically confined to members-only societies, re-enactment has little impact on social and political relationships.

So, what does all of this amount to? For the purposes of my forthcoming book, I define fancy dress costume as…

the wearing of socially incongruous and imaginative clothing that (un)intentionally heightens social and political (ie. secular) relationships within a specific society at a specified time.


[1] Anthea Jarvis and Patricia Raine, Fancy Dress (Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd., 1984).


[2] Aileen Ribeiro, Masquerade (London: BAS Printers Limited, 1983).


[3] Pat Poppy, ‘Fancy Dress? Costume for Re-enactment’, Costume 31 (1997), 100-104.


Dressing Up for Work (the World Over?)

When I last wrote – some time ago – I was attempting to understand the particular appeal of fancy dress costume among social elites. As my thoughts on this question have continued to evolve, other questions have come to appear more urgent and demanding of clarification. Presently, I am pondering why fancy dress seems to have been – and remains – more popular and prevalent in Britain (England, more specifically). One small example of this interest is the use of fancy dress events and competitions in the workplace.

Since the nineteenth century, British employers have convened, or sanctioned their employees to convene, dress-up events for workers and their families. These events continue to be held today; in some cases, they are advertised to attract prospective employees. UK human resources companies even offer advice on the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of fancy dress wardrobes at work.

Fancy dress events for workers are held in parts of Germany, I believe, but typically only during carnival. I would be interested to know whether similar events have happened, or currently happen, in Japan and other parts of Asia. For this, I hope that followers of the blog will get in touch via the about page and let me know. As an understudied topic by academic researchers, details about contemporary fancy dress costume are few. Depending on responses, I shall offer my thoughts on this topic in a later post (I hope, unlike last time, not too much later…).


What Lies Beneath: the meaning & motivation of (aristocratic) fancy dress costume

Since the eighteenth century, when fancy dress entertainments became a more regular and popular form of entertainment, social commentators have wrestled with what people’s costumes reveal about their character. In April 1880, an author for London’s Gentleman’s Magazine averred:

The character of the dress of a person stands so near to the character of the person who is the wearer of it, it is difficult to touch on one without the other.[1]

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1959, American author Lawrence Langner was still pondering the issue:

The selection of the fancy dress costume is never an accident when there is full freedom of choice, but it is an expression of a conscious or unconscious desire of the wearer.[2]

The enquiry is no less pressing today, and in 2009 journalist Leah McLaren wrote a short piece for the Spectator entitled, ‘Why do we long to be Nazis and tarts?’. At its heart, McLaren’s playful essay raises an interesting question about the motivation for fancy dress costume among the social elite.

It is conventionally argued that the donning of fancy dress in public enables people to vent; this is clothing as psychological salve. By temporarily inverting established norms and criticising social traditions and civic leaders, people are able to appreciate their necessity. I’m simplifying things, but for a large number of examples where fancy dress costume is worn, this basic notion seems to hold. However, the explanation is less satisfactory for fancy dress entertainments involving social elites – and a large number of recorded fancy dress events have been hosted by this privileged group – who have tended to dress as controversial figures from history, including Emperor Nero (businessman Philip Green), a Nazi Stormtrooper (Britain’s Prince Harry) and Marie-Antoinette (Britain’s Princess Beatrice).

If it seems unremarkable that the wealthy would wish to find pleasurable outlets for their money in the form of lavish fancy dress entertainments, the subjects they have favoured for their costumes appear perplexing, even troubling.

One of the first royals to adopt what might be considered a controversial form of fancy dress was Queen Victoria. Victoria held three costumed balls during her reign. Her third, hosted in the claustrophobic throne room of Buckingham Palace on 13 June 1851, was a Stuart Ball. Now this was surely an odd choice. Just under a decade earlier, The Queen had hosted a fancy dress ball to recreate the court of England’s conquering King Edward III, who had triumphed over the French in the Hundred Years’ War. This subject may not have been ideal for Anglo-Franco relations, but you can imagine how the concept would have appealed to an English monarch, especially as the medieval virtues of chivalry had become newly popular thanks to the writings of Walter Scott.[3] The reason for hosting a costume ball in honour of the Stuart King Charles II, who belonged to one of Britain’s longest ruling and most controversial dynasties, is less clear.

The Queen was not alone in her sympathies for this family, however. Throughout the nineteenth century, many aristocrats and royals dressed as figures from Britain’s Stuart dynasty and court. France’s equally controversial Bourbon dynasty, which included the autocratic rulers Louis XIV and Louis XVI, were no less popular at this time. According to Emilia Müller, ‘at the Bradley Martin’s Ball [hosted in New York in 1897] there were more than fifty women clad as Marie-Antoinette, whereas for the Vanderbilt Ball [hosted in New York in 1883] no less than twenty men chose to personify “Louis XVI”’.[4] Across the Atlantic, American elites went so far as to decorate their costumes with jewels that had belonged to Marie-Antoinette and Catherine the Great of Russia. These socially insensitive garment choices are perhaps analogous to today’s ‘Colonial and Native’ and ‘Chav’ parties favoured by royals and entrepreneurs.

So what is going on? Two suggestions come to mind, although I’m not convinced they provide a full explanation: First, and as anthropologist Victor Turner notes, nothing underlines regularity so well as absurdity or paradox.[5] This is a rendition of the ‘fancy dress as psychological salve’ thesis, but the comedic reversal of order and social position through costume has long been used by rulers to reinforce their singular authority. A good example of this is provided by the eighteenth-century court of Peter the Great of Russia. Peter’s loathing of long sermons and stuffy court etiquette may have influenced the antics of the Assembly, but historian Lindsey Hughes argues that the Tsar’s comedic reversal of order reinforced his authority, even if it did help to let off steam in a manner akin to popular festivities held throughout the period.[6] Peter’s rule in this fantasy placed in sharp relief his rule in reality.

Second, by dressing as their ancestors, the political and social elite could remind people of their distinctive heritage. If the hosts and party-goers were newly minted and their genealogy were insufficiently grand, no problem: a fancy dress costume would enable them to create fictional linkages to figures of the past; whether the people they imitated had been loved or loathed was of little consequence, for this was fancy dress worn, subtly, but no less significantly, to challenge and to assert.[7]

Both explanations have merits, but both assume that the aristocrats concerned were fully conscious of the signification of their clothing. When Mrs Bradley sent agents from Tiffany & Co. in New York to a Parisian auction house to buy jewels formerly worn by Marie-Antoinette, it is reasonable to assume that she knew what she was doing.[8] It is difficult to suggest the same for Prince William, who once dressed as a ‘Chav’, and his brother, Prince Harry, who dressed as a Nazi Stormtrooper. The Princes’ fancy dress decisions could have been influenced by a subconscious socialised behaviour, but this point is easier to raise than refine. This is something I need to think on…


[1] Anon., Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1880, vol. 246, 469.

[2] L. Langner, The Importance of Wearing Clothes (Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press, 1991), 149.

[3] M. Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1991).

[4] E. Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York: The American Monarchs’, 5.

[5] V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick & London: Aldine Transaction, 2008), 176.

[6] L. Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,1998), 249-266.

[7] Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York’, 4.

[8] Ibid., 5-6.

Forwards & Backwards: Parallels between the Middle Ages & Modernity

The Middle Ages are popularly supposed to be the antithesis of Modernity. The term ‘Dark Ages’, which is still invoked to describe the pre-Renaissance world, maintains this divide, albeit precariously. When Stephen Greenblatt published The Swerve: How the World Became Modern[i] in 2011, he was roundly criticised for perpetuating an outdated caricature of the Medieval period. In a damning review of Greenblatt’s prize-winning work, academic Laura Saetveit Miles complains that readers are led to believe that ‘bored monks literally [sat] in the dark when not flagellating themselves’. She declares the book ‘dangerous’ on account of its ‘importation of Malcolm Gladwell-esque yarn-spinning into the academy’.[ii]

The patent problem of maintaining that the pre-Renaissance world was literally and figuratively ‘dark’ is that we side-line cultural and political developments that were made before the sixteenth century. More fundamentally, we reveal ourselves to be ignorant of the sixteenth-century term ‘renaissance’ when we suggest this epoch erupted immaculately across Europe. Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, so it behoves us to understand what came before if we are to truly grasp and appreciate what came after.

In a more tangential, thinking-out-of-the-box, sort of way the denigration of the Middle Ages is unhelpful considering the many parallels that exist between our present and this past.

It strikes me that the rise of social media is close to making the twenty-first century’s culture overwhelmingly visual. I would suggest that not since the Middle Ages have images, or infographics, played such an important role in the conveyance of complex information to so many people. In the Middle Ages, images helped an illiterate majority to perceive, however slightly, the knowledge of a literate minority. And just as then, so too are we now beginning to see that so-called experts are being signalled out, both as soothsayers and scaremongers, on account of their perceived ability to assimilate and synthesise large amounts of disparate information. The singling out of experts, whether for the purposes of devotion or demonisation, brings to mind another social division that readily characterises the Middle Ages and Modernity, the rift between the wealthy and the rest. As Silicon Valley billionaires buy up rural real estate in America and New Zealand as a precaution against an upcoming apocalypse, it is apparent that the world’s income gap is staggering large, and it continues to grow.[iii] The situation for today’s Kings of Commerce is analogous to that of medieval monarchs, certainly those who ruled in England, whose annual cash income was larger than the combined yearly revenues of their entire aristocracy: during the thirteenth century, leading English nobles had access to between £1,500 and £5,000 each year. Their king received between £25,000 and £30,000 each year. England’s notorious King John – he of Magna Carta infamy – managed to raise a treasure of over £100,000.[iv]

The social consequences of these past and present parallels are also similar. Before the UK voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, and in the context of a televised discussion about immigration, Nigel Farage, then leader of the anti-EU party UKIP, was condemned for suggesting that violence would likely erupt if the people’s voice were ignored by those in government.[v] He was accused of scaremongering. And yet, in a way, his observation was not far wrong, although this should not suggest that I condone of his demagoguery. Incidents of hate crimes against ‘outsiders’ and ‘aliens’ do appear to have spiked in the past six months and street protests have become increasingly prevalent as people, demoralised by the political process, take to the streets in a physical and desperate gesture to have their views heard. In the medieval period, and prior to the establishment of representative institutions, protests and street demonstrates were one of the few means by which the mass could express their dislike towards the agenda of the mighty.[vi] And as I continue research for my book, I am struck by the use of fancy dress costume to highlight social concerns in the past and in the present at these popular gatherings. Shortly after the release of the Panama Papers, a carnival protest in London called for people to wear fancy dress. Those who opposed the outcome of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum protested in fancy dress, as, more recently, did millions of people around the world, who took to the streets following the inauguration of Donald Trump.

If Stephen Greenblatt has downplayed the importance of the Middle Ages, I am conscious that I could be accused of going too far the other way and making the Middle Ages the answer to everything. Clearly, centuries separate the Middle Ages and Modernity and patent differences do exist between these periods. I merely suggest this: it is interesting – important, even – to observe that across chronology and culture very broadly similar political and social circumstances appear to engender analogous cultural forms.


[i] In the UK, the book’s published title was The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.

[ii] L. Saetviet Miles ‘The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve’, 30 May 2016.

[iii] Evan Osnos, ‘Survival of the Richest’, The New Yorker, 30 January 2017, 36-45.

[iv] D.A. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 (Penguin, 2003), 271-277.


[vi] For example, E. Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival: A People’s Uprising at Romans 1579-1580, tr. M. Feeney (Scolar Press, 1979).

A History of the Christmas Jumper

The following is a longer version of a piece that I was commissioned to write for George at ASDA. An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Express

Few Christmas traditions generate as much amusement and attention as the Christmas jumper, with the possible exception of the Brussels sprout. And like the sprout, the jumper’s ability to provoke is at the heart of its growing appeal. Last year, George at ASDA sold over one million festive themed jumpers. This year, they are anticipating to sell even more with an expanded range of over fifty designs for men and women, children and pets, which include favourite seasonal figures, winter landscapes and popular characters from Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally to Darth Vader. Such preparations are necessary: for many people in Britain the Christmas jumper has become jolly serious, with some of its most discerning wearers starting their online knitwear search three months before the Big Day.

The festive knitwear we enjoy today, which features 3d-designs, bright colours and bold patterns, has been popular for the last twenty years. The reindeer rollneck worn by Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) suggests the winter woolly has even reached cult status. How the Christmas jumper became this potent symbol of Christmas cheer is a global tale – at times surprising – of sport, High Society, science and rebellious style.

The Christmas jumper can be traced to the heavy, warm sweaters that were hand-knitted in Scandinavia and Iceland before the twentieth century. Characterised by contrasting bands of geometric patterns, which are popular in today’s Fair Isle knits, the jumpers distinguished men from different communities, one suggestion – now largely debunked -is that this was to identify their bodies if they drowned at sea. Had these jumpers been worn by fisherman alone, it’s doubtful the style would have spread fast or far. The jumpers became widely known because they were associated with another popular – and more upbeat – subject: The Scandinavian sport of skiing.

Skiers needed warm clothing as much as fisherman and as their sport developed during the first half of the twentieth century, initially in northern Europe and then in Austria, knitwear with bands of geometric patterns, their colours influenced by forest landscapes, became common skiwear. The influenza epidemic that ravaged the world between 1918 and 1919, claiming the lives of more people than the First World War, boosted the sport of skiing – and its style – by encouraging a greater focus on health and wellbeing. As affluent travellers returned from the ski slopes of Europe with their colourful knits, the humble jumper was elevated to a symbol of luxury and glamour. Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, popularised the look and lifestyle of skiing for a majority of people who lived the dream by knitting jumpers for themselves.

The combination of practicality and panache did much to promote wool and knitwear sales after the Second World War. Cheap, colourful and customisable, knitted jumpers were an attractive and commonplace wardrobe staple in the lean post-war years. Scientific advances and the development of synthetic fibres also made it possible to create jumpers that were warm, lightweight and flexible, which only enhanced their appeal. With a little
more assistance from Hollywood, the scene was now set for the festive jumper to make its debut during the 1960s.

The shawl collar cardigan, which was popular throughout the Sixties, and a must-have item in any Prepster’s wardrobe since, featured in a variety of Silver Screen contexts, worn by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), Robert Vaughn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1965) and Alain Delon in Les Aventuriers (1967). At the same time, the fashionable cardigan – and knitwear in general – became increasingly common in Christmas advertising campaigns as models replaced suits and dresses with up-to-the-minute style to entice consumers to buy a wide range of festive goods. The winter woolly was now associated with Christmas.

Whilst jumpers were increasingly worn during the festive season, they were still a long way from the multi-sensory sweaters we know and love today. As Kurt Griswold confronted angry neighbours, disinterested family and a mean-spirited boss to create the perfect holiday in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), he wore jumpers decorated with geometric patterns rather than reindeer heads, snowmen and Santa. Macaulay Culkin’s jumpers were no more festive when he defended his family residence from the “Wet Bandits” in Home Alone (1990), although he did have an impressive range of bobble hats, one of which included a repeat reindeer design. Christmas jumpers were similarly plain in the television-movie Christmas in Connecticut (1992), directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Tony Curtis. And yet, just ten years later, Colin Firth wore his striking black rollneck featuring a red-nosed Rudolph in the first of the Bridget Jones movies.

The pop-culture and catwalk of 1980s-Britain explains why festive knitwear developed attitude, and provides the final link in the story of the Christmas jumper. Throughout the Eighties there was renewed interest in vintage vogues. Boy George and the New Romantics, who wore dramatic and historically-referenced clothing, characterised this trend. In part, they offered a challenge to the period’s consumerism, which latched onto big-name brands, and the severity of Punk. Knitwear, which was authentic, affordable and flexible, provided an ideal means to create looks that were diverse, playful and individual. Fashion designers recognised this. Of course, the connection between knitwear and fashion was longstanding. In the 1950s, Coco Chanel had presented her knitted suit. Before her, Jean Patou had produced brightly coloured sportswear and Elsa Schiaparelli designed jumpers with abstract patterns. Fashion designers of the 1980s continued this tradition, but injected the angst and energy of the decade into their creations. The result was bright, heavily patterned jumpers like Joseph Ettedgui’s ‘Tiger’ turtleneck sweater and Patricia Robert’s multi-coloured patchwork Romany cardigan. The appearance of edgier knitwear on the catwalk made it widely desirable. Similar styles were soon adopted by stars of the Small Screen, including Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show, and by a variety of British television hosts, from Gyles Brandreth to Noel Edmunds.

The Christmas jumper has always had a particular appeal among Britons because of their enjoyment of quirky and playful humour, although it has become a source of merriment in America, where ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ contests are held. Across Europe, traditional styles of jumper, which resemble those worn by twentieth-century skiers, have remained popular throughout the festive season. In recent years, the geometric pattern that characterised these early winter woollies has become more common in Britain.

It would be interesting to ask Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come about the future of festive knitwear. Three-dimensional printing and wearable technology would definitely make the winter woolly a greater sensory experience and the demand for novelty statement pieces, particularly among men, increases year-on-year. The influence of Christmas jumpers on other clothing areas, including jersey T-Shirts, sweatshirts and dresses, even accessories for pets, is likely to be another growth areas in years to come and ASDA, one the largest suppliers of festive knitwear, has begun to anticipate the trend this year as part of its expanded collection.

But to return to the present, the first two weeks of December are among the busiest for Christmas jumper buying in the UK and Christmas Sweater Day, which is an opportunity to support the work of Save the Children by fundraising in festive knitwear on 16 December, is fast approaching. So, some serious decision-making is called for if you’re planning to join the 19 per cent of Britons – 12.3 million people – who will be wearing a Christmas jumper on Christmas Day.

A Rakish Progress: The Image and Influence of David Hockney’s Style

The text of this post is based on a talk I gave at the Royal Academy on Saturday for RA Lates’ ‘A Hockney Happening’.

Before reading further, pause for a few seconds.

Close your eyes and conjure an image David Hockney in your mind.

So, what did your Hockney look like? Probably something like the photograph below. I’m certain you would have got the wave of blonde peroxide hair, perhaps slightly dishevelled, and the thick-rimmed, owl-like glasses. If your mental imagining captured more than Hockney’s face, you may have dressed him in a polka-dot bow tie or a knitted sweater. Bright, contrasting colours would have featured somewhere. If your Hockney had legs and feet, perhaps he was wearing bright socks, white sneakers, or, as below, something more lively.

It is possible that your Hockney was wearing something more formal, perhaps a suit, as in this photograph, below, from 1979, where Hockey is pictured opposite Cecil Beaton. The pair are relaxing in Beaton’s ‘Winter Garden’ (aka conservatory) in Reddish House, Wiltshire. Hockney was staying with Beaton at the time, to draw his portrait for an upcoming feature in British Vogue. The sittings did not start well, for Hockney’s bold style of drawing apparently highlighted Beaton’s wrinkles.[i]

The Hockney of this image looks ‘complete’. He possesses all of what have become leitmotifs of a style of dress that many commentators, including Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead, have described as ‘uncontrived’.[ii] But I don’t think this is right, for the Hockney ‘look’ did not have an immaculate birth. It evolved as Hockney’s personal and professional confidence increased, in much the same way that Cecil Beaton’s appearance had done decades before. The clue, I think, is Hockney’s socks. Today, you can choose to buy odd pairs of socks – it’s actually a ‘thing’ – but in the 1970s, this was not an option. If you wanted to wear odd socks, you had to separate the pair yourself. Hockney did this, and he was apparently inspired by poetry to so. As an adult, he recalled the following lines from a poem by Robert Herrick, which reveals much about his interest in juxtaposition and imbalance, a characteristic of his art as much as his appearance:

A sweet disorder in dress

Rekindles in clothes a wantonness.[iii]

Hockney’s brightly coloured raiment looks welcoming, friendly and jolly, but it is no less contrived for this, and I think the socks are the tell. Hockney has succeeded in creating a look of studied indifference that has helped him to become a one-man brand. His resolve to do this is similar to other artists, perhaps notably Jean-Etienne Liotard, whose incongruous appearance in eighteenth-century London – long beard and Turkish-style
clothing – apparently enabled him to charge more for his portraits than rivals, much to their annoyance.[iv]

In 1954, the Hockney look was incipient, as this self-portrait collage shows. Hockney was sixteen and still living in Bradford. Rationing after the Second World War was just coming to an end. Hockney’s early years were therefore probably very grey in both a literal, creative and intellectual sense. The colour of his clothing perhaps reflected a desire for stimulation and dynamism. It may have also been influenced by the second-hand clothes that Hockney’s father purchased from bankrupt estates through the clothing store, Sykes Vintage. Colour aside, the dark hair and large, NHS prescription spectacles do not make Hockney distinctive.

Hockney’s ‘look’ emerged with the dyeing of his hair. Apparently, Hockney and friends from the Royal College of Art saw a Clariol commercial on television that proclaimed ‘Blondes have more fun’.[v] The young artists needed no further encouragement and spent the afternoon dyeing their locks. Next came the glasses. In 1964, whilst driving
through Iowa City, Hockney apparently saw a pair of heavy horn-rimmed glasses in an opticians. He stopped to buy them, ditching his NHS prescription, because he wanted to look more professional.[vi] Hereafter, Hockney began to experiment with his clothing, but it is noteworthy that no matter how bright his outfits became, they were rarely overpowering.[vii] In all that he wore, and wears, there is balance and evidence of curation.

I think this explains why you would have been able to conjure such a clear image of David Hockney in your mind, and, why so many fashion brands and designers have taken inspiration from his wardrobe. For example, Hockney’s Californian colour palette was said to have influenced Osman Yousefzada’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. In the same season, Bill Gayten, the interim creative director at John Galliano, drew inspiration from Hockney’s ‘Bigger Splash’ (1967). Burberry’s homage to Hockney in 2005 is perhaps the best known catwalk collection to have conjured with his bold use of colour and contrasting textures.[viii] Advice on how to dress like David Hockney has also appeared online, via Mr Porter.

So, the burning question: how can you achieve the Hockney look for yourself? After dyeing his hair, Hockney is said to have imagined London’s Bond Street where everyone had peroxide-blonde locks. Hockney was not so taken with the aesthetic appeal of neon blonde, but he was excited by the fun of dyeing hair and the dramatic results it produced.[ix] It is rare to be able to experience what an individual looks and feels like in his clothes, but for Hockney, this may just be possible, that is, if you are prepared to accept that blondes have more fun…

[i] B.L. Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London, 2016), 83-86.

[ii] S. Chilvers, ‘Why David Hockney is my all-time style hero’, The Guardian (23 January 2012), (accessed: September 2016).

[iii] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 2 1975-2012 (London, 2014), 146.

[iv] C. Baker, ‘An Artist in the Age of the Enlightenment’, Jean-Etienne Liotard 1702-1789, eds. C. Baker et al. (London, 2016), 18

[v] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1 1937-1975 (London, 2011), 97.

[vi] Ibid., 153.

[vii] Ibid., 134, 180; Hockney Vol. 2, 33.

[viii] Chilvers, ‘David Hockney’.

[ix] Hockney Vol. 1, 110.