Medieval dress was linked to social status. Mounts made of gold and silver were expensive and made for the elite, much like wearing a Rolex today. Others (like our dragon, and scores of others in the museum) were made of cheaper copper or lead alloys. Cheap and mass-produced in batches of many at a time, they were within the reach of large swathes of medieval society. Unlike today, medieval laws regulated what clothes people could wear. Sumptuary laws ordained that those ‘below the estate of knight’ were not to wear ‘cloth of gold, silk or silver, or any manner of embroidered clothing, ring, brooch, clasp of gold, ribbon, belt or any other apparel or attire of gold or silver, or any precious stones’.
Such laws were intended to curb excessive expenditure and to maintain a rigid framework of class-based dress. Ultimately ineffective, these laws could be avoided by paying fines. A second-hand clothes market was also subversive. Existing at the margins of society, fripperers (used clothing dealers) enabled London’s citizens to procure clothing and accessories, cast off from their social superiors.
Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Inexpensive mounts were made of base metals but in different shapes. Copper-alloy was commonly used in England; lead-based mounts were more popular on the Continent. Londoners were demanding cheaper goods, which resulted in a shift towards lead alloy mounts whilst the rest of the country still favoured copper alloy mounts. We can see a distinct ‘London look’ during the later 14th century, which replicated popular European styles. In medieval London ‘fashion’ was emerging as individuals desired an ever-changing appearance.