On a Thursday evening in September 2018, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian West attended a party in L.A. wearing the following items of clothing: a vintage Jeremy Scott trench coat, Balenciaga boots, and a glittering bag by Judith Leiber. The thing that bound her look together: money. Everything screamed money; the trench and boots were covered in a dollar-bill print, and the bag featured a large, sparkly dollar sign. West was dressing for success: the party was in celebration of makeup mogul Anastasia Soare, whose company, Anastasia Beverly Hills, reportedly had sold a minority stake in a deal that could value the business at up to $3 billion, according to CNBC. “What do you do when your friend sells her company for a couple billion?” Kardashian West said. “You wear a full money fit and throw her a party. Okcurrr!”
West might have lit the fire of the clickbait headline machine—“Kim Kardashian Looks Like a Billion Bucks in Money Dress and Matching Boots,” via Entertainment Tonight—but her outfit was rooted in a long, global history of people wearing money, literally and symbolically, to celebrate things. In parts of India and Pakistan, garlands made of local rupees adorn the necks of grooms at weddings. Polynesian leis include American dollar bills folded into floral shapes. Wearing and rolling around in and showing off money has been immortalized in Western popular culture, from depictions of Scrooge McDuck diving into gold coins in his vault to First Lady Melania Trump, who was photographed with a bowl of jewelry for the cover of Vanity Fair’s Mexico edition in 2017. When West was robbed at gunpoint in her Paris hotel in 2016, the Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld blamed the reality-show star and her public flaunting of her profligacy. “You cannot display your wealth and then be surprised that some people want to share it with you,” he told reporters.
Yet the practice of wearing money is a part of everyday language: the word “sequin,” as author and professor Jack Weatherford points out in the 1998 book The History of Money, derives from the practice of stitching gold and silver coins onto cloth, or using them as jewelry. Fast-forward to 2019, and people are dangling coins from their ears, putting money around, on, and in their clothes, and wearing dollar-print designs that themselves can cost thousands of dollars. Money motifs can be found in the Spring 2018 Balenciaga collection and Moschino designs from the ’90s, in vintage stores and jewelry bazaars and auction houses, and in museums, where coin-laden necklaces from the Byzantine era mark the beginning of an evolution that has resulted in Kim Kardashian West’s dollar-emblazoned outfit.
The word “sequin” derives from the practice of stitching gold and silver coins onto cloth, or using them as jewelry.
The idea of money has existed for millennia, long before the introduction of banknotes and coins. The Aztecs, for one, used cacao beans as a sort of currency to trade. But it was the formal advent of currency minted from metal that popularized the idea of money and ushered in its use as jeweled accessory. In England, the practice of repurposing coins can be traced back to the end of the Iron Age, and it was in medieval times that it gained more traction. This reuse of coins as jewelry also points to the wider role of money in a society, according to historians. “It’s only when you have a big coin-using constituency that coins from that pool of money are taken out of circulation and they become jewelry,” says Dr. Richard Kelleher, an assistant keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge. Kelleher’s 2012 study of nearly 18,000 coins from 1066 to 1545 found that the majority of coins reused as jewelry were turned into dress hooks—thereby integrating money into the wardrobe—and coin badges, which were created from silver pennies that had been gilded to display a cross on one side. (The badge version displayed the cross side.) “The value of a penny might not sound like much,” Dr. Kelleher says, “but that penny was a big piece of money, and therefore the process of taking that money to make a display object says quite a lot about that person’s status and access to wealth.”
In the Byzantine empire, people used currency to display—as one might do today—their status and closeness to centers of power. “Coins and medallions set into a gold collar might read today as a shameless assertion of cost,” states an accompanying note to a recent jewelry exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “But the Byzantines understood coins as portable portraits of the emperor; to wear them on the body was to advertise one's confident place within his domain.” This idea of portable portraits was also seen in Mughal-era India under the rule of Emperor Jahangir, who issued commemorative coins with his visage, as well as coins with zodiac signs.
Wearing money might signify power and status, but it made a person powerful in another way: money, some people believed, could heal. Because metals were thought to have curative properties, money minted from metal was used in jewelry and amulets, a tradition that spans pre-Enlightenment England to Ottoman-era Middle East. In England and France, royalty held ceremonial rites in which they, channeling their apparent powers through a coin, would touch subjects afflicted with scrofula, or the “king’s evil,” to heal them. The monarch would bless a coin, strung like a necklace around the sufferer’s neck, that featured a gold angel on one side.
The practice of touching to cure the king’s evil ended around the time of the Enlightenment, but the idea of money as a form of protection and healing has thrived elsewhere. In Pakistan, people from the middle classes and above wave money in a circular motion around someone’s head to cast off the evil eye, as if a crumpled banknote could wield so much power; the note is then given to someone in need. The Shi’a Muslim tradition of wearing an imam zamin, an arm band usually made of cloth—though metallic versions also exist—also bestows protection by virtue of a gold coin tucked into the band. Palestinian tradition includes coin-laden hats like the umm diraham—which translates to “mother of money”—and bridal headdresses like the wuqāyat al-darāhim, a hat adorned with coins and pendants shaped like the hand of Fatima, a cultural symbol thought to protect the bride from envious eyes.
Traditional outfits embellished with imitation coins are still popular in Jordan and Palestine for weddings and festive occasions. Salespeople in clothing stores in Amman point to how the coins are added to belts and neckplate-style pieces to create a sound effect while the wearer dances. “It’s either used to decorate or embellish clothes, or for dancing, or for the waist,” says Ahmad Yaghi at the Mahallat al Rasheed store.
Like money itself, the practice of wearing it has cycled through various social classes. In A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel of a young orphaned girl living in London, the book’s protagonist, the preteen Sara Crewe, is given a sixpence coin by a child who mistakes her for a beggar. Even though she’s desperately in need of the funds, Sara bores a hole in the coin and wears it on a chain around her neck, a reassuring symbol of human kindness and generosity.
Money, of course, can be a danger to its owner, as well as a safety net. The more visible the wealth, the more of a target its owner can be (see: Kim Kardashian West in Paris). In Pakistan, where I spent most of my adult life, I’d often watch older women tuck rupees or jewelry into their bras, a practice I could never quite fathom—surely a coin purse or a pocket could suffice—until I was held up at gunpoint and robbed of my handbag, cell phone, and a fair amount of cash. For days afterward, before leaving the house, I covered myself with a large shawl, stuffed my bra with rupees, and secreted a debit card in my socks. Now I don’t carry cash at all. There’s a reason that Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, including, often, on stage.
But sometimes the wearing of money isn’t necessarily a choice: it is either born of desperation or arises from the lack of access to any other safeguards. People commonly flee war, conflict, and natural disasters wearing their jewelry and money on their body. “I think it is important to remember in the contemporary period that people also wear certain objects of money as a kind of store of value, as a way to bank without banking,” to Bill Maurer, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine who heads the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, explains. “So if I am a poor person, I pull together a bunch of silver coins and wear them, and that’s kind of a way to store value. And also importantly—to transport value.”
Today, money as fashion is all around us. The musician Cardi B, who recently delivered an impassioned rant on Instagram about federal workers not being paid during the government shutdown, draped herself in gold watches for the artwork for her 2019 single “Money.” In 1995, costume designer Lizzy Gardiner wore a dress made out of American Express Gold cards to the Oscars, where she won an Academy Award for her work on the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In 2017, designer Alexander Wang collaborated with the Judith Leiber brand (known for fantastical glittery clutches) on a bag designed to look like a roll of dollar bills, which writer Amanda Mull dubbed “a winking, slightly rude rebuke” to the idea of high-fashion evening wear. “After all,” she asked, “isn’t anyone with one of Leiber’s bags carrying what is, on a spiritual level, more or less just a roll of cash?”
While present-day money may not have any of the medieval magic of yore, it’s still a talisman that we carry with us, every day.
In this way, wearable money signifies more than just power. It shows who you are, where you come from, and where you’re going next. And isn’t everything we wear meant to demonstrate, in one way or another, who we are, where we come from, and sometimes even our job? A tourist with a visibly bulky money belt asserts his identity and foreignness. A customer tucking money into a stripper’s thong is evidence of a completed transaction. When a nobleman showered money on a courtesan, he broadcast his privilege and status. Even if we’re not covering ourselves in Bulgari pendants or wearing the umm diraham “mother of money” hat, money is an integral part of our wardrobe. We pat ourselves down when we leave a public place, checking for a wallet or a credit card, making sure it hasn’t fallen out of a pocket. While present-day money may not have any of the medieval magic of yore, it’s still a talisman that we carry with us, every day, close to us like a second skin; something that can get one in—and out of—trouble. It might just be the most potent accessory in our wardrobe.