Livery (clothing)
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Basic Information

Livery - as far as clothing goes anyway - is essentially a uniform which advertises the identity of your employer (and the concept may also be extended to the brand-marking of other things such as buildings or vehicles). Archetypal livery is generally a medieval thing, where the employee wears clothing (and/or armour) in the employer's heraldic colours. This may be as simple as having a tabard or surcoat in the colours - or even a cloth badge carrying a simplified version of their coat of arms - or may include full suits of clothes, coloured gambesons and even painted pieces of plate armour. Historically livery could also be used to claim exemption from sumptuary laws - whether your own status allowed you to wear something or not, if it was issued to you as livery, you were permitted (arguably required) to wear it.

The wearing of livery serves as advertising for your employer - even if they have nothing to sell, the clear presence of their retainers magnifies their prestige by showing how many people they can afford to employ. It also allows the employee to be clearly identified both for good and ill: whatever they do can be clearly traced back to their employer, and it is harder for them to slack off or blend into the background, but conversely allows them to borrow their employer's authority whether for licence (say, for example, in the matter of bearing arms) or protection (either actual legal immunity or the fact that attacking them is a de-facto attack on their employer). In combat, livery allows the wearer to identify friendly personnel, and to be identified. These are primarily medieval considerations (as per the archetype), but similar considerations still apply.

Of course, the mere possession of livery doesn't guarantee identity and all sorts of false-flag operations are possible - and, statistically likely. The main control over this would seem to be the risk of being challenged by legitimate wearers who do not recognise you … these can still be bluffed, but the impostor could well be on borrowed time thereafter. Problems may also occur where two retinues have livery that is either identical or easily mistaken for one another's … where two such cases exist close together, the employers are likely to be obliged to come to some sort of resolution sooner or later but where the retinues meet for the first time (or after long periods of separation) confusion may ensue.

For reference, the non-clothing definition of livery is generally a contraction of livery stable and/or (by syndoche) the keeping of a mount at such a place. Otherwise it may be (again by syndoche) a short hand for the entirety of maintenance (feeding, clothing, paying and housing) of a retainer or for a Livery Company.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Failing to recognise livery (correctly) has historically, and continues to, cause much hilarity, from the assorted medieval battles disrupted by friendly "fire" after someone misidentified another unit to the entire sub Reddit devoted to the tribulations of those mistaken for shop staff by their fellow customers.
  • False flagging is also very plot worthy, from PCs dressing up as public works employees to dig up the street to bandits ramping up border tension by donning the livery of one lord to raid the lands of another. Or donning the local lord's livery to "tax" luckless communities.
    • This may mean a certain scrutiny of those buying cloth in relevant colours - there may be informal (or even formal) controls on wearing the same colours as a local power centre and the cloth merchants may take note of anyone who tries to buy them.
  • Historically, it was entirely normal for a liege to issue clothing, whether livery or not (but probably livery at least in part) to his retainers - it was a standard part of maintenance of a retinue (indeed "livery" was also historically used as a shorthand for maintenance) - and whilst this may confuse modern players, it is really no different from being issued company workwear on starting a job when you consider that a lot of pre-modern jobs were essentially 24/7/52 employment (if not hours).
    • Of course, for a character to remove their livery without orders they will first need to locate some other clothes (not as easy as you might think) and then deal with the risk of being spotted out of uniform and being automatically suspected of being up to something.
      • Conversely it is also entirely congruent for "out of livery" to equal "off duty" … especially for soldiers. They may even be expected not to wear their colours when, say, out drinking at the tavern.
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