“But gold shines like fire blazing in the night, supreme of lordly wealth” – Pindar, Olympian Odes, c518-438 BC
Gold has mythopaeic qualities. Untarnished and endurable, it can be beaten and hammered, annealed and spun; its brightness survives time, burial and the forces of decay. Its role in the history of dress and fashion has been central to man since Homer dressed Hector in gold armour in The Iliad. The precious metal itself has been central to ideas about identity, display and status. It has defined social position, signified wealth, given iconic, quasi-religious status to royalty and grandeur to ecclesiastical dress. As a colour, reproduced through imitation gold thread or dyes, it has remained a constant, imparting glamour and glitz to the wearer. Gold as a precious metal or colour has been as important in dress as in jewellery.
Its rarity has been imbued with allure. The Egyptian Tutankhamun and his queen (1361-1352 BC) are depicted wearing woven linen embroidered with gold. In Ancient Crete (1750-1400 BC), fashionable men and women wore girdles at the waist in gold and other metals. A sample of cloth from the fifth or fourth century BC demonstrates that the ancient Greeks wore gold embroidery and Dionysius of Halicarnassus cited Tarquin the Ancient as being the first to appear in Rome dressed in a robe embroidered with gold.
For the Romans of the Republic, however, dress was simple and unshowy. Petronius, in his Satyricon (c. AD 60), mocks the vulgar Fortunata who wears brightly coloured clothes and gold embroidered slippers. Two hundred years later, sumptuosity was acceptable and the tunica palmate, worn by the emperor and later by consuls, was made from purple silk and covered with rich gold embroidery. Although early St Paul echoed the Old Testament moralists when he commanded women to ‘adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety’ (1 Timothy 11,9), later Christian moralists specifically targeted women in their tirades against fashion: “Clement of Alexandria exhorted them to ‘put out of the way fabrics foolishly thin … bidding farewell to embroidery in gold …” When the Emperor Constantine moved from Rome to Byzantium (renaming it Constantinople) in AD 324, gold became a mainstay of imperial grandeur, demonstrating immense wealth and luxury.
Cloth of gold, imported from Italy to the royalty of Europe and the men and women of fashion, was along with furs, the zenith of luxury from the 14th to the 17th century. Gold or silver cloth was made by wrapping fine metal wire around a silk thread, making it more flexible for weaving. These threads would be fed across the fabric, giving it a magnificent sheen. It was the ultimate in conspicuous consumption, and the vain Sienese were famous for their love of rich gold brocade. Edward III of England attacked the “outrageous and excessive apparel” of his aspirant people; only royalty was allowed to wear cloth of gold. A magnificent example is given in the Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London), which shows his grandson, Richard II, in a houppelande of cloth of gold, woven with his emblem, the hart. At the same time, bezants, clinking gold and jewelled chains were essential accessories. But the fabric was not only essential to fashion but also to ceremonial: Richard III was arrayed in cloth of gold after he had been anointed king at his coronation in 1483, the gold signifying the divine consecration. Henry VIII met his rival Francis I at Golden Vale 1520; so splendid was their dress and that of their courts in their rivalry it was called Field of Cloth of Gold.