One of my favourite pieces of seasonal reading is the medieval morality tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s set at the Christmas period and includes an extremely detailed account of Sir Gawain’s process of dressing and arming before his departure for what he expects to be a duel to the death with the giant green knight at the year’s end. Simon Armitage’s beautiful translation is published by Faber:
He tries on his tunic of extravagant silk,
Then the neatly cut cloak, closed at the neck,
Its lining finished with a layer of white fur.
Then they settled his feet into steel shoes
And clad his calves, clamped them with greaves,
Then hinged and highly polished plates
Were knotted with gold thread to the knight’s knees.
Then leg-guards were fitted, lagging the flesh,
Attached with thongs to his thick-set thighs.
Then comes the suit of shimmering steel rings
Encasing his body and his costly clothes…..
If Gawain is to meet his destiny, the process of dressing has become an integral part of the demonstration of his knighthood. There’s also a more prosaic truth here, which is that the things that really matter to us often attract ritual or special items.
Somerset House’s Fashioning Winter includes an absolutely pristine pair of 1937 white leather ice skates. Despite being well-used, they were so prized by their owner that they appear today still almost unmarked. They sit alongside a separate display of skiing equipment, including an early Burberry ski suit. We have them today because their owners cared for them as special items.
It is an idea that seems to be returning now – as artisan manufacturers offer bespoke items, crafted and specified for the owner and intended for a lifetime’s evolution and use. Whether it’s a made-to-measure bike, riding boots or a surf board, for the things that are meaningful to us we always feel a little better-prepared for a challenge with the right kit, time-worn to fit like an extension of our own body. Whether through scars and scratches or just the patina of age, they also carry with them a life story of use, a kind of secret history shared with the wearer.