I’ve always been a big fan of nursery rhymes. I like the simplicity of them, that element of the ridiculous. I like the fact that lurking under all that cosy, childhood innocence, is some nasty, unpalatable piece of history. Not always, but sometimes.
Take Goosey, Goosey Gander, for example, wandering around ladies chambers. Sweet? Not really. This intolerant old bird came upon an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers?? She took him by the left leg and threw his down the stairs (to his death??)
What, you may say has all this got to do with fashion and dress? Not alot.
However, I do prick my ears up when I come across any reference to dress in nursery rhymes. This one in particular, has interested me for a long time.
Hark, Hark the dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town,
Some in rags,
And some in jags,
And one in a velvet gown.
It’s that little twist at the end that hooks you in. Why would a beggar be wearing a velvet gown? It doesn’t make sense.
Velvet has always been associated with opulence and luxury. This fabric has an impressive lineage. Our earliest samples of velvet dates from 403 BC. Velvet originated in China. It was woven from silk on a special loom. It’s production was costly and time-consuming, and because of this, it commanded a very high price. Naturally, when European traders came across it, they wanted it! Lots and lots of it.
Then, the Italians figured out how to make it themselves and set up a lucrative velvet industry which flourished from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. Only the most wealthy customers could afford this sort of luxury.
And who were these wealthy customers? Royalty, of course, and their lesser noble cousins and kin. And then there was the CATHOLIC CHURCH, which played a unique and uncontested role, at that point, in soul saving. At the height of its power, it owned up to one third of the land in Western Europe.
And the church loved a bit of bling. Look no further than those wonderful late medieval cathedrals, churches and monasteries for confirmation of this. And when it came down to the attire of those presiding over the aforementioned buildings, well… a little velvet says an awful lot- and bucket loads of velvet says even more, especially if it’s woven with threads of gold and silver.
Carlo Crivelli: St Jerome and St Augustine c. 1490 Tempera on wood, 208 x 72 cm Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
That’s not to say that everyone was taken in by the lure of velvet. Some time later, Napoleon Bonaparte famously remarked that:
‘A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.‘
Old Boney was nobody’s fool! He just wanted to chop off some royal heads and rule everything himself.
Getting back to that beggar in the velvet gown. Who was he? Well, interestingly, he might well have been a dispossessed canon, friar or monk, forced to take to the streets during the reign of Henry VIII.
Enraged that the Pope was less than delighted with his decision to shaft his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry set about wresting power from the church. Between the years 1536 and 1541, he closed down loads of monasteries, priories and convents. There were up to 900 religious houses at this time, and it is thought that 12,000 people were effectively out of a job! Many a cleric took to the roads with little more than the coat on his back. The fact that the coat in question might have been a velvet gown was of little comfort to him in his new reduced circumstances.
So, that’s it for Fashion Friday!
See you next week.