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Blog: What is Fashion?

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

First published: 12 October 2023, last updated 17 October 2023.

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What is Fashion?

The Comedy of Errors
The Comedy of Errors: Click image to enlarge

Today, the term “fashion” is used principally about the current trend of designs in consumer items. But the word fashion also means to make something by giving shape or form to it. Although it may not be obvious, the two different uses of the word are intimately connected.

An revealing example of the use of the word fashion is found in Shakespeare's play “The Comedy of Errors”. In Act 4 scene 1 (in most versions such as the 1904 Heinemann London edition shown here) Angelo the Goldsmith says:

Saving your merry humour, here's the note: How much your chain weighs to the utmost carat, The fineness of the gold and chargeful fashion, Which doth amount to three odd ducats more Than I stand debted to this gentleman :”

Although very eloquent, this statement doesn't make any sense. The chain would not have been weighed in carats, and the “chargeful fashion” is meaningless.

Although a carat is sometimes used as a weight, particularly for diamonds, it is not used as a unit of weight for gold, and was not used to weigh gold in Shakespeare's time. The weight of Angelo's chain would have been given in troy ounces and pennyweights. The carats referred to in the note are a measure of the fineness of the gold.

The price of gold of legal fineness per ounce was fixed, because the same fineness of gold was also used for coins, and a coin of a certain weight had a fixed value. The Comedy of Errors was written by Shakespeare in the 1590s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In 1576, during the eighteenth year of the reign of Elizabeth, the standard of gold was raised from 18 to 22 carats and the price of gold fixed at 12 pence per ounce.

The weight of the chain and the fineness of the gold were stated on Angelo's note to show that the gold was of the legal standard of 22 carats and that it had been charged for at the rate of 12 pence per ounce.

The meaning of the “chargeful fashion” is explained in the Act that raised the standard to 22 carats and fixed the price of gold, which stipulated that goldsmiths were to “take not above the Rate of Twelve-pence for the Ounce of Gold, besides the Fashion”.

From this, it can be seen that the “chargeful fashion” is a corrupted rendering of the “charge for fashion”, the charge for the goldsmith's labour in making (shaping or fashioning) the gold into a chain, which would have been itemised separately on the bill.

What Angelo must have really said was “here's the note: How much your chain weighs; to the utmost carat, the fineness of the gold; and the charge for fashion”.

It is easy to see how this meaning of the term fashion, to give something form and shape, is connected to today's use of the word. Something different from the prevailing or accepted form or shape would be said to have been made in a “new fashion”. By implication, items of the previous form or shape were made in the old fashion, or were “old fashioned”. Over time, items made in the new fashion or latest trend would be said to be the latest fashion, or just “the fashion”.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated October 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.