Lady Hale’s Spider and the Political History of the Brooch

From Boudicca to the French revolution’s cockades, brooches have always been used to convey politically-charged messages

When Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, announced that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful, it was her spider brooch that stole the spotlight. A formidable legal practitioner, Lady Hale was the first woman appointed to the Law Commission, the first female Law Lord and, since 2017, has been the first female president of the Supreme Court. Her predilection for brooches – including beetles, frogs, centipedes and foxes – has previously been discussed on legal blogs, and her choice of spider sparked a rash of theories as to what the symbolism could mean. It even inspired a T-shirt design, which sold out in 24 hours, raising GB£18,000 for the homeless charity Shelter. 

Lady Hale wears a spider brooch during the Supreme Court hearing, 2019. Courtesy: fair use

Lady Hale wears a spider brooch during the Supreme Court hearing, 2019. Courtesy: fair use

The brooch has become something of a political barometer over recent decades. Madeleine Albright used brooches as non-verbal diplomacy during her time at the United Nations and as the first female Secretary of State, which subsequently formed the basis of two exhibitions as well as her book, Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box (2009). Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the American Supreme Court wears jewelled collars and jabots to signal her intentions and opinions, prompting Banana Republic to re-issue a design she sports as her ‘dissenting collar’, with half of the proceeds going to the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, which was co-founded by Ginsburg. Even Queen Elizabeth II was suspected of sending coded messages through her choice of brooches during US President Donald Trump’s visit last summer.

There is a long history of brooches being worn to convey political symbolism. Dr Maria Maclennan researches jewellery as a forensic method of identification in instances of death, crime and disaster. She explains its visual power: ‘As human beings, we have been communicating aspects of our identity through the medium of jewellery for millennia. From the identity of the maker, culture or tribe bound up in the technical craftsmanship of an artefact; the personal, sentimental or symbolic value of a piece relative to its wearer; or the cultural, religious and even socio-economic messages a jewel offers the viewer. Jewellery is a language without words and yet, it is a dialogue we all speak – a wonderfully subtle and yet simultaneously rich microcosm of all of human nature.’

Brooch, 11th century B.C. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Josef and Brigitte Hatzenbuehler, 2007

Brooch, 11th century B.C, copper alloy. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Josef and Brigitte Hatzenbuehler, 2007

The brooch has an ancient lineage: the collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art includes Bronze Age brooches dating back to the 11th century BCE. In the ancient world, brooches were not only functional, holding clothing together, but were also decorative and communicative items that formed a key part of the wardrobe. Important archaeological finds from Iron Age and Roman Britain, brooches could indicate ethnic identities and group affiliations throughout various regions in Europe.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, led a (defeated) uprising against the occupying Roman Empire in 60 or 61 AD and became a folk hero in Britain. No evidence of writing from pre-Roman Britain has been found, so our understanding of clothing and culture from this period is drawn from archaeological evidence, alongside Roman sources who viewed the tribes of late Iron Age Britain as barbarians. The Roman historian Cassius Dio, who was born nearly a century after Boudicca’s rebellion, described the warrior queen as very tall and ‘in appearance most terrifying [...] a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of diverse colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch’. This description has been instrumental in how artists have depicted the warrior queen. It has been suggested that the brooch became ubiquitous at this time not only because it was functional but also because it served as a marker of identity.

Gold crossbow fibula (brooch), A.D. 286–305 or 306/7–308/9, gold. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, purchase by subscription, 1895

Gold crossbow fibula (brooch), A.D. 286–305 or 306/7–308/9, gold. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Whether made from glass and copper alloy or precious gems and metals, jewellery was worn by both men and women at all levels of society in the Roman world. Brooches, or fibulae, were practical yet symbolic items, believed by some to have protective talismanic properties, as well as displaying wealth and status. The crossbow fibula, developed around the turn of the 3rd century CE, was an item exclusively worn by men. Initially a clasp for a soldier’s cloak, it was soon adopted as an official insignia of military or administrative rank and was often presented throughout the empire as a diplomatic gift. Inscriptions showing allegiance to imperial rulers were popular. One example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art carries the message: HERCVLI AVGVSTE SEMPER VINCAS (May you always be victorious, Hercules Augustus!). These brooches symbolized the power of the empire itself.

The tradition continued into the Byzantine era, and examples can be seen in the glorious mosaics of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Justinian’s clasp is heavily jewelled (some gifted to him by the city of Ravenna, some won in military conquests) while the fastenings of men of his imperial administration resemble the crossbow fibula.

During the 18th century, a knot of coloured ribbons pinned onto a hat or lapel – the cockade –became the symbol of the Age of Revolution. Initially used to distinguish soldiers from civilians before uniforms were widespread, cockades became associated with various revolutionary movements and political factions. French revolutionaries adopted the tricolor cockade, as seen in Louis-Léopold Boilly’s painting of an idealized sans-culotte, while white cockades were worn by Jacobite supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. On the other side of the revolutionary divide, a 2018 sale of jewellery once owned by guillotined French Queen Marie Antoinette broke records. Lots included a modified diamond brooch that sold for around GB£1.7 million.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Portrait d’un sans-culotte (painting of a typical sans-culotte), oil on wood. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Portrait d’un sans-culotte (painting of a typical sans-culotte), circa. 18th century, oil on wood. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Brooches may have long since lost their Roman associations with martial masculinity but, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were re-appropriated by women as a communicative tool. A gold enamelled brooch with diamonds was given to the British nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale by Queen Victoria in 1855, engraved with the message ‘as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion towards the Queen’s brave soldiers’. The brooch functioned as a medal would have for a man – as a marker of royal recognition.

This idea was also taken up by the suffragettes campaigning for women’s political rights in the early 1900s. For the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), fashion became an ideological issue. WSPU member Emmeline Pethick Lawrence devised the group’s colour scheme of white, green and purple with the aim of politicizing appearance, so suffragettes could easily be spotted in the street, and this extended to jewellery (other groups, with other colours, did the same). Collections in the Museum of London show a range of Suffragette brooches, from enamel ‘Votes for Women’ pins to ‘Holloway brooches’ designed by Sylvia Pankhurst that were awarded by the WSPU to women who had served prison time for their actions. The most viscerally evocative are a range of Hunger Strike Medals, presented to women who emerged from prison having undergone barbaric force-feeding.

Brooches are the antecedent of political pin badges, which came to the fore in the 1960s and are still widely used today. A selection were on display earlier this year as part of an exhibition at London’s British Museum, ‘I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent’. While the pin badge remains explicitly political, however, the beauty of Lady Hale’s brooch collection lies in its ambiguity. Reading apparently ‘hidden’ messages into objects and images is a red flag to the bull of social media.

Main image: A demonstrator with a banner bearing a spider similar to the brooch Lady Hale wore when she delivered the court's verdict on the government’s prorogation of parliament, 2019. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Oli Scarff

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She was the presenter of BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Her latest book is The Fashion Chronicles: style stories of history’s best dressed. Find her on Twitter and Insta @AmberButchart

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