Patchface shuffled his feet in a grotesque dance step. . . At Eastwatch someone had sewn him a motley cloak of beaver pelts, sheepskins, and rabbit fur. His hat sported antlers hung with bells and long brown flaps of squirrel fur that hung down over his ears. Every step he took set him to ringing. . .the cowbells on his antlered hat and the motley tattooed across his puffy cheeks made him hard to overlook.
–George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
- A combination of different colours.
- A parti-coloured effect.
- The parti-coloured garment of a jester.
- A heterogeneous assemblage.
- A medley.
- Exhibiting great diversity of elements.
- Being of different colours combined.
- Motley-minded: Having the mind of a fool; incoherent, impractical, foolish.
On with the motley: Prepare for a stage performance.
When Shakespeare wrote, “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, A motley fool; a miserable world!” (As You Like It, Act II. Scene VII, The Forest), he probably meant a fool dressed in motley, but later in the play, the description, “This is the motley-minded gentleman that I have so often met in the forest: he hath been a courtier, he swears.” (Act V. Scene 4, Another part of the Forest) refers to a man with the mind of a fool; a foolish man. So, it seems that a “motley fool” could be a foolish fool, regardless of his mode of dress.
The word [motley] originated in England between the 14th and 17th centuries and referred to a woolen fabric of mixed colors. It was the characteristic dress of the professional fool. During the reign of Elizabeth I, motley served the important purpose of keeping the fool outside the social hierarchy and therefore not subject to class distinction. Since the fool was outside the dress laws (sumptuary law), the fool was able to speak more freely.
Sumptuary laws were designed to regulate habits, especially on moral or religious grounds, to restrict the wearing of luxurious fabrics or styles of clothing by social class or even to eliminate the use of certain luxury goods altogether. Such laws existed in various places and times, including ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, Elizabethan England and America during colonial times.
A 1651 Massachusetts law restricts any person whose estates does not exceed £200 pounds from wearing “any gold or silver lace, or gold and silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, upon the penalty of 10s. for every such offense.” –Margaret Wood, Sumptuary Laws
Such laws have also been used to force groups of people to identify themselves by wearing particular items or styles of clothing: Canon 68 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear distinctive clothing. In much of Europe, Jews were required to wear the a yellow badge. Muslims were required to wear a crescent-shaped patch or Eastern dress.
At times, prostitutes and courtesans have been required to wear particular clothing, such as striped garments, to identify them. At other times, they have been exempted from clothing restrictions so that they were allowed to wear finery which could increase the profitability of their profession, in spite of the usual restriction of such finery to nobility.
The placement of the fool outside of sumptuary law, allowing the fool to dress as he pleased and speak as he pleased–even in front of royalty–is a tantalizing prospect. It makes me think about becoming elderly and behaving in a foolish manner as described in the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph (the entire poem is reprinted here):
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.