If you’re one of those pesky ‘Millennials’ then you’ve probably heard someone of an older generation (or even of your own) complaining about the vanity of youths today. We post pictures of ourselves on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram. We send silly pictures to our friends, we show anyone who might follow us on social media pictures of ourselves that we think make ourselves look sexy or attractive. It is an addiction in a way – we have a need to portray a particular image to other people. I’m not sad, look at this selfie of me in the sunshine on holiday in my bikini. I have friends and am carefree, look at this selfie of me drunk in a club. I have a girlfriend, look at this selfie of us madly in love. You can debate the positives and negatives of selfie culture ‘til the cows come home and you probably still couldn’t find a universal argument that everyone would agree on.
However, one thing I do find striking is this idea that many people seem to have that selfie culture is a new phenomenon. That back “in their day” people weren’t obsessed with pictures of themselves, or showing everyone on their friends list what they ate for lunch. That the social media generation are vain and self-obsessed in a way that no generation before them has been. Sure, social media may make it easy for anybody and their dog (quite literally) to instantly show pictures to the world, but as far back as we can find people have been interested in cultivating their personal image and looking after their appearances.
Some of the world’s oldest known mirrors, neolithic obsidian mirrors from Çatalhöyük, which existed from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC (wiki commons)
The earliest manufactured mirrors that have been found were made from pieces of polished stone, such as naturally occurring volcanic glass obsidian found in modern-day Turkey, which have been dated to around 6000 BC. But mirrors have been around for thousands of years all across the world: polished stone mirrors made in Central and South America date from 2000 BC onwards; Mesopotamians crafted mirrors of polished cooper from 4000 BC; ancient Egyptians made the same type of mirrors from around 3000 BC; and Chinese manufactured bronze mirrors from around 2000 BC. It is human nature to be curious about what we look like – in cultures with slaves and servants, the upper echelons of society could be sure that they were wearing the right clothes, had their hair styled fashionably, and had any makeup applied correctly, but who doesn’t want to see exactly the effect that is created?
Caryatid Mirror, c. 1540-1296 BC Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18
Very ornate Ancient Greek mirror
It is clear from the early proliferation of mirrors, as well as grave goods that show how ornately people would dress up, covered in gold, gems, jewellery, wearing clothes of sumptuous material and colours, that people have long cared about their image. It is also well known that the clothes that people wear have long demonstrated one’s status. After the Black Plague in Europe, many places tried to introduce laws restricting what clothes people of certain social classes could wear. This was because the decimation of the population meant that there was a labour shortage, and the peasant classes left behind were therefore able to gain more money for their labour and thus buy luxuries previously barred to them by cost. This worried the upper classes who relied on their monopoly on clothes of certain materials and colours as a social marker.
For example, in England in 1363, Edward III passed a Statute concerning ‘diet and apparel’ to attempt to regulate what different classes were allowed to wear and eat. Lords with lands worth £1000 annually and their families had no restrictions, whilst Knights with land worth 400 marks annually and their families could dress as they wanted except they couldn’t wear weasel fur, ermine or clothing of precious stones other than the jewels in women’s hair. These restrictions continued for different earning thresholds and titles, right down to those who worked the lands and didn’t have 40 shillings of goods who could wear no cloth except blanket and russet. People were very worried indeed about what they looked like!
You could tell what level of society someone came from by the clothes they wore
But to return to the topics of pictures. In the medieval court, portraits took on an importance of a level that is difficult to over emphasise. As the monarchy became gradually centred around London, rather than constantly travelling across the realm (peripatetic monarchy), portraits became a way to emphasise royal power and agenda. Many people at school will have studied the Cult of Gloriana under Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Those familiar with it will know that portraits of Elizabeth should never be taken at face value and that every picture is dripping with symbolism that the Crown wanted their subjects to understand. The National Portrait Gallery has a good page that explains some of the symbolism in several of Elizabeth’s portraits. Moons and pearls were used to emphasise her virginity and purity; dogs represented faithfulness; olive branches, peace; a phoenix for longevity. Just as today we choose what we portray in our selfies to put across a particular image or idea to our friends, families, and acquaintances, Kings and Queens have been doing the same for centuries. Image matters.
Portraits were also useful additions for Kings and Queens looking to get married. Famously, Henry VIII had a portrait of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, commissioned. He needed to be sure after three failed marriages that wife number four looked hot, so he sent his trusty artist, Hans Holbein, to paint a portrait of his potential bride, just so he could check she seemed alright. Holbein did a great job, and it is said that Henry fell madly in love with Anne from her beautiful portrait. The wedding was set. In a day before you could check out pics of someone by swiping through Tinder, portraits were a great way to decide if you liked someone when they lived several kingdoms over from you. Sadly for Anne (or luckily, you would probably argue) Henry wasn’t quite as taken with her in person, and he divorced her after just 6 months.
Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves
Portraits were not a cheap task, though. Commissioning a portrait could cost a small fortune, and portraits were not just painted to hang in royal palaces or send to potential suitors. Under Elizabeth I, it became popular to commission someone to paint a portrait of the Queen, dripping in symbolism, to hang in your house to show your devotion. Moreover, Elizabeth herself would have portraits commissioned of her with the sole intention of giving it to subjects in her lands. The 1572 painting, The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, attributed to Lucas de Heere, was commissioned by Elizabeth to give to Francis Walsingham, popularly remembered as the Queen’s “spymaster”. If you think posting a selfie on facebook is vain, imagine paying a huge amount of money to have a several metres big painting done of you and then sending it to your friend! This wasn’t even a necessarily rare occasion, and many monarchs commissioned portraits of themselves to give to others.
Fast forwarding to the invention of the camera, once again we can see how it is human nature to want to take a picture of oneself. The picture that is widely considered to be the first photographic portrait ever taken was a selfie: Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast, took a picture of himself in the back of his family’s shop in Philadelphia back in 1839. His selfie was far more dedicated than our own, as it probably took between 3 and 15 minutes to take!
And if you think the selfie stick is a sickening modern invention that shows everything wrong with the world, you may be surprised to find out that a picture taken by Helmer Larsson and his wife, Naemi Larsson, in 1934, beat inventors to the post by using a literal stick to take a picture of the two of them! Even Grand Duchess Anastasia, the subject of a Disney film, took a selfie as a teenager by using a mirror way back in 1913. She beat our noughties fad of embarrassing mirror selfies by a century.
So there you go! As annoying as selfies may be, history shows us it isn’t a new, unique concept, and is certainly here to stay. We humans are too obsessed with our self-image for it to ever change!
Previous Blog Post: Royal People: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni
Last in the Popular History series: Origins of Wedding Traditions
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