There’s a saying that “the clothing maketh the man.” There are however, certain pieces of clothing that maketh more of a man than others. Perhaps the most extreme example would be the crown; a piece of headgear that represents a position of power, while holding none of the power within itself. Every fantasy series in the last decade seems to have the same trope go on in it, where a king or queen is assassinated, a crown goes tinking across the stone floors, and their usurper gently reaches down and plucks the diadem off the rough hewn grown. They daintily place the ring of gold upon their brow and assume a sly grin as the credits begin to roll, the background fades to black, and the director serves the watchers another cliffhanger. Such a scene is readily consumable by the public, we understand the concept that the crown means the kingdom almost implicitly. Now consider that for a moment: a crown is just a hunk of metal, yet it is the symbol of power. It isn’t just a European phenomenon either, Chinese emperors, Arabian grave sights, Egyptian Pharaohs, and Persian lords all hopped on board with the whole crown = power idea.
He’s not wrong…
Some theories exist as to why it is that the crown/fancy hat is so strongly associated with power, beginning with one put forth by the New Yorker. In an article by Judith Thurman about a 6,000 year old crown that was unearthed in the southern part of Israel, known as the Levant, she put forward the idea that humans are simply trying to imitate alphamanhood in nature. We see antlers on powerful elk and manes on lions who lead the prides. To offer a counterpoint to Thurman’s claim however, the crown is not the only ancient symbol of lordship. In Rome, power was signified by wearing cloaks of Tyrian purple. Sumptuary laws and the exorbitant prices made it both illegal and impractical for commoners to wear the color. Rome, a location with arguably more access to elk and lions than any other society in the ancient world, used the color purple to designate lordship. Byzantine (Eastern Post-schism Romans) emperors were called “purple-born” for similar reasons.
To point to another society that did not rely on hats to signify power, the Aztec emperor would have specific colors and designs of his mantle (cloak/shawl) that no other person could wear under penalty of death. The Aztec emperor would gift designs and colors to his lords and their sub-lords to signify their positions. According to Patricia Anawalt’s article in Archaeology magazine, Aztec soldiers were allowed to wear simple cotton mantles, but anyone who was in any lower position would be executed for wearing cotton. The maguey fiber cloaks that the commoners could wear had to be specific lengths too, showing too much ankle was punishable by death. Additionally, only nobles were allowed to wear sandals, and even then would need to remove their shoes in the presence of the emperor. In the case of the Aztecs, power was designated by the coats and shoes, not by the hat.
“Sorry Camaxtli, this is what you get for wearing cotton after Labor day”
Another theory about the reason for crowns is one that I came up with, drawing heavily on Herman Freudenberger’s work, “Fashion, Sumptuary Laws, and Business” in the Business History Review. Essentially, the concept is that the crown exists as a symbol of one’s wealth and though that became a symbol of power. The backing to the theory is in that sumptuary laws (laws that regulate consumption by the people) really begin to be used in earnest when Europe begins to get wealthy in the Age of Discovery and began to move towards industrialization. During this era where merchants became more and more wealthy, nobility and royalty began to place laws into the books that would prevent the riffraff from dressing like them. Similar to the laws that existed in Rome and the Aztec empires, nobility secured the stature of their outfits through aggressive legal action that prevented people from following in suit. Positions of prestige are only prestigious when nobody else is dressing in a similar way. When one thinks further back to more ancient times, disposable wealth and jewelry are hard to come by. Only the wealthiest and the most powerful could afford to barter for enough precious metals to create a crown. The theory is not bulletproof however, in Bruce G. Trigger’s article “The Social Significance of the Diadems in the Royal Tombs of Ballana” in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, after excavating a host of tombs belonging to royalty, he found crowns only in the tombs of kings and queens, whereas more wealthy princes (more wealthy because their tombs are massive) are found crownless while nearby kings of much lesser material wealth are coronated.
A couple theories exist that the crown is only a symbol of power for most of history when it is plopped on the king’s head by a pope. For that reason, most new kings would first ensure that there was a public coronation by the divine representative to legitimize his power.
The history of the crown is completely undeveloped. While it would be wonderful to have some sort of conclusive and final answer as to why the crown is a representation of power, the history does not exist yet. Bookshelves are full of cultural histories, biographical histories, and chronological histories, but very few historians have waded into the depths of sartorial history, and fewer still have logged the interplay between political power and physical presentation even though it exists.
Hat Fact#2: the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is thought to be inspired by something called “the mad hatter’s disease”. Also known as “Hatters’ Shakes” or “Danbury Shakes”, the hatter’s disease was a result of prolonged exposure to mercury vapors. Hatters in the 17th century would use mercury to make the felts that they used to create hats with, so through long-term exposure to mercury in the felting process, many hatters would end up with severe neurological damage, kidney damage, “intentional tremors”, pathological shyness, and extreme irritability.
Bruce G. Trigger, The Social Significance of the Diadems in the Royal Tombs at Ballana in “Journal of Near Eastern Studies”, Vol.28, No.4, (Oct., 1969) pp. 255-261.
Herman Freudenberger, Fashion, Sumptuary Laws, and Business in “The Business History Review”, Vol.37, No.1/2, Special Illustrated Fashion Issue (Spring-Summer 1963), pp. 37-48.
Patricia Anawalt, Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws in “Archaeology”, Vol.33, No.1, (January/February 1980), pp.33-43.