Gold was never just used as a currency or a key fixture in elegant jewellery; gold has long been coveted as a treasured fashion item, to be worn with clothes in order to connote status or wealth. As much as the history of wearable gold dates back to ancient eras, we’ve also seen a resurgence in the trend of blending gold with various materials and fabrics, and even laying out gold leaf designs in hairstyles.
The history of wearable gold jewellery goes back to one of the oldest gravesites ever uncovered, the Varna Necropolis. In a patch of Bulgaria, this site yielded a remarkable trove of golden treasures, including hammered gold ornaments that could be woven into clothing or worn directly on the body: chest plates, armbands, finger rings and earrings, beads, diadems for the forehead, and much more.
As Gold: Nature and Culture explains, “The artisans who created the designs employed the techniques of engraving (cutting lines with a sharp toll) and repousse work (hammering from the reverse of a sheet of gold in order to ornament it with relief designs).”
Later in the Byzantine era, circa 330 AD, gold was fashionable as a wearable accouterment. “Coins and medallions set into a gold collar might read today as a shameless assertion of cost,” writes an accompanying note to a now-gone jewelry exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “But the Byzantines understood coins as portable portraits of the emperor; to wear them on the body was to advertise one’s confident place within his domain.”
As Topic Magazine writes, “this idea of portable portraits was also seen in Mughal-era India under the rule of Emperor Jahangir, who issued commemorative coins with his visage, as well as coins with zodiac signs.”
Gold’s multi-purpose appeal
Gold jewellery wasn’t just a way to show off the bling in your life but also may have more mythical properties to the wearer. Gold: Nature and Culture writes, “The wearing of gold may have indicated beliefs about the metal’s talismanic properties – protecting or perfecting the body, making it more desirable or imposing – in the same way the people believed eating and drinking from golden vessels ensured they were would not be poisoned.”
Another reason to adorn one’s self with gold may come from a more practical decision than a luxurious one. As Topic explains, people who commonly flee war, conflict, and natural disasters may wear their jewellery and money on their body. “I think it is important to remember in the contemporary period that people also wear certain objects of money as a kind of store of value, as a way to bank without banking,” Bill Maurer, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine who heads the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, told the magazine. “So if I am a poor person, I pull together a bunch of silver coins and wear them, and that’s kind of a way to store value. And also importantly—to transport value.”
The conspicuous consumption of wearing gold played a role in differentiating the rank of someone from another. The Siete Partidas, the 13th-century law code of Castile, reveals how the wearing of gold make immediately visible the status of the wearer and help facilitate the ruler’s recognition by his subject. After all, without mass media, regular folks didn’t know one face from the next.
Ancient Europe was especially enamoured with golden fashion. When the English king Henry VII encountered the French king Francis I on a field near Calais in 1520, so much gold was worn that the meeting was dubbed “the Field of the Cloth of Gold.” Gold chains and belts adorned soldiers, and entire pavilions were draped in gold.
Cloth of gold made inroads in Italian centres of silk production such as Lucca and Venice and Florence, thanks to the talented goldsmiths who perfected the process of gilding silver thread, which allowed for the extensive of cloth of gold from silver-gilt thread.
Persia, Baghdad and Islamic Iberia also favoured gold fabrics that would adorn their citizens, such as gold-wrapped silk, as well as a weaving technique that wrapped gilt vellum (thin strips of sheepskin) around wool.
Later, Palestinian tradition called for coin-laden hats such as the umm diraham—which translates to “mother of money”—and bridal headdresses like the wuqāyat al-darāhim, a hat bestowed with coins and pendants shaped like the hand of Fatima, a cultural symbol thought to protect the bride from envious eyes.
Wearing gold wasn’t always seen as the noblest way to conduct one’s self. St Paul echoed the Old Testament moralists when he told women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety” (1 Timothy 11,9), and later Christian moralists specifically targeted women in their arguments against fashion: “Clement of Alexandria exhorted them to ‘put out of the way fabrics foolishly thin … bidding farewell to embroidery in gold …”
Today’s golden hue
Turning to a more modern era, legendary fashion designer Paul Poiret created gold party costumes based on Asian and Middle Eastern motifs, and his contemporary Mariano Fortuny was also known for his use of gold and silk to make elegant dresses.
Hollywood developed a taste for golden fashion too, which we saw in 1939 with Joan Crawford wearing a midriff-baring gold evening gown in The Women. Gold lamé was the piece of choice for Joan Bennett in Artists and Model Abroad, while Marilyn Monroe got men salivating with her laminated pleated gold dress in 1953’s Men Prefer Blondes.
Made of a 24-karat gold thread, Elizabeth Taylor’s golden costume in Cleopatra (1963) reportedly cost $130,000 to make. The film might have been a flop but her gold-shiny wardrobe turned heads around the world.
Later films popularized gold in a new way: as armour for futuristic robots and characters, such as Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora in Blade Runner and, most famously, C-3PO in Star Wars. Hmm, wonder how much C-3PO would cost with today’s price of gold?
And who can forget when costume designer Lizzy Gardiner wore a dress made out of American Express Gold cards to the Oscars, where she won an Academy Award in 1995 for her work on the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?
While jewellery has long been golden, let’s look at one particular subset of wearable jewellery: rings. Because rings were closely linked to personal identity in the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, gold became the metal of choice for rings for a more obvious reason: to symbolize matrimony.
Roman betrothal practices introduced rings as part of the marriage ceremonies, and then European Middle Ages extended the idea as part of not just betrothal but also marriage itself. Often gold rings straddle that line of marriage as a personal bond and as an economic arrangement.
Gold rings were also found in the ruins of Pompeii, proving the precious metal became the material of choice in the common era.
Throughout history, wedding rings have been worn on different fingers, including the thumb, and on both the left and right hands. According to a tradition believed to have been derived from the Romans, the wedding ring is worn on the left hand ring finger because there was believed to be a vein in the finger, referred to as the ‘Vena Amoris’ or the ‘Vein of Love’ which is said to be directly connected to the heart. However, scientists have shown this is actually not true. Despite this, this myth still remains regarded by many (hopeless romantics) as the chief reason rings are worn on the fourth finger.
Modern-day golden fashion
Today, golden-embossed fashion may not be seen on everyday streets or even catwalks, but it still pops up here and there, and not just in North America. Some fashion journalists credit a 2010 fashion show for igniting a renewed interest in golden-hued clothing. As Real Simple writes, “…gold went bold in the form of Diane von Furstenberg’s lamé dresses and Alexander McQueen’s rococo-inspired jackets. Since then, almost everything—pants, skirts, bags—has gotten the Midas touch.”
In 2013, an Indian made headlines for purchasing one of the world’s most expensive shirts, made with more than 3kg of gold and worth $250,000 US.
“Some people ask me why I’m wearing so much gold but it was my dream. People have different aspirations. Some elite people want to own an Audi or Mercedes, and have big cars. I chose gold,” he told BBC News.
In 2015, a jewellery store in China sold a pair of solid-gold underwear worth more than $500,000 US. The undergarments, along with another set, was designed through the collaboration of five different designers, as the Daily Mail writes, and four skilled craftsmen took half a year to complete the design.
Trending upward in the mid 2010s was a hair design worn by women whereby they would insert a gold leaf pattern into the ‘do. As one stylist explained how it worked: “To create a gilded style, first cut the gold leaf into your preferred shapes, strips or pieces. Then, apply a small amount of mousse to the area you’ll be bedazzling, either with your hand or paint [it] on with a brush, depending on how much gold leaf you plan on applying.”
Wearing gold is something with an entrenched history and legacy, so much so just donning a golden-hued dress or gold jewellery can have you feeling like you’re part of a trend that has been flourishing for millennia.
You don’t have to pay $250,000 for a pure-gold shirt but can instead accent your wardrobe with gold bracelets or rings, or perhaps even see how gold leaf patterns would look in your hair. If you want to mimic Mr. T and the drippiest of rappers, adorn your neck with gold necklaces, unless you feel such a display of wealth is too flashy to be practical.
You never know where you’ll find golden goodies, too. Be sure to read our blog post on what to do with sentimental gold you have long been sequestering in various areas of your house, whether intentionally or not.
We also recommend ensuring you preserve your gold jewellery in order to keep them shiny and sparkling. This post chock full of advice from Muzeum is an excellent guide on the simple things you can do to preserve your prized memorabilia.
You may have gold wearables lying around the house that you don’t speak to you anymore. Maybe you think they have fallen out of fashion, or you want to see what kind of financial return you can get from these precious collectibles. Feel free to contact us anytime to find out more about the value of your golden accoutrements, whether they’re new or passed down from family members or friends.
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