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.

Spinning Wheels: Fortuna & Men’s Fashion

Matters medieval have been on my mind a lot recently, for several reasons:


1) As a historian (who specialises in the Middle Ages) I have an ingrained inclination to connect past and present events.

2) I am writing a magazine article about contemporary couturiers’ fascination with the Middle Ages; Vivienne Westwood’s Paris show revealed that next season’s couture is not all about the Jazz Age.

3) Catching up with my London Review of Books subscription, I read John Lanchester’s article about George R.R. Martin’s writing.[i] Like many others, I am now (becoming) addicted to Game of Thrones (despite the fact that characterisation and plotlines are far from novel – [spoiler alert] Lanchester highlights Jaime Lannister’s attempted murder of Bran Stark at the end of the first episode of season one as an audience grabber, or ‘hook’. I don’t disagree, but the vulnerability-of-innocents topos has been around since at least 1975, when it was used to brilliant effect in Jaws. Medieval aristos pushing people from towers is not uncommon, either; think Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995).)


Solace in the Seven Kingdoms

Lanchester’s article tries to place people’s fascination with Game of Thrones, as relatively few readers engage with Science Fiction and Fantasy and are disinclined to acknowledge the fact if they do. He suggests that one of the reasons why audiences are flocking to Westeros each week is to find a sense of security that the ‘debt crisis’ and ‘double-dip’ recession has taken from them. We identify with the people of the seven kingdoms who fear that ‘Winter is coming’, as for us it possibly already has. We share the characters’ anxieties about the present and future. Lanchester could have gone further. Our economic ennui probably makes us more inclined to accept, and embrace, Game of Thrones‘ monochrome morality. The notion that Westerosian justice is black and white appears simple and consequently sensible. Far better a society in which transgressive actions warrant a direct and proportional, if invariably violent, response because of the presence of a social code that values honour and loyalty, than our judicial reality, rendered in a myriad shades of grey, which appears to allow all manner of ne’er do wells to abscond with bonuses and payouts, their culpability widely acknowledged and their innocence unsatisfactorily unproven.

Fleeting Fortunes

John Lanchester and Game of Thrones do not refer to it, but the Wheel of Fortune underpins many of the plotlines in the programme. During the medieval period, various allegories were invoked to explain the vagaries and challenges of life to a theocentric and pre-literate society; few were more popular than the Wheel of Fortune, controlled by the capricious goddess Fortuna.[ii] The Christian church had attempted to denigrate the pagan goddess, but her iconography and explanatory formulae – typically: regno (I rule), regnavi (I have ruled), sum sine regno (I do not rule), regnabo (I shall rule) – endured.[iii] A sixth-century academic text, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, guaranteed Fortuna’s longevity through compromise.[iv] The goddess retained control of her wheel, but she became subordinated to God.

fortune's wheel Drew Jones 513 WI12_0

If the original allegory explained how people’s lives would encounter highs and endure lows, the Christianised version seemed to promise more. It emphasised how hardships could be mitigated, or at least minimised, if people followed a life of devotion and sobriety. Good Christian living was the necessary counter to Fortuna’s scheming and malevolence. It was not a coincidence that these dastardly character traits were associated with a woman and that the hapless spinning victim, whom Fortuna helped or hindered as the fancy took her, was always a man. Women were viewed with suspicion throughout the Middle Ages. Many stories, contemporary and classical, revealed how women foiled various men who had thought to trust them. The Wheel of Fortune therefore reveals much about the attitudes and beliefs of medieval west. Curiously enough, it strikes me that the Wheel is an equally appropriate device to demonstrate contemporary attitudes and beliefs about the evolving roles of men and women.

The Wheel Keeps on Turning

The economic crisis damaged the credibility of Man at a time when His societal role was already under intense scrutiny.[v] In 2004, the acerbic and irreverent Nelly McKay satirised the plight of Man in her song It’s A Pose, of which the following lyrics give a particularly good flavour:

Sammy, oh let me put away the kettle

Oh, no honey

Your arrogance is what makes you special.

And Manny, of course

When you leave you are missed.

Fellas can’t you see I’m pissed.

Tryin’ to enjoy my readin’

But you insist on interpretin’ text

Oh go on fuck off I’m pleadin’.

Every sentence is a pretext for sex sex sex sex

God you went to Oxford

Head still in your boxers

But you’re male so what should I expect?

“What the hell do you mean?”

Well for instance,

You’ve committed every rape.

“And what else?”

I won’t heed your insistence

Mr copulatin’, populatin’, masturbatin’, denigratin’,

Birth of a Nation instigatin’, violator of my escape.

But hey, hey, hey, that ain’t nothin’ to do with you.

You’re a sensitive Joe, I’m forgettin’.

But every woman knows,

It’s a pose, just a pose.

Heaven knows

The world’s your ho

But she’s getting’ too old

For your pose.

Oh, there she goes.

The barrage continued. In 2010, Hanna Rosin wrote about the End of Men.[vi] She postulated that Man is ill suited to a postindustrial society, which is ‘indifferent to [His] size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.’[vii] Rosin’s argument has been pursued further by ‘social strategist’ John Gerzema and journalist Michael D’Antonio in their new book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. The authors argue that traits typically associated with women (flexibility, sincerity, adaptability, cooperation) are preferred to those more commonly associated with men (aggression, rigidity, ambition, selfishness). It follows, they suggest, that future commercial success will preference women, or men who learn how to act like them.[viii] Gerzema and D’Antonio’s book has yet to be published, but some critics have already expressed doubts about their findings. Treating of the same topic, but working along different lines, Alison Wolf’s recent book, The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society, quashes a number of gender-based myths, but suggests that women will retain their child-rearing responsibilities and not achieve gender equality ‘at the very top of [their] profession[s].’[ix]


The media coverage that followed in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death last month reveals how difficult it is to comment on gender roles, let alone predict how the relationship between men and women will evolve. Whatever side of the political fence people stand, many admired Thatcher for her inimitable adoption of male traits; the verb to ‘hand bag’, recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, demonstrates how the Iron Lady was able to be simultaneously feminine and, very aggressively, masculine.[x] The Girls’ Schools Association appear to take the view that a pick n’ mix approach to gender characteristics is the most advantageous route to career success. They have endorsed an initiative that will give girls from private schools the opportunity to network and deliver after dinner speeches. It is hoped that this training will put women on a par with men, who seem to possess an innate ability to banter and schmooze.[xi] But the sharing goes both ways. The various clothing trends that men have experimented with so far this year, from pocket squares and boutonnières, to subtly manicured facial hair and elbow patches, suggests they are cognizant of the direction in which societal winds are blowing and using their dress to effect a look of effeminised masculinity. Up to a point.

The Manly Metrosexual?

Nobody warmed to the ‘New Man’ and the concept of a ‘New Lad’ had no traction. At some point in the late nineties, the ‘Metrosexual Man’ seemed omnipresent, but he proved to be the most problematic of them all.[xii] Men have never liked to talk about their gender and they baulk at being addressed in gendered terms.[xiii] But this does not mean that they are unaware of their masculinity/ies, as numerous street-style photographs attest. Presently, men seem to be renegotiating their gendered roles through experimentation in dress by incorporating elements that are at once perceived as gentle, even effete, and assertive and aggressive. At times, men’s progress falters, for this is very much a Brave New World, but a discernible theme does seem to be apparent, and it is broadly in line with Rosin, Gerzema and D’Antonio’s theses: if Modern Man is to be a tenable proposition, he needs to demonstrate a secure grasp of own his masculinity by adopting and demonstrating traits more commonly associated with the opposite sex. This position is a far cry from the Middle Ages and would have little place in Westeros – [spoiler alert] before ordering the execution of Eddard Stark, Boy-King Joffrey rebukes his prospective bride and mother, who sought mercy, for appearing soft.

Game Of Thrones Season 2: joffrey

Fortuna’s Wheel for the Twenty-First Century

To illustrate this, I have produced my own twenty-first century Wheel of Fortune (below). The goddess Fortuna is dressed, appropriately, in Vivienne Westwood’s medieval-inspired A/W 2013 couture. The Ruling Man wears accessories that suggest he is kind, sensitive, gentle and obliging, to highlight the favoured feminine traits identified by The Sunday Times. But he also has facial hair – albeit subtly sculpted – and a cigar, to demonstrate that he has not forsaken his manhood (though note how forced this signifier seems). The Man whom he has displaced, who tumbles down the Wheel, is the epitome of the ‘Yuppie Fuck’, to borrow lyrics from another Nellie McKay song. The striped shirt with contrasting white collars and cuffs is the epitome of banker chic and is still widely frowned up. For what it’s worth, I rather like this style of shirt. The Fallen Man, at the bottom of the Wheel, is necessarily naked. As Mark Twain observed, naked people rarely influence society (in the West). The Social Climber has adopted some of the sartorial choices of Ruling Man, but desirous to succeed, he still displays some of the more aggressive manly characteristics, career-orientated, ambition, focus, directness. He is therefore still wedded to his suit, although it does have short trousers à la Thom Browne.


This revised Wheel of Fortune presents a very different view of society from the Middle Ages, it is as though Fortuna’s wheel has been turned inside out. The people of Westeros would not identify with it, or accept it. On reflection, this could be another reason why Game of Thrones has proved so popular; for it reminds us of a time when societal values and positions seemed unassailable and immutable. Presently, societal positions and gender roles are complex and confused, no doubt because we sense that Winter has come.

[i] J. Lanchester, ‘When did you get hooked?’, London Review of Books (11 April, 2013), 20-22.

[ii] A. Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978), 83-4.

[iii] H.R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), 165.

[iv] Ibid., 17-18.

[v] B.L. Wild, ‘Light Up! Cigars & Man’s Self Esteem’ (22 April, 2013):; idem, ‘They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore: The Style & Symbolism of Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper & Cary Grant’, (12 March, 2013):

[vi] H. Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, Atlantic Magazine (July/August, 2010). Accessed: 16-ij-2013; eadem, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (London, 2012).

[vii] Rosin, ‘The End of Men’.

[viii] F. Angelini & J. Gillespie, ‘By George, he’s got it!’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 20.

[ix] L. Gratton, ‘Make room at the top’, Financial Times (4/5 May, 2013), 8.

[x] V. Friedman, ‘An image cast in iron’, Financial Times (13/14 April, 2013), 4.

[xi] S. Griffiths, ‘How to get ahead in banqueting’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 3.

[xii] M. Tungate, Branded Male: Marketing to Men (London, 2008), 1-10.

[xiii] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London, 1993),193-94; C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 214-15.

Here’s Looking At You … Henry VIII

History is working hard to woo new audiences in the twenty-first century. In an age of Wiis, iPhones and Twitter, History’s association with writing, memorising dates and reading books is more likely to deter than delight. I encounter many people, from plumbers and hairdressers to baristas and train commuters, who tell me that they really loved history at school. Truly. But they just didn’t have the aptitude to remember dates, as if:

(a) Study of the past prioritises the rote learning of chronological events, and

(b) Historical careers are genetically predetermined.

A crucial element in History’s PR campaign is the television documentary. Few subjects have experimented with as many different types of televisual genre as History. Docudramas, reenactments, role-playing, reality experiences and characterful presenters, from the doctrinaire David Starkey and the sagacious Simon Schama to the Everyman’s Tony Robinson, have all been used, with varying degrees of authenticity and success, to help people understand that knowledge of the past is relevant and interesting. The most commonly deployed audience-winning tactic, which works within many of the aforementioned televisual formats, is the recreation. Whether it involves cooking an age-old dish, reconstructing a building through authentic techniques, CGI, or, aiming to be trans-disciplinary and showing that the humanities and sciences are not diametrically opposed, forensic facial modelling, History has tried them all. Unfortunately, the payoff is poor, for historical reconstructions are usually naff; royal palaces look gaudy, food is unpalatable and busts of our ancestors look more ‘high school project’ than ‘high-end science’.


The latest historical reconstructions, which shrewdly tap into the popular ‘What If…?’ school of history, are the product of three months of research that sought to investigate how powerful and popular personages of the past would look today. Published in The Daily Mail last week, the results appeared under the electrifying copy:

 Queen Bess with botox. Fake boobs for Marie Antoinette. And Henry VIII’s hair transplant.[i]

The historically-inspired recreations of William Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, Horatio Nelson, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, determined by historian Susannah Lipscomb, are certainly interesting, and raise fruitful questions about the evolving language and significance of clothing in our society, but the results appear just as dodgy as other reconstructionist attempts.

Henry VIII … The Bouncer?


According to Lipscomb’s research, as presented in The Daily Mail, England’s ‘great’ King Henry, would have enjoyed reigning in the twenty-first century. For starters, divorce would have been a much easier process.

He was the original bling king, with hats dripping in pearls and rubies on his fingers. He would embrace TV, but not to become a celebrity — he never cared what ordinary people thought of him. His aim was to make a serious impression on the power elite, to impress upon them that he was the boss — he saw himself as an Old Testament king with a direct line to God. Today, he would have a hair transplant to hide his receding hairline. He also has a tan, because he spent so much time riding and hunting, and shoes with heels to make his stature — over 6ft tall — even more impressive.[ii]

This seems reasonable enough, although the artist does not appear to have been paying attention (perhaps he zoned out at the discussion of dates?), for Henry VIII sought to personify his power; he did not want people to think he was a pimp. It is well known that Henry’s weight increased dramatically during his thirty-eight-year reign – his armour from 1512 indicates that his waist measured 35 inches; his chest measured 42 inches. His armour from 1540 had a waist measurement of 54 inches and a chest measurement of 57 inches[iii] – but he was deeply concerned about his image, more so than Lipscomb appears to suggest. The bust of Guido Mazzoni, which probably depicts Henry at the age of eight or nine, shows a young prince in exquisite garments, much like the portraits of his reign.[iv] It is doubtful, therefore, that Modern Henry would wear a crucifix necklace or a ‘Simon Cowell-type suit.’ Like his royal successors, and in particular the corpulent Edward VII, it is more probable that Modern Henry would have a longstanding relationship with one of London’s Savile Row tailors; perhaps Huntsman, one of the most expensive outfitters on the Row, or for his later years, the more relaxed and comfortable Anderson & Sheppard, the tailor of choice for Prince Charles.[v] Henry would have surely realised, or been ever-so-delicately informed, that a double-breasted suit was a better option than an all-too-revealing one-button suit jacket, considering his great bulk. An athletic and military-minded man, particularly in his youth, Henry would possess a range of dress uniforms from Gieves and Hawkes. He likes to cut a dash, so an expensive watch – perhaps Cartier, like Bill Clinton?[vi] – and distinctive footwear – monks? – seem more plausible than the high heels Lipscomb suggests. If Henry were alive today, I imagine that he would be an amalgam of various figures; he would possess the sartorial style of Edward VII – Henry would definitely have an eponymous knot or tweed[vii] – the pugnacious assertion of Winston Churchill and the media mastery of Tony Blair.

Marie Antoinette … Or Babs Windsor?


The recreation of Marie Antoinette seems equally problematic. According to The Mail, the Queen of France, ‘was a fashion diva. But she was also far from being a natural beauty’.

When her name was suggested as a suitable bride for Louis, courtiers saw her portrait and were horrified: she had too high a forehead, they said, wonky teeth and tiny breasts. Marie Antoinette had been teased in her teens about the flatness of her bust. It’s likely, if she were alive today, she would want breast implants. She certainly underwent appalling 18th-century corrective dentistry, so I’m sure she would have been delighted with the small pearly whites our makeover has provided. She loved clothes and was a great trend-setter, buying four pairs of shoes every week and changing her outfits three times a day. She also liked to signal her mood by changing her hairstyle. We’ve given her a fringe, to disguise her high forehead, and we’ve let down her 3ft-long tresses, Beyoncé-style. She’s wearing a peacock feather fascinator, and the whole impression is sexy, daring and unrestrained. After all, Marie Antoinette was the original It Girl. She might never have said ‘Let them eat cake,’ as legend claims, but I’m sure that today she’d be saying: ‘Let’s party!’[viii]

Marie Antoinette was naive, but she was not oblivious to public opinion as the Diamond Necklace Affair of 1787 reveals, although her reputation, and that of the monarchy, did suffer for her association with gemstones and the deluxe.[ix] She expressed some concern for the under-privileged, although her experiment at Hameau de la Reine was viewed critically by many (perhaps Modern Marie Antoinette would consult with Prince Charles about his Trust and Duchy Originals line?).


It is therefore difficult to say whether Marie Antionette would have been more Paris Hilton or Princess Diana. I think she would have close relationships with a handful of couturiers, perhaps John Galliano or, prior to his death, Alexander McQueen – troubled souls who would seem like kindred spirits. Jewels would be exquisite, perhaps from Van Cleef & Arpels or Verdura.[x] The Queen may make some concession to shop on the High Street, but she probably would not indulge to the same degree as the Duchess of Windsor. It is also doubtful that Marie Antoinette would look to pop stars, even Beyoncé, to influence her Look, although she would probably count several A-Listers as friends and supporters and enjoy an effortless repartee with them at public functions, much like Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. What is certain is that Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe, actions and words would provide content for all manner of hard- and soft-copy publications, just as they did for the Moving Tableau of Paris in the eighteenth century.

Lost In Time

Historic reconstructions and What If? questions about the past make for interesting and entertaining exercises, as my musings above attest, but there are fundamental points that The Mail‘s presentation of Lipscomb’s research does not bring out.[xi] For starters, it seems to be assumed that the reanimated historic characters would possess only a superficial grasp of contemporary media and celebrity culture and be suckers for cosmetic procedures. They would not understand the contrived virtue that derives from verism, nor would they be able to harness social media or modern technology to create and distribute enhanced images of themselves. The money and attention to detail that Henry VIII – and his peers – lavished on art and architecture suggests that he would have recognised that today’s ‘power elite’ includes daily Tweeters, Instagram and Tumblr users.[xii] He may well have understood, far better than the Windsors, that social media could provide a vehicle to exalt and exculpate his dynasty, for it enables the followed and their followers to collude in shaping a palatable image of celebrity and power.

fan Jiyue

To demonstrate just how weak the citadels of power and celebrity have become, three days after Lipscomb’s research was featured in The Mail, The Financial Times reported a story about a Chinese official, Fan Jiyue, who removed his conspicuously expensive watch when visiting Sichaun residents recovering from last month’s earthquake. Fan Jiyue presumably felt that the opulence of his watch would clash crassly with the beleaguered environment in which he wanted to express support and understanding. Unfortunately, the tan lines on Fan Jiyue’s wrist were less easy to remove and ‘netizens’ soon posted pictures, which were just as quickly blocked by the Chinese government.[xiii] The ability to share information at lightening speed has done much to advance the cause of democracy. Displays of invidious consumption (à la Thorstein Veblen) that highlight distinction seem to be increasingly frowned up, especially for public figures. It is possible, then, that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette would have subscribed to the so-called ‘UN style’, where garments are of ‘a kind of hybrid, globalized style, a product of consensus whose main virtue is its simplicity, not to say invisibility.’[xiv] But this really would not make for good televisual reconstructions. Had Lipscomb pursued this route, History’s PR campaign would have suffered a considerable setback.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 2, 437.

[iv] D. Starkey, Henry: Virtuous Prince (London, 2008), 133.

[v] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 62-71; 150-57.

[vi] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 256-57.

[vii] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 58-65.

[ix] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London, 1989), 171-77.

[x] S.D. Coffin, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels (London, 2011); P. Corbett, Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweler (London, 2002).

[xi] For much of what follows I am indebted to Tom Payne, with whom I had a delightful Twitter chat: @wilddoughnut; @tomwesleypayne.

[xii] Many studies have shown how medieval and early modern rulers harnessed contemporary media with Machiavellian cunning, for example: T.C. String, Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot, 2008); L. Silver, Marketing Maximilian: The Visual Ideology of a Holy Roman Emperor (Princeton, 2008); Spektakel der Macht: Rituale im alte Europa 800-1800, ed. B. Stollberg-Rilinger, et al. (Darmstadt, 2008).

[xiii] J. Shotter, ‘China calls time on luxury watches’, Financial Times Weekend (4/5 May, 2013), 18.

[xiv] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 236.

Sole Desire

In 1956, Elvis Presley set the relationship parameters for his ‘Honey’. She could drink his liquor, steal his car and slander his name, but she would overstep the mark if she ever stood on his blue suede shoes. David Bowie was more concerned to have fun when he exhorted his fictional femme fatale to put on her red shoes and dance the blues in 1983. But crankiness about footwear has remained a dominant theme in songs. In 2007, Kate Nash expressed annoyance that her good-for-nothing boyfriend had vomited on her trainers, which she had purchased the day before. Alas. As Lysander laments in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the course of true love never runs smooth.


There’s something compulsive about shoes. Our interest is nurtured from birth. As adolescents and adults we empathise with musicians’ footwear meditations, but only because we learned about the significance of shoes during our infancy. Heroes and villains from literature and poetry are remembered because of how they were shod, from Cinderella and Puss in Boots, to Dorothy and her nemesis the Wicked Witch of the West. The Old Woman probably tops them all, for she lived in a shoe. Another source of childish entertainment – or mild horror in the case of my sister and me – are clowns, whose impossibly large shoes are a cause of endless mirth and merriment. Or terror.

Putting Your Foot Down

Shoes claim our attention because they enable us to maximise the physical potential of our bodies.[i] Well shod, we can walk, run, dance and labour. Poorly shod, we are rendered incapable and defenceless, as the battlefields of many nineteenth-century conflicts and the trenches of the First World War, can attest.[ii] Unshod, we are conventionally considered impoverished. The practical significance of footwear explains its figurative power. To return to songs, there are many that specifically mention shoes, but there are many more that refer to journeys and travelling and treks, whether for love or to realise a long-held dream. The way we typically think about, and express, the pursuit of goals, however abstract this may be, derives from our appreciation of the enabling power of footwear. When embarking on something momentous, we are typically advised to take one step at a time.


Shoes, like any item of clothing, can talk and designate personal preferences. In the 1950s, suede shoes seem to have been almost synonymous with homosexuality, although this meaning has long since faded.[iii] According to Alan Flusser, suede shoes, popularised by the Duke of Windsor, are now merely casual.[iv] The phrase, ‘to be light in/on your loafers’, which is rarely heard today, referred to a man’s effeminacy and, by implication, raised doubts about his sexuality. That said, I’m not aware anyone thought Elvis Presley’s ‘Honey’ was a man when he sang about pastel coloured loafers in 1956? Provocative the suede shoe may have been, but it had nothing on the red shoe.


The majority of clothes talk, but throughout history red shoes have screamed. Since the medieval period, they have been worn by princes and pontiffs.[v] King Henry III of England (1216-1272) was buried in his red samite coronation garments, of which a complete listing survives. The regalia inventory describes a pair of red embroidered samite slippers, decorated with stones.[vi] His successors, including Henry VIII, followed suit. Red-heeled shoes were worn at the court of Louis XIV (1643-1715). According to Philip Mansel, the expression talons rogues ‘became a synonym for French courtiers’ futile insolence.’[vii] Only well-heeled members of the French aristocracy were entitled to wear red in this manner. Christian Laboutin, whose shoes are recognised for their red soles, as much as for their striking designs, has adopted this provocative signifier. But it is really women who have explored the full meaning of the red shoe, through dance, song and word.[viii]

Shoe Lore

Shoes are physical, and thus psychological – and ideological – facilitators. The point is illustrated (literally) by Alice Pattullo, who has produced a limited edition hand screen print, The Curious Attributes of Shoes (of which number 99/200 hangs in my bathroom. Pictured below).[ix] In the West, we might be familiar with the notion that a bride should put a coin in her left shoe for luck. In Sweden, the coin placed in the bride’s left shoe is silver. Her mother places a gold coin in the right shoe, to ensure she will never go without.[x] A series of nails hammered into the left heel of a boot in the shape of a cross will help to ward off evil, or more specifically, the Devil. This idea, which is recounted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, presumably derives from the practice adopted by labourers, who added nails to their heels to give their footwear greater traction and thus increased utility. It is bad luck to burn old shoes, but good luck to wear odd shoes. To replace oddly matched shoes with a pair will bring bad luck. Pattulo’s print contains other gems. It is hard to identify another item of apparel that is as socially, and culturally, significant as the shoe.


Stepping Through Time

But shoes can also be insignificant. They encase a part of human anatomy that is often regarded as ugly or ungainly. They can be unnoticed in a busy crowd, covered (in part or total) by other clothes and they are frequently omitted from paintings and photographs. This probably explains why beards, loos, and recently eyebrows, have all been used as barometers of changing cultural tastes, whilst the ubiquitous shoe has not.[xi] Styles of shoe inevitably vary and at any given time many will be available on the market. Nonetheless, it is possible to trace societal attitudes through broad patterns in footwear. Here’s my attempt:

poulaine: museumoflondonprints.comThe cosmopolitanism and confidence of the fourteenth century is perhaps best typified by the poulaine, a slipper-like shoe characterised by its long pointy vamp.[xii] The length of the shoe’s ‘pike’ grew to some extraordinary proportions and often curled back on itself. Critical commentators likened it to a scorpion’s tale. European rulers issued sumptuary restrictions that eventually curbed courtiers’ enthusiasm for this ostentatious design.[xiii] “Horned shoes” or “cow’s-mouth shoes” could represent the commercial expansion of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Depicted in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, these shoes were commonly seen on the feet of the (wealthy) town dwellers who were assuming an increasingly important role in society and politics.[xiv] The (high) heeled and bowed shoe of courtiers and aristocrats, or perhaps the ‘bucket-top’ boot of cavaliers, could reflect the insouciance and increasing insecurity of the seventeenth-century Ançien Régime.[xv]

neale-hi-shine-blackEighteenth-century styles in footwear do not appear to have changed dramatically, although paintings depict a preponderance of buckled shoes, which reflects, at once the decadence and increasing decorum of this period. The nineteenth century would have to be symbolised by the soldier’s boot, as internecine conflict marred much of this period. The black Oxford could signify the growing preponderance of white-collar workers in the twentieth century, or the increased importance of diplomats who sought peace among divided peoples. These choices are necessarily selective – and only focus on men’s footwear – but the importance of the shoe cannot but make it a symbol of times past.

Men’s Shoes

Such is the recognised utility and significance of the shoe that it is probably one of the few items of their wardrobe that men can justifiably fawn over. The care and attention revealed by highly polished shoes is permissible, probably because of the associations of military-like pride and routine.[xvi] Shoes are also an item of apparel with which men are more inclined to experiment, as buoyant interest in brogues – probably inspired by the forthcoming Gatsby movie – reveals.[xvii] Recently, many cordwainers have launched co-respondent shoes (shoes made from contrasting colours and grades of leather, or other materials), perhaps in anticipation of summer, and prestigious brands like John Lobb have teamed up with Paul Smith to produce a range of brightly coloured derbies and oxfords. But as with many of the clothing items that men spend much of their money on – watches and leather accessories, in particular – it is notable that the shoe’s function is eminently practical, whatever colour its laces. Powerful though it is, even the shoe has limits when confronted with men’s ingrained sartorial hang-ups.

[i] G. Riello & P. McNeil, ‘A Long Walk: shoes: people and places’, Shoes: A history from sandals to sneakers, ed. G. Riello & P. McNeil (London, 2006), 2-29.

[ii] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons: military footwear in the age of empire’, Shoes, 116-137.

[iii] C. Lomas, P. McNeil, S. Gray, ‘Beyond the Rainbow: queer shoes’, Shoes, 290-305.

[iv] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: the principles of fine men’s dress (New York, 1991), 102-103.

[v] H. Rochell, ‘Let the Devil wear Prada – the man in the Vatican was dressed by Christ’, The Times (12 February, 2013), 6-7.

[vi] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of Henry III (London, 2012), 155-156.

[vii] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: royal and court costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (London, 2005), 15.

[viii] H. Davidson, ‘Sex and Sin: the magic of red shoes’, Shoes, 272-289.

[xi] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 65-68, 170-176.

B. Cole, ‘Across the brows’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (6/7 April, 2013), 4.

[xii] M. Giuseppina Muzzarelli, ‘Sumptuous Shoes: making and wearing in medieval Italy’, Shoes, 67-68.

[xiii] L. Vass & M. Molnár, Handmade Shoes for Men (Cologne, 1999), 56.

[xiv] Ibid., 56-57.

[xv] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1969), 109.

[xvi] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons’, 119.

[xvii] T. Stubbs, ‘brougish charm’, 84-85.

Preppy & The Price Of Privilege

Consider the following questions:

Do you dress in a manner which attracts women – to other men?

If you had your life to live over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?

Are you currently employed as a professional inheritor?

If Moses had seen the way you dress, would there be another commandment?

At your college football games, do you dress like a neon sign?



These are a selection of questions from a 1980 poster that asked ‘Are You A Preppie?’ (pictured). If you answered yes to the majority of questions above, you are likely to be an ‘Intermediate Prep’ or an ‘Ultra Prep’. Commiserations. If you answered no to the majority of questions, you are either a ‘Pseudo Prep’ or ‘Normal’.[i] Congratulations.

It is interesting that the preppy look was satirised in this way during the 1980s, a decade that commenced with giddy financial success, peaked with social excess and concluded with the largest one-day percentage change in the Dow Jones’ history on Black Monday. The socio-economic events of the present decade are not dissimilar to the 1980s, and just as before prepsters are experiencing hard(er) times. In November last year, Ralph Lauren announced that it would close its ‘high-end college wear’ Rugby Label before the end of 2013. Several weeks earlier, the Jack Wills group confirmed that it would close Aubin & Wills, the ‘upmarket sister line’ to Jack Wills.[ii] The brands’ store closures was attributed to the economic slump and the need to focus on core business, but the decisions suggest something interesting about how people perceive and practice clothes shopping.

Crisis Clothing

It is hardy surprising that our current financial woes have altered the way we think about and the buying and wearing of clothes. Moments of acute economic, political and social stress have always triggered changes in dress. Think of the Zoot Suit in 1930s-America or Dior’s ‘New Look’ after the Second World War.[iii] Crisis episodes almost invariably force us to re-evaluate some aspect of our professional and personal lives, so it is little wonder that we simultaneously critique our raiment. Consider contemporary clothing trends. According to fashionistas, hats are currently conspicuous, perhaps because their height confers a confidence recently shattered? As an ancillary item, their possession also hints at disposal income, a pleasure many people have lost. Men’s decision to invest in products or services that suggest their immunity from the economic ennui is one reason why more are seeking out sun beds and fake tans. Apparently. However dodgy the result, the sun-kissed look, which we associate with travel and leisure, ‘implies [people] have time on [their] hands, [which is] the ultimate accessory’ in today’s worked-obsessed and debt-ridden society, according to psychologist Alan Redman.[iv] The uproar against bankers and other city slickers could even explain the abandonment of the suit and the heretical adoption of the ‘mix and match’ jacket and trouser.

A Privileged Look


On the face of it, people’s present concern to bolster, or reinvent, their identities should be a boon to the Preppy Look. Originating within the privileged confines of American Ivy League campuses during the 1920s – notably Princeton[v] – the popularity of Preppy style, or the Ivy Look, grew in the 1950s. The nonchalance and insouciance that was signified by the conspicuous use of layering, button down collars, sport-themed motifs, skinny ties and primary colours, not to mention the wearing of Bass Weejun loafers[vi] and Ray Ban Wayfarers, appealed to the young and young-at-heart in the post-War West. This apparel served as ‘a grounding force, a reminder of the security and propriety of old-school ties, and a platform for the appealing irreverence of [youth]’.[vii] The ideas that Preppy style expressed were probably most prevalent during the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Brief though it was, JFK’s presidency gave many Americans a new vision of hope. His clothing choices, which feature in the majority of Preppy guides, effortlessly symbolised the tradition, modernity and prosperity that his policies and speeches trumpeted.

jfk_blogThe paradoxes of the Preppy Look – it is simultaneously bold & conservative, modern & traditional, relaxed & contrived, safe & sensuous – would seem to make it the Everyman clothing choice, particularly for socially turbulent times. This would certainly explain J.Crew’s strong sales last year. In the third quarter of 2012, the group gained $33.2m. in revenue, a 54% increase on the same period during 2011.[viii] But if J.Crew are doing well, and are looking to open their first London store, why are Ralph Lauren and Jack Wills closing stores? And why, in 2011, did Abercrombie & Fitch reportedly offer reality-star (if there is such a thing) Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (!?) money to stop wearing its clothes ‘to try and preserve some of the brand’s status’?[ix]

Poison Ivy

A possible answer is this: beyond their madras prints and bold colours, Preppy purvyeors are far from homogeneous. The multitude of companies that sell this uniquely American look cater, if subtly, to different consumers. They distinguish, in a more sophisticated way than the above poster, between the Ultra Preps, Intermediate Preps and Pseudo Preps. And it is interesting that those companies who are currently presenting Preppy as an edgy, even subversive, style are generally doing better than competitors who focus on the more conservative and moral attributes of the Look.

imagesCADDFUM9The Jack Wills group may have shut Aubin & Wills, but its younger, errant and eponymous brand thrives. Two years ago, nineteen complaints were received, and upheld by the Adverstising Standards Authority, when the Jack Wills 2011 Spring Term Handbook, printed a double-page spread of a bare-chested teenage couple canoodling in the surf at night.[x] The brand’s Easter Handbook was similarly provocative and advertised ‘debauched partying’ as part of their university tour of Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol. Scantily clad teenagers still featured in the introductory photographs. By contrast, Aubin & Wills had turned to Alex James, former bass player for Blur, now farmer, cheese-maker and Classic FM radio host, to promote its wares. Notice a difference? In January, America’s stylish First Lady, caused a mild sensation and a run on J.Crew stores by wearing a $265 rhinestone belt to her husband’s inauguration.[xi] If these up-start Preppy brands are booming – J.Crew was launched in 1983; Jack Wills in 1999 – Ralph Lauren’s fortunes might have taken a dip because of its ‘squeaky-clean’ image. In a recent interview, Ralph Lauren talks about his forty-eight year marriage and his lack of vices:

 I don’t have vices. You won’t find me with a large Scotch and a cigar in the evening.[xii]

Whilst the inteRalph Laurengrity of Ralph Lauren has undoutedbly contributed to the longevity of his clothing brand, his reticent demeanour suggests a man and multinational temporarily out of touch with the concerns and consternations of many of its consumers. Trends on this year’s catwalks have emphasised the avantgarde and angular, to the extent that some designers, notably Vivienne Westwood, have gone back to the Middle Ages for sartorial inspiration.[xiii] Ralph Lauren’s staple polo shirt is somewhat at odds with this sartorial outlook.

So there is a conundrum. The Preppy Look appeals because it signifies security and tradition and yet it is rejected, or at least considered less appealing, if it appears too conservative and conventional. It might be going too far to say that this attitude is indicative of all people’s approach to dress, but the Wheel of Fortune’s turn in favour of Preppy brands that embrace heritage and modernity highlight long-standing sociological observations about our desire to conform and express inviduality. And the need to express ourselves is often greater when we feel that our current position has been, or is in danger of being, threatened.

 …and however we might pigeon-hole prepsters, they are clearly not as nonchalant as their clothes suggest.

[i] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 164.

[ii] H. Walker, ‘Preppy look’ brought down a peg to leave labels in a mess’. The Independent (Tuesday, 6 November, 2012), 7.

[iii] V. Karaminas, ‘The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford, 2009), 347-52; C. Breward, Fashion (Oxford, 2003), 175-7.

[iv] S. Armstrong, ‘Bronze age man’, The Sunday Times: Style (Sunday, 17 March 2013), 62.

[v] D. Clemente, ‘Making the Princeton Man: Collegiate Clothing and Campus Culture, 1900-20’, The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007, ed. J. Potvin (London, 2009)108-20.

[vi] G. Marsh & J.P. Gaul, The Ivy League (London, 2010), 22-47.

[vii] J. Banks & D. de la Chapelle, Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style (New York, 2011), 4-10.

[viii] F. Gilles, ‘J.Store confirms London store.’,298204.html. Accessed: 13-iij-2013.

[ix] Walker, ‘Preppy Look’, 7.

[xi] M. White Sidell, ‘Michelle Obama’s J.Crew Belt is Already Sold Out.’ Accessed: 13-iij-2013.

[xii] J. Davis, ‘What I’ve Learned: Ralph Lauren’, Esquire (UK): The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer 2013), 69.

[xiii] ‘Vivienne Westwood’s wearable medieval ode’. Accessed: 21-iij-2013.

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]


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’. 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’. Accessed: 26-j-2013.

Dress to die for

There is a close connection between art and clothing, as scholars like Anne Hollander have shown.[i] Both are forms of creation that provide people with the potential to alter perceptions of themselves and their environments. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was cheaper to pose for a portrait and dress in the fine fabrics kept within an artist’s studio than commission a new set of garments.[ii] A portrait would generally last longer than clothes, too. But as much as paintings can project an image, they also reflect one. The clothes, fabrics and ornamentation in which people chose to be immortalised reveals much about the practicalities and principles of former periods. This is particularly the case with one of my favourite artists, the Sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. In little more than a decade Bruegel created over forty-five paintings. In the early 1560s his work borrowed heavily from another Flemish artist, Hieronymus Bosch, and tended towards the surreal, but throughout his painting Bruegel was keen to depict the life of the Netherlands as accurately as possible, from daily vignettes to clothing. This realism lends his paintings, which often feature over one hundred people, a deep sense of humour and pathos. The reality and posthumous reach of Bruegel’s work also stems from the fact that he concentrated on contemporary social concerns, issues that are perhaps as pressing today as they were six hundred years ago.

Triumph of Death

Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, possibly my favourite painting, focuses on a topic that fascinates and frightens people in equal measure: death. The large oil painting, recently re-dated to c.1566-67, depicts a smouldering wasteland where frightened men, women and children try in vain to restrain a relentless troop of murdering skeletons.[iii] The painting is violent and packs a visceral punch. In the foreground, a paralysed king is cradled by a skeleton holding an hourglass, indicating that the ruler’s time is nearly up. Nearby, a starving dog gnaws at the neck of a baby, who lies in its dead mother’s arms. Just beyond, a group of skeletons work industriously to drown several men in a blackened pool. In the background, two ships are sinking, two men are being hanged, one man is about to be beheaded and another is fleeing from two dogs and a skeleton clutching a spear. Sinister stuff.

The Triumph of Death is beguiling because whilst it conveys the malaise caused by political and religious upheavals in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, the complex and intricate painting, which is depicted in a palette of warm browns and soft greys – hues that are frequently in vogue for Winter fashion collections and interior decoration – draws the viewer in. The painting thereby has much the same effect as a siren from an emergency vehicle: it compels us to gaze and explore, even though we know we probably shouldn’t because what we will find can only cause distress. The allure of The Triumph of Death is also due to the fact that Bruegel depicts the customs, pastimes and clothing of the Netherlands with painstaking accuracy: a cross section of social hierarchy is depicted in the painting, from the king, to a richly arrayed nobleman and noblewoman to a cardinal and jester. Musical instruments and scores and a backgammon board and playing cards are also shown. It is curious, then, why death in this painting is associated with the colour white: several of the skeletons are draped in white toga-like garments and white coffin lids, painted with crosses, serve as shields for the advancing skeleton army.[iv] Black, the colour usually associated with dress in death, is conspicuously absent from the painting.

The Death of Kings

The dress associated with death differs across time, cultures and faiths.[v] In Sikhism, women tend to wear white when mourning. Elderly male Hindus are dressed in white for their funerals; married women, by contrast, are usually clothed in brighter shades of red or pink. In the West, black has tended to be the dominant colour in funerary dress since the Roman period, although because of the pagan associations early Christians were admonished for wearing black in mourning.[vi] An modern online guide to funeral etiquette recommends black dress and stresses the need for extreme sartorial conservatism, so as to give due respect to the deceased.[vii] If the advice offered is strictly followed, the congregants at funerals would be indistinct and virtually amorphous. This is black at its most sombre and disturbing.

The reason for the discomfitPhilip the Goodure about black is historic and specific. Black clothing was worn by the ducal house of Burgundy and by their Habsburg relatives in Spain, most notably Charles V and Philip II. The black worn by King Philip, a monarch who presided over the Spanish Inquisition and who launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I’s England, came to represent his suspicious character, religious asceticism and political intolerance.[viii] But these negative associations did not exist when one of Philip’s ancestors, Duke Philip III (the Good) of Burgundy, first wore black. Duke Philip donned black to mourn the loss of his father, John the Fearless, who had been murdered by the French in 1419. The decision to adopt monotone garb was a political statement more than an emotional one, for it was a subtle way of defying the Duke’s overlord and signalling that John’s death would not be forgotten or left unpunished.[ix] A sartorial statement had to suffice until the young duke (he was twenty-two years old) was in a stronger position to take his revenge. The opulence and fame of the fifteenth-century Burgundian court ensured that Philip’s sartorial statement was adopted in other princely courts by devotees of the latest vogues. The excitement caused by the Burgundian court’s black raiment indicates that dress associated with death has not always been associated with conservatism or foreboding, certainly not for the elite.

The household accounts of King Henry III of England, who died in 1272, reveal that the king was most likely buried in his coronation garments of 1220.[x] These were fashioned from red samite and ophreys. Samite was an expensive silk often woven with patterns. Ophreys were gold embroidered decoration. The description of this regalia elsewhere in the accounts abounds with superlatives (albeit in a formulaic manner). This unusual method of recording reveals how significant these items of clothing were considered to be:

…a large gold crown with the most beautiful gems, a large brooch with the most beautiful rubies, a large ring with a large [and] very beautiful ruby, a gold [and] regal sceptre, three gold rods, regal and long.[xi]

The king’s burial garments are probably those depicted on his bronze-gilt effigy in Westminster Abbey, the church he re-built to honour his predecessor and patron saint Edward the Confessor.

James Brown1

In some ways, things haven’t changed that much. When James Brown, the ‘godfather of soul’, died in 2006, his body was put on public display within a bronze-gilt coffin in his eponymous arena in Augusta. For each of the three days of public commemoration, Brown’s body was dressed in a different set of clothes.[xii] The funeral of the ‘king of pop’, Michael Jackson, two years later, was similarly elaborate and cost in the region of $650,000.[xiii] Like Brown – and Henry III – Jackson had a gold-plated bronze coffin. The coffin was closed, but dress still had a significant role in the funeral proceedings, as Jackson’s brothers all wore a sequined glove in tribute. The desire, or need, to have an elaborate funeral and manipulate all elements of one’s appearance in death – to ‘play to the crowd’ – is proportional to the legitimacy that public events confer on celebrities, be they politicians or entertainers. Dress at a funeral is particularly important because it is the final occasion for the deceased to make a lasting impression and the only opportunity they have to directly shape their posthumous legacy. Approximately 20,000 attendees and onlookers were present for Michael Jackson’s funeral, but closer to 2.5 billion people watched the proceedings on television.[xiv]

James Brown2

Personal Possessions

The commemoration of a person’s life is necessarily public, but the onset of death is also a time for personal reflection. Deceased royalty, rock stars and politicians may appear in their finest raiment for their funeral, but they have often made sartorial choices that reflect personal feelings about their life and beliefs. For example, England’s ‘evil’ King John, who died in 1216, had a typical royal funeral in every respect (as much as civil war and a French invasion would permit). He was buried with mock regalia in a splendid tomb topped with a jewel-encrusted effigy within Worcester Cathedral. Later inspection of the king’s body revealed that he had chosen to be buried wearing a skull-cap. It is not clear what motivated this unusual addition, although it has often been thought that John wished to atone for his impious actions as king: John was notorious for failing to fast on feast days and he was widely suspected of murdering his nephew, who had a (stronger?) claim to English crown.

Cadaver Tomb

In the medieval period, a more striking, and public way, of expressing contrition and humility at the time of one’s worldly exit was to be buried in a cadaver or ‘double-decker’ tomb, to borrow Erwin Panofsky’s term. Cadaver tombs consisted of two effigies placed on top of each other, rather like a bunk bed. The upper-most effigy depicted the deceased at the apex of their earthly success and showed them in their best clothes and jewellery. The effigy below depicted the deceased as a rotting corpse, which is reminiscent of the skeletons in Bruegel’s Triumph of Death. By commissioning one of these costly tombs, the deceased thereby acknowledged that glory is fleeting and that death awaits all. Cadaver tombs were particularly popular on the continent and several French kings, including Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II, are buried in tombs of this design.

Queen Victoria’s instruction that she was to be buried in her wedding dress and veil was unlikely motivated by feelings of religious guilt akin to her thirteenth-century predecessor, but her choice shows still further how personal decisions about dress in death have always assumed a great deal of importance for the deceased. Moreover, although black is a colour frequently associated with Victoria in her later life, it was not by any means the only colour of death, even during a period when the rigid structure of mourning dress was established, both in fact an romantic literature.

A Fashionable Death?

The cessation of rigid proscriptions for mourning attire means there is, in theory, scope for greater flexibility in death-related dress. For some, black is still the appropriate – and only – colour that should be considered, but there have been attempts to challenge this. In 2009, so the story goes, Leonor Scherrer, daughter of designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, realised that she had nothing to wear for the funeral of Yves-Saint Laurent. So, she resolved to launch her own brand of ready-to-wear funeral garments.[xv] Scherrer was interviewed for various fashion magazines and her concept was generally welcomed, but it does not appear that her couture line was launched.[xvi] Today her website refers to a funerary service and home, rather than a clothes line. The apparent failure of Scherrer’s enterprise may indicate a preference for sobriety and black at funerals, or more likely an ambivalence to change what has become established custom, but the amount of money and popular interest that is generated by the death of celebrities means that an alternative couture line will probably exist before too long, whether black or not.

[i] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975).

[ii] V. Cumming, Understanding fashion history (London, 2004), 84-7.

[iii] L. Silver, Pieter Bruegel (New York, 2011), 296.

[iv] I do not think it likely that the colour is meant to represent Calvinism.

[v] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 373-90.

[vi] B.L. Wild, ‘Funerals: post-1100’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 220.

[vii] R. Bickerstaff-Glover, ‘What do I wear to a funeral?’. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[viii] J. Harvey, ‘From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009),19-28.

[ix] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 78-91.

[x] D.A. Carpenter, ‘The Burial of King Henry III, the Regalia and Royal Ideology’, idem, The Reign of Henry III (London, 1996), 427-62.

[xi] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of King Henry III of England, 1216-1272 (Loughborough, 2012), 250.

[xii] ‘Stars turn out for Brown funeral’. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] ‘Funeral Haute Couture’. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

[xvi] S. Muncey, ‘Death in Fashion’. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

Power & Politics: Medieval Style

The recordings and transcript below are from a lecture that I gave last week. A long time ago, it seems, an ex-colleague – my former head of department, to be precise – invited me to present a paper to his historical society. The talk discusses various art-historical themes from my forthcoming book, King Henry III & the Communication of Power, which should be published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2014… In brief, I argue that one historian’s analysis of Adolf Hitler’s political career can open up new perspectives on the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272), England’s fourth-longest reigning monarch.

King Henry III and the Power of Aesthetics: Art & Ceremony in Thirteenth-Century England

Intro (audio)

Adolf HitlerThe title of this talk is in homage to Frederic Spott’s study, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, that was published in 2002.[i] Henry III and Adolf Hitler are not obvious figures for comparison. Separated by seven centuries, Henry III was pious; Hitler was most decidedly not. Henry was a man of peace. In contrast, Hitler compared himself to Frederick the Great and venerated Napoleon. Moreover, Henry III was an anointed king. Hitler derided the idea of monarchy and described the medieval period as ‘the age of princes … confused, when all is said, with the history of a family.’[ii] He considered hereditary monarchy to be a ‘biological blunder.’[iii] And yet despite all this, one important comparison can be made. Both Henry III and Adolf Hitler used art to exalt their authority and to offer a substantially new approach to politics.

It is not possible or desirable to take a comparison of Henry III and Adolf Hitler beyond certain superficial similarities. Yet Frederic Spotts’s work is of interest, and value, because it offers an alternative perspective to view a familiar and much studied topic. And I think an alternative view of Henry III’s reign is necessary. The medieval historian Michael Clanchy has suggested that:

we need ready-made characterizations [of kings] in order to fit the rest of the jigsaw into place. Experts can then come forward […] and a completer picture of the king builds up.[iv]

I have my doubts. King Alfred will probably always be ‘great’, despite his dubious multi-tasking skills in the kitchen; Queen Mary, ‘bloody’, and King John, ‘evil’. Henry III, who was consigned by Dante to sit in eternal solitude outside the gates of Purgatory, will probably long remain as one of England’s witless kings.[v] Rather like Richard II or Charles I, conventional historical narratives suggest that King Henry had big ideas but lacked the cash, consensus and political nous to see them realised.

Henry III. Source: King Richard and King Charles, Henry was certainly an aesthete. He initiated the lavish reconstruction of Westminster Abbey to make it a suitable place of worship for his patron saint Edward the Confessor. Closer to home, he refashioned Winchester Castle, of which the magnificent great hall still remains. Henry’s alms giving, which included Maundy distributions of shoes; his commission of costly garments and jewellery, not to mention his detailed specifications for decorative schemes in royal residences – and his recorded impatience when they took too long to realise – testifies to his passion for art and ceremony. But historians frequently suggest that Henry III built big and spent lavishly because he lacked effective political authority. The role of royal dress, architecture and ceremony during the reign was therefore to provide a façade, an impressive veil to conceal a character bereft of the qualities that would make him a strong and successful ruler. The most damning verdict of Henry III is that of Nicholas Vincent. Commenting on the relic of Christ’s blood that was gifted to Henry in 1247 by the patriarch of Jerusalem, he argues:

The general indifference to Westminster, to the shrine of Edward and to such relics as the Holy Blood, reflects a more deep-rooted indifference towards the King himself, an indifference that bordered upon contempt. As crusader, financier, administrator and as would-be reconqueror of France, Henry fared just as dismally as he did as a patron of relics. The failure of the Holy Blood is to this extent symptomatic of the far wider failure of King Henry III.[vi]

Vincent makes his point forcefully, but his argument is not novel. Since Bishop Stubbs, who wrote in the nineteenth century, scores of historians have taken a perverse delight in demonstrating the eloquence of their diction to berate Henry III’s deeds. This makes for a stimulating read or talk, but when the so-called experts perpetuate the ‘ready-made characterisations’ of kings, we are in danger of having many incomplete jigsaws. Frederic Spott’s work on the Third Reich provides a cautionary tale in parallel. Spott’s argues that Hitler was a künstlerpolitiker, an artist-politician, who consciously rejected political science (staatswissenschaft) in favour of statecraft (staatskunst).[vii] If the close connection between art and politics in Nazi Germany is not acknowledged and seriously studied, if historians continue to regard Hitler as the failed Viennese painter, Spotts argued that they would miss a piece of their puzzle. I think much the same is true for Henry III’s reign. I do not want to go as far as to suggest that King Henry was a thirteenth-century künstlerpolitiker. His use of art was never as pervasive as a Hitler’s, nor could it be, to suggest otherwise would be to risk distorting our understanding of medieval Britain and Nazi Germany beyond recognition. I do want to argue that Henry used art consistently and deliberately throughout his reign. If we are to understand the accomplishments and crises of one of the longest and most tumultuous reigns in our history; if we want a complete puzzle, we should acknowledge the centrality of art and ceremony in the reign of King Henry III. I want to explore this idea by thinking about a belt, a building and a battle.

The Belt

The Belt (audio)

Fernando de la Cerda's Belt

The belt that I want to talk about was discovered in the early 1940s in the monastery of Santa María de Las Huelgas, Burgos, within the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda, the son and heir of Alfonso X of Castile.[viii] The belt is made of a tablet-woven braid decorated with minute blue and white glass beads. It is lined with light green silk brocaded with gold. Two silver-gilt plates are attached to the ends of the strap, one of which serves as the buckle. The plates are decorated with pearls and sapphires and each contains four three-sided shields painted with heraldic devices. The belt strap is divided into twenty equal sections, which are decorated with alternating designs. Ten of the panels feature intricate geometric patterns set within a diamond-shaped frame. The corners of these panels are filled with swastikas and discs – the connection with Hitler continues. No two panels are identical, but the colour scheme of each is blue and white. The ten remaining panels are filled with three-sided heraldic shields, some of which are copied from the silver-gilt plates. These panels are also depicted in blue and white. In total, the belt features twelve different coats of arms.[ix]

Attempts to identify the arms on the shields, and thus the origins of the belt, have caused much debate. Since its discovery over seventy years ago, different arguments have been put forward to suggest that the belt originated in England, France and Spain. In a recent article, I argued that the belt was English and that it was commissioned by King Henry III. The belt’s journey from England to Spain was circuitous. In 1254, Henry gifted the belt to the count of Champagne, Thibault II, during his first diplomatic visit to France. Thibault probably gave the belt to Fernando de la Cerda in 1269, at his wedding. The belt’s burial with the Castilian Infante provides important evidence of the close familial and political relationships that linked the ruling dynasties of northwest Europe during the thirteenth century. Commissioned as a gift and richly decorated, I suggested that the belt should be seen as an example of the aesthetic accomplishment of Henry III, his use of propaganda and political aspirations.

‘Propaganda’ is a modern term but I think it is appropriate to use in this context, if we follow the definition favoured by the French medievalist Martin Aurell. He describes propaganda as:

[t]he broadcasting of a political message out from [the royal court], and its reception by the periphery, where the aristocracy still had an ability to make up its own mind, an ability the king wanted to influence. It recognised that there was public opinion in the complaisance of the aristocracy, which it was necessary to convince about the good sense of the actions of the king and his officers. ‘Propaganda’ assumes a sharp consciousness of the role of communication amongst the governing classes, who were intelligently furthering the spread of favourable ideas when they funded professional thinkers, writers and performers. It implies also an infrastructure, however primitive.[x]

Fernando’s belt certainly sought to convince people about ‘the good sense of the actions of the king.’ It did this by emphasising the convivial relations that existed within the English royal court and between Henry III and his fellow European rulers. The fact that there are only ten shields on the belt strap, some of which are replicated on the silver-gilt plates, implies deliberate selection. The arms of these shields belong to a diverse group of individuals who are not comparable in terms of office, status, age or income. There are conspicuous absences and odd inclusions. In total there are three kings, six earls and two barons. This again would imply deliberate selection. Due to the limits of time, not to mention your patience, I won’t provide a prosopographical overview of the individuals whose arms appear on the belt. This will also force you to read my article. But it is apparent that all of the men depicted on the strap were English, many could trace their families back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. In contrast, on the silver gilt plates, the arms of England appear alongside those of France and Navarre. On the belt strap, Henry is king of England, standing among his barons. On the silver gilt plates he stands among European princes, alongside the saintly Louis IX and Thibault II.

The theme of Englishness on the belt strap was hardly coincidental. The emphasis on individuals who were de regno Anglie natos (‘born of [the kingdom] of England’) coincides with King Henry’s efforts to rebrand the monarchy after the turmoil of his father’s reign (this was ‘Evil’ King John) and the virtual loss of the dynasty’s cross-channel kingdom. Henry named his sons after Edmund and Edward, canonised English kings. He adopted the last true English monarch before the Conquest, Edward the Confessor, as his patron saint. During the 1250s, when I think the belt was commissioned, an Anglocentric focus was politic in other respects. The English court was increasingly concerned, and vocal, about Henry’s distribution of patronage to his Lusignan half-brothers. It is striking that these men, so close to king in his counsels, should not appear on the belt at all. The promotion of court allegiances and the image of a king working in concert with his political community was not new, as political ideas rarely are. Henry had explored this theme in art before. In 1243, he commissioned a mural for the great hall of Dublin castle. The painting, which does not survive, depicted the king and queen seated amongst their baronage. The idea of community was revived between 1259 and 1265, when sixteen heraldic shields were installed along each side of the choir of Westminster Abbey. The three-sided shields, like those on Fernando’s belt, contained the arms of England’s aristocracy along side those of the royal family.

The Building

The Building (audio)

Westminster AbbeyAnd so we move from the belt, to the building that I want to discuss: Westminster Abbey. The lavish reconstruction of Westminster Abbey began in 1245.[xi] Starting with the east end, sections of the church built by Edward the Confessor were taken down and new taller and wider sections of Henry’s church were erected in their place. The abbey was conceived to be a suitable space for the tomb of the king’s patron saint. But in paying homage to the heavens, Henry also made sure to use the building to enhance his terrestrial authority. The result is a unique piece of architecture that has a perfectly articulated, and quite deliberate, mesh of the secular and sacred. As you enter the abbey through the north transept, your eyes sweep across the intricately carved interior and are drawn upwards to look at the exquisite rose window in the south transept. Between this window and the triforium you notice two figures. The figure who stands to the left has been decapitated, an act of violence perpetrated in the name of Henry VIII during the sixteenth century. The body of this forlorn figure is turned towards the figure on the right, whose right arm is outstretched towards him. This is Edward the Confessor. He is handing his ring to John the Evangelist, disguised as a pauper. This sequence, which was depicted in paint and stone in many royal residences during Henry III’s reign, is a central story in Edward the Confessor’s hagiography.

The story goes a little like this: One day, after leaving a church service, King Edward was approached by a pauper asking for alms. The king, a proto-Wenceslas, dug deep into his mantle, but had no small change. As a good Christian ruler, Edward was not prepared to allow one of his poor subjects to depart with nothing, so he removed his ring and offered it to the man. The debonair monarch thought no more of his charity, but his deed was to have an awesome consequence. Many years later, two English pilgrims were travelling in the Holy Lands. Walking alone one evening, the men were approached by an elderly man in a hooded cloak. The man asked if the travellers were from England; ‘Yes’, they replied. He asked if their king was Edward; ‘Yes’, they replied. Satisfied with their responses, the man instructed the pilgrims to return immediately to England. He explained that several years earlier, King Edward had given him his ring, thinking that he was a humble peasant. But the king was wrong. The man threw back his hood and revealed himself as St John the Evangelist. St John said that the pilgrims must return home and inform their king that his death was imminent. The king should have no cause to fear, however, for because of his earlier generosity, St John would personally escort his soul to heaven. The men were to return Edward’s ring to him, as a symbol of the Saint’s sincerity.

King Henry III (and later, Richard II) was drawn to this episode because it reminded him, and other onlookers, of his own piety and benevolence. It also implied that his kingship was sanctioned by heavenly heavyweights in the same way that King Edward’s had been. As keen as Henry was to demonstrate his Christian credentials, this was not the only point that he wanted to impress upon visitors as they entered his church. As people walk into the Abbey, they pass under a stone arch. At the apex of this arch, there is a bust of a podgy-faced boy. The figure is not specifically identified, but historians reckon that this is probably a representation of the Lord Edward, Henry III’s son and successor. As soon as visitors entered Westminster Abbey, the strength of Henry’s spiritual and dynastic authority was made apparent. This sophisticated theme was elaborated further in the Abbey’s Chapter House, a building upon which Henry lavished much attention.

The Chapter House was a meeting place for the king and his barons. It was therefore an appropriate backdrop from which to project images of royalty.[xii] The tone of the room was set by the tiled floor, of which the Latin inscription proclaims:

Ut rosa flos florum, sic est domus ista domorum.

As the rose is the flower of flowers, so is this the house of houses.

The tiled floor incorporates a diverse mixture of dynastic and religious iconography. The Angevin lions appear sixty-two times along side stylised impressions of the Abbey’s rose window and the figures of King Edward and St John. Henry’s household accounts reveal that a golden lectern was designed especially for the room. It is well documented that Henry liked to make speeches and he must have felt that the Chapter House was the ideal location from which to launch one of his most ambitions plans, the acquisition of the kingdom of Sicily for his second son Edmund. To persuade the barons of the necessity of conceding a tax to fund the campaign of conquest, a set of Sicilian coronation robes were commissioned for Edmund to wear in the Chapter House before the assembled meeting. The preparations – and propaganda – were carefully considered, but cash was not forthcoming. Between 1239 and 1266 all of King Henry’s requests for taxation were denied.

Royal arms of England from the 13th century tile floor in the Ch

Today, we have to look carefully within the Abbey for the architectural features that I have discussed, as so many have been hidden or partially destroyed by later decoration. In the thirteenth century, the iridescent colours of the Abbey’s carved interior, illuminated by candlelight, would have made them prominent to all visitors.

The ‘Battle’

The Battle (audio 1)

Kenilworth Castle

The ability to combine secular and sacred motifs is also a notable feature of the battle that I want to think about. The battle, is in actual fact a siege, but ‘siege’ obviously doesn’t work within my alliterative scheme. The siege of Kenilworth castle in 1266 lasted for 172 days and it is the longest siege in England’s history.[xiii] Nine months before the siege, on 4 August 1265, royalist forces won a decisive victory at the battle of Evesham. This triumph effectively ended the civil war that had raged in England since the summer of 1263. The rebel leader and royal in-law, the earl of Leicester Simon de Montfort, was slain and King Henry, a former captive of the earl, regained his freedom. But the royalist victory was not total. Many dissidents remained. Embittered and fearful of the king’s decision to seize the lands of suspected rebels, they retreated to Montfort’s former stronghold of Kenilworth castle. Symbolically and strategically Kenilworth was situated ‘in the middle of the kingdom’, as the St Albans monk William of Rishanger perceptively put it. For this very reason Rishanger knew the surrender of the garrison had to be effected if peace were once again ‘to smile upon England’. Writing in the fourteenth century, his opinion is particularly apposite.

On arrival at Kenilworth the royal force was split into separate divisions, to surround the castle. The roads and waterways must have heaved with traffic delivering equipment to maintain this enormous war effort. Royal records mention the supply of 60,000 quarrels for crossbows. Some 2,000 wooden hurdles measuring 8x7ft and thicker variants measuring 10x8ft were also sent to Kenilworth. The hurdles presumably acted as defensive screens, protecting the royal soldiers from projectiles hurled from within the castle. Heavier siege equipment was also required. In all, nine siege engines were brought to Kenilworth, transported by road and river. The machines were erected around the castle. Once set-up, they fired stone missiles day and night. The use of wooden siege towers attracted particular comment from chroniclers. One of the Lord Edward’s towers, of ‘remarkable height and width’, contained 200 crossbowman. ‘Through skill’ the royalists managed to attach the tower to the walls of Kenilworth castle, but their attack was unsuccessful. The tower was struck by a missile, putting it out of action. The King’s siege tower, called the ‘Bear’ ‘on account of its great size’, fared little better. Barges from Chester, ‘to assail the castle by water’, were delivered by ‘incredible labours’, but were repulsed. Plans to undermine the castle walls through ditches and subterranean tunnels also failed. The variety of tactics and equipment may be read as a damning indictment of the effectiveness of Henry III’s military machine, but for our purposes they reveal how the king regarded victory at Kenilworth as a prerequisite in his bid to restore royal authority.

In part, the King’s show of force at Kenilworth was all about bravado. Henry III wanted to demonstrate that his authority was not irrevocably impaired following his fifteenth-month captivity before the battle of Evesham.[xiv] After Simon de Montfort’s grisly death – his neck was skewered by a lance – Henry wanted to ensure that everyone in England knew that he was, once more, the legitimate and unchallenged ruler. This explains why, after the battle of Evesham, Henry had been escorted into the town to a trumpet salute, and why Montfort’s dismembered corpse was despatched to various parts of the kingdom as a gruesome warning to lingering insurgents. It may also explain why the royal household provided Henry with a new suit of clothing, making him look every bit the commander-in-chief during the Kenilworth siege. The household accounts describe a gambeson, a military tunic of quilted fabric, complete with dags. Dags were pointed pieces of fabric sewn onto the hem or shoulders of a garment, invariably in a contrasting colour. The tunic was finished with ophreys, gold embroidered decoration around the collar and cuffs. It is curious that Henry had such a garment made for him at this time because the protection afforded by a gambeson was geared to hand combat. It would have been of little direct use during a siege. The annalist of Dunstable priory refers to raids that were launched against the encamped royal army by those inside the castle, and the fact that Henry and his son Edward were forced to arm themselves ‘our of fear’. Nonetheless, the physical description of Henry’s gambeson suggests it was worn chiefly for its aesthetic effect. Perhaps like Hitler, who longed to exchange his grey military jacket with the brown party one, but refused until the war was won, Henry III wore the gambeson to show his commitment to the various military expeditions of this period, perhaps more specifically the siege. The King had, after all, made a conscious, possibly public, decision to remain at Kenilworth until the siege was over. He did not even return to Westminster Abbey for the feast of his patron saint Edward the Confessor on 13 October, as was his custom. Indeed, during the siege, the king was probably more visible to a larger group of his subjects, and for a longer period of time, than at any other point in his fifty-six reign.

The Battle (audio 2)

Sensitive about his image and deeply pious, Henry III seems to have realised that his displays of bellicosity were proving counter-productive in his efforts to persuade the garrison to surrender. He therefore tried a different approach. If he could not induce his subjects to yield through displays of force, he seems to have thought, he would win them over with gestures of benevolence. The royal household accounts show that Henry distributed much greater quantities of plate and jewellery from his stores during the period of the Kenilworth siege. The scale of royal oblations, which had fallen during Henry’s captivity, also increased after the battle of Evesham and were now of a similar magnitude to the king’s personal rule between 1234 and 1258. A surviving alms roll also reveals that one hundred paupers were fed daily during the siege, thus meaning that the king’s customary level of almsgiving was maintained. Throughout the siege, foodstuffs for the king’s household were supplied by local sheriffs. The daily costs of feeding the household were therefore very low, ranging from eight to fifteen shillings. However, on 15 August Henry celebrated the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with a large feast, costing a hefty £50. To put this figure in context, an annual income of £15-£20 was deemed sufficient to support the costs of knighthood during the thirteenth century. This was most definitely a slap-up nosh. Holding such a feast before the walls of Kenilworth castle mid-siege must have been impressive, which was surely Henry’s intention. There was probably also an element of psychological warfare here; tormenting the starving and besieged garrison with the sight and smells of food and merriment.

It is difficult to determine the full impact of Henry’s actions at Kenilworth. The incongruity of the king feeding one hundred paupers daily whilst his siege engines hurled missiles continuously at the garrison, must have been striking. I have alluded to other occasions when Henry’s use of art and ceremony did not always produce the desired effect: notably, when funds were not forthcoming for the Sicilian campaign. It must also be said that the image of cooperation that is depicted on Fernando de la Cerda’s belt is somewhat problematic. The odd collection of arms could speak more of divisions within Henry’s court than cohesion. Moreover, many of the men whose arms appear on the belt sided against the king when a party of reform swept to power in 1258. But my purpose has not been to argue that Henry III was always successful.  Even modern political regimes, which manipulate art and ceremony to exacting degrees, are unable to obtain complete consensus. Consider the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the discovery that the little girl who sang Ode to the Motherland was a fake; the song was a recording that Lin Miaoke was miming. Whilst the singer of the opening anthem, Jang Peiyi, had an angelic voice, the Politburo decided that she did not have a correspondingly beautiful face. During rehearsals, she was therefore replaced.[xv]

Lin Miaoke

By looking at a belt, a building and a battle, I hope to have shown that Henry III’s use of art and ceremony was deliberate and considered and, as such, could be said to constitute a specific approach to royal political discourse during his fifty-six year reign. If we do not acknowledge that art and ceremony played a crucial part in Henrician political strategies, we are at risk of ending up with an incomplete jigsaw. This point is particularly important because Henry’s son and successor, Edward I, used art and ceremony in a way that appears more considered than earlier Angevin rulers, as if he had learned something from his Old Man. Father and son were very different monarchs, but Edward’s imperial construction at Caernarfon and his imposing black marble tomb, which seems to have taken design cues from the tomb of the legendary King Arthur, suggests Henry III’s approach to politics was pursued after his death.  This is not surprising. As parliament slowly evolved from an event into an institution during the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries, England’s rulers inevitably sought new means to project a favourable view of royal authority to a greater number of their subjects who now had more involvement in, and direction over, the governance of the realm. Henry III was no künstlerpolitiker, but he did understand the importance of using art and ceremony in his reign to exalt and exculpate royal authority. Consequently, the king’s motivations and methods need to recognised more fully if we are to progress beyond ‘ready-made characterisations’ of Henry III as a God-fearing and ineffectual failure.

[i] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London, 2002).

[ii] Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944: His Private Conversations, tr. N. Cameron and R.H. Stevens (London, 2003), 121.

[iii] Ibid., 385.

[iv] M.T. Clanchy, England and Its Rulers, 1066-1307, third edition (London, 2006), 284.

[v] D. Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, tr. A. Mandelbaum (Pössneck, 1995), Canto VII, lines 130-32.

[vi] N. Vincent, The Holy Blood: King Henry III and the Westminster Blood Relic (Cambridge, 2001), 189.

[vii] Spotts, Aesthetics, 10, 43. See also Hitler: Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen, 1905-1924, ed. E. Jäckel & A. Kuhn  (Stuttgart, 1980), 1180.

[viii] For what follows, see B.L. Wild, ‘Emblems and Enigmas: revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’, Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 378-96.

[ix] Vestiduras Ricas: El monasterio de Las Huelgas y su época 1170-1340, ed. J. Yarza Luaces (Madrid, 2005), 164-5.

[x] M. Aurell, L’Empire des Plantagenêt (Paris, 2003), 96.

[xi] P. Binski, Westminster Abby and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200-1400 (New Haven & London, 1995).

[xii] D.A. Carpenter, ‘King Henry III and the chapter house of Westminster Abbey’, Westminster Abbey Chapter House: the history, art and architecture of ‘a chapter house beyond compare’, ed. W. Rodwell & R. Mortimer (London, 2010), 32-9.

[xiii] For what follows, see B.L. Wild, ‘The Siege of Kenilworth Castle, 1266’, English Heritage Historical Review, 5 (2010), 13-23.

[xiv] B.L. Wild, ‘A Captive King: Henry III between the Battles of Lewes and Evesham, 1264-5’, Thirteenth Century England XIII: Proceedings of the Paris Conference 2009, ed. J. Burton, F. Lachaud, P. Schofield, K. Stöber & B. Weiler (Woodbridge, 2011), 41-56.

[xv] A. O’Connor & J. Macartney, ‘The counterfeit Games: designed to look good from every angle,’ The Times (13 August, 2008), 18-19.

Through a Glass…


If the eyes are truly the windows to our soul, it is surprising that spectacles have generally suffered from a bad press in the West. Eyewear is currently in vogue, regardless of whether corrective lens are necessary, but it has not always been so, especially for men.


James Bond. Source:

The current popularity of eyewear has undoubtedly been influenced by the ubiquity of bespectacled characters in movies and television dramas: Oliver Proudlock, a posh twenty-something in the reality show Made in Chelsea, sports a pair of tortoise shell frames, seemingly when the mood takes him. The process of adapting books into blockbusters has helped the pre-pubescent Harry Potter and the wizened master spy George Smiley to universalise eyewear, if not necessarily their specific frame styles.[i] Even James Bond has contributed to the cause. Pierce Brosnan wore glasses for the Bond franchise’s nineteenth offering, The World is Not Enough. Admittedly, 007’s specs were Q-Branch issue blue tinted x-ray lens, but they fooled casino punters, who appeared to regard them as a modish dress accessory, befitting of a debonair Brit in black tie. The specific preference for thick-rimmed frames has probably been encouraged, certainly normalised, by a slew of Geek-Chic American sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory and Ugly Betty. The idea that dramas of this ilk would inspire spectacle wearing seems counter intuitive. The protagonists in these shows are archetypal losers. Rather like Clark Kent’s frames, the glasses worn by these characters imply physical weakness and hint at inner neuroses and anxiety; all of which is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase, ‘never hit a man with glasses’.

Buddy Holly. Source: our interaction with the screen, big and small, is complicated. Seeing an item of clothing on television or in a movie can enhance its status, even elevate it from sartorial obscurity and derision, especially if it is worn by a character we love; and we all love Leonard Hofstadter, Ph.D., and Betty Suarez. Anne Hollander uses the example of Jack Nicholson’s watch cap in One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest to explain this phenomenon.[ii] The cap was a common dress accessory prior to the film’s release in 1976, but after Nicholson’s appearance everyone wanted it, to achieve ‘a sense of glamour by association.’[iii] In the world of eyewear, Buddy Holly’s shiny black Mexican imports caused a sensation in the 1950s, even though they were purchased for practicality; his vision was 20/800 in both eyes.[iv] According to Gregory DelliCaprini Jr., fashion editor of, Holly’s specs even encouraged stars to become more glam:

Without Buddy Holly’s glasses, [pop-culture experts] say, the world would likely never have seen John Lenon in his granny-style glasses nor Elton John in his oversize frames. For that matter, it might never have seen Madonna in her cone-shaped bra or Lady Gaga in her meat dress.[v]

Steve Jobs. Source: may be claiming too much, but the clamour for celebrity looks and ephemera cannot be denied. Lunor frames similar to those worn by Steve Jobs were reported to be selling ‘more briskly’, following the announcement of his death.[vi] The apparent scramble to possess a piece of Jobs’ image, even if in replica, is not so different to the ransacking of episcopal and royal palaces that followed the death of a bishop or prince in pre-modern societies. The death of these political leaders ‘opened up a fissure in the fabric of society’[vii] and created a ‘marginal period’[viii] before a successor was appointed. Possessing, or destroying, objects of the recently deceased enabled individual feelings of anxiety to be collectively expressed. The fact that people now to react to a celebrity’s death in a similar way reveals much about the entrenchment of celebrity culture in modern society.

Hollander’s research hints at another reason for the surge in spectacle wearing. She argues – convincingly – that the advent of film and photography has made us more discriminating. Sharper resolution achieved through technological advances has made us adept, and thus increasingly inclined, to ‘read’ clothes and brands on film as signifiers of income, occupation and background. And as life imitates art, so we apply these forensic skills to the sartorial choices of friends and colleagues. Wearing styles of glasses that are popularly regarded as fringe – even wearing glasses at all – could therefore provide a means of becoming ‘undetectable’ or finding sartorial freedom.[ix]


Colonel Sponsz. Source: has often been portrayed negatively in the West, chiefly because of its association with bookish learning and old age. For the same reasons, the reception of glasses in the East has tended to be more positive, following Confucian teachings.[x] In a previous post I suggested that fictional villains often have facial hair; well, they also wear glasses (beware the character that sports both!).[xi] Of the twenty-nine James Bond villains that have appeared in film, two were bespectacled (Max Zorin and Elliot Carver). Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Le Chiffre suffered from optical deficiencies. Nazi officers are frequently depicted with a monocle, whether in Hergé’s Tintin or Hogan’s Heroes.[xii] In Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, Baron von Pregnitz (‘Kuno’), wears a monocle, which adds to his slightly unsettling demeanour.

The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:

‘Excuse me. Do you know Naples?’

‘No. I’ve never been there.’

‘Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.’

‘Perhaps so,’ I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink, well-shaven face by means of some horrible surgical operation.

Mr Norris Changes Trains. Christopher Isherwood.

Choosing not to wear glasses in public is probably the most prevalent example of someone suffering for their style. Adolf Hitler wore glasses in private but never for official engagements. His speeches were written on a special typewriter with larger letter stamps. Leading Nazis wore spectacles (and monocles), but it was important that Hitler’s figure, which became increasingly deified after he proclaimed himself Führer in 1934, bore no hint of physical fragility.[xiii] In at least one case of eyewear extremism, looks have even killed. Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Horatio Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar, died of bowel problems supposedly caused by leaning over maps when he should have been wearing his spectacles. Even John Lenon, whose bespectacled portrait has become near iconic – more so following the release of Yoko Ono’s 1981 album Season of Glass, which featured his blood-flecked frames on the cover – never wore glasses when performing live.[xiv]

… Made in Italy

It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising if we think about the history of other dress accessories (if spectacles are dress accessories?[xv]) and people’s desire for individuality, that eyewear should have started to become unpopular at the moment it attained popularity. Reading glasses were developed during the thirteenth century. They were worn by clerics, and thus scholars, and fashioned from exquisite materials, including ivory, tortoise and precious metal. Refinements to the frame and the use of inexpensive metals made glasses readily available across Europe. As the lustre of academia and quality workmanship faded, the ‘mystique’ of eyewear went too. ‘Glasses came to be seen as a crutch.’[xvi] Optometrists’ association with St Jerome, whom they had adopted as their patron saint, did much to reinforce this dismissive verdict. St Jerome was famous for completing a Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) from Greek. Further developments in the manufacture of frames, particularly the creation of celluloid in the mid-nineteenth century and Optyl in the mid-twentieth century, enabled more dynamic, anthropometric and colourful frames to be made.[xvii] These technological innovations created new markets for sunglasses, which were popularised by Hollywood actors and the nonchalant JFK,[xviii] but the multi-colour and multi-dimensional frames worn by the likes of Elton John[xix] and Dame Edna Everage[xx] revealed how dowdy prescription spectacles were.

Steve McQueen. Source:

The idea of commissioning known designers to create eponymously branded frames generated a new clamour for specs and gave birth to the modern eyewear business.[xxi] But many Western producers struggled to compete with Asian competitors, who saturated the market with cheaper variants. The result was a realignment of the eyewear business: ‘Since the Asians couldn’t be beaten on price, a new strategy had to be devised – a few manufacturers decided to gamble on moving the category upmarket and competing on prestige.’[xxii] By geographical accident, optometrists located in the north of Italy were best placed to benefit from this commercial soul searching. Situated in the mountains, in close proximity to the motor industry and basking in sunshine, Italian eyewear manufacturers led the field in making aviation and motoring lens. One of the oldest and most prestigious of the Italian eyewear companies is Persol. The company’s name is derived from its products, which were per il sole, ‘for the sun’.[xxiii] Celebrity endorsements from the likes of Steve McQueen and shrewd product placement in movies like The Italian Job, did much to generate a cult status for Persol and Italian eyewear in general. Many eyewear companies boast that their frames are ‘hand made in Italy.’ A newer brand like Illesteva, which markets its products as both contemporary and classic, has gone a step further by proclaiming their frames are designed in New York and made in Italy.

… Brightly?

I wear glasses and enjoy doing so.  My expanding collection of frames includes, Cutler & Gross,[xxiv] Illesteva,[xxv] Persol,[xxvi] Prada,[xxvii] Ray Ban[xxviii] & Tom Ford.[xxix]  The current ‘geek gone cool’ vogue, which is encouraging a return to vinyl records, Fairisle tanktops and slicked hair, has done much to promote, or at least prepare the ground for, the wearing of eyeglasses among a larger number of people. The fact that specs are slightly nerdy is, currently, less of an issue and the longer that bespectacled nerds appear on screen, the longer this will remain so. The present reverence for the past is also encouraging many eyewear brands to re-issue vintage frames – think of Oliver Peoples and their ‘Gregory Peck’ range – or, in the case of newer manufacturers like Thom Browne, to launch vintage-inspired frames.[xxx] This cyclical trend reveals how important history is to fashion. Past epochs are easily distinguishable from the clothes that were then worn. Harnessing or adapting these styles makes and maintains traditions and legitimacy, which has always been an important concern for clothing. The significance of tradition and legitimacy – choosing when to wear frames; choosing a style of frame that was worn by a celebrity or is made by a particular brand – seems to be a more pressing issue for the bespectacled because glasses make such an obvious physical statement. They proclaim, possibly more immediately than any other prop save crutches and bandages, a bodily impairment. For this reason, a history of eyewear also reveals how the sartorial kudos of eyewear can plummet. And if history does repeat itself, the current popularity of glasses means that a decline and fall in spectacle wearing may not far off as people seek a different means to project their individuality.

Thom Browne sunglasses. Source:


[i] J. Mullan, ‘Ten of the best pairs of glasses in literature’, Guardian Review (Saturday, 30 January 2010), 11.

[ii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975), 305. Also see her comments on the mini skirt, 360.

[iii] Ibid., 305.

[iv] C. Passy, ‘Framing a Young Rocker: The Man Who Picked Glasses for Buddy Holly’. Accessed: 8/xij/2012.

[v] Ibid.

[vii] S. Bertelli, The King’s Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, tr. R. Burr Litchfield (Pennsylvannia, 2001), 39.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 346-8.

[x] M. Lipow, Eyewear; Brillendesign; Lunettes (Cologne, 2011), 14.

[xi] ‘Hair Today and … Tomorrow’. October, 14 2012.

[xii] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 204.

[xiii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London, 2002), 44-8; I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998), 280-81.

[xiv] N. Handley, Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics (London, 2011), 61.

[xv] Neil Handley observes that many optometrists abhorred the fact that eyewear, which they considered to be a medical instrument, was becoming freely available on the high street, sold by a new breed of ‘shoptician.’ Handley, Cult Eyewear, 7-17.

[xvi] Lipow, Eyewear, 12.

[xvii] Ibid., 71-2; 265-66.

[xviii] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 226.

[xix] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 117.

[xx] Ibid., 31.

[xxi] Lipow, Eyewear,130.

[xxii] Ibid., 270.

[xxiii] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 44-7.

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:

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:

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 Accessed: 25-xj-2012.

[iii] G. Cruz, ‘A Brief History of the Flag Lapel Pin’.,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’. 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’. Accessed: 1-xij-2012.