A livery // is a uniform, insignia or symbol adorning, in a non-military context, a person, an object or a vehicle that denotes a relationship between the wearer of the livery and an individual or corporate body. Often, elements of the heraldry relating to the individual or corporate body feature in the livery. Alternatively, some kind of a personal emblem or badge, or a distinctive colour, is featured.
The word itself derives from the French livrée, meaning dispensed, handed over. Most often it would indicate that the wearer of the livery was a servant, dependent, follower or friend of the owner of the livery, or, in the case of objects, that the object belonged to them.
The phrase "to sue one's livery" refers to the formal recognition of a noble's majority, in exchange of payment, for conferring the powers attached to his title, and thereby freeing him from dependence as a ward.
In the 14th century, "livery" referred to an allowance of any kind, but especially clothes provided to servants and members of the household. Such things might be kept in a "livery cupboard".
During the 14th century specific colours denoting a great person and often with a device or badge sewn on, began to be used for both his soldiers and his civilian followers (often the two overlapped considerably), and the modern sense of the term began to form. Usually two different colours were used together, but the ways in which they were combined varied with rank. Often the colours used were different each year. As well as embroidered badges, metal ones were sewn on to clothing, or hung on neck-chains or (by far the most prestigious) livery collars. From the 16th century, only the lower status followers tended to receive clothes in livery colours (whilst the higher status ones received cash) and the term "servant", previously much wider, also began to be restricted to describing the same people. Municipalities and corporations copied the behaviour of the great households.
The term is also used to describe badges, buttons and grander pieces of jewellery containing the heraldic signs of an individual, which were given by that person to friends, followers and distinguished visitors, as well as (in more modest forms) servants. The grandest of these is the livery collar. William, Lord Hastings the favourite of King Edward IV of England had a "Coller of gold of K. Edward's lyverys" valued at the enormous sum of £40 in an inventory of 1489. This would have been similar to the collars worn by Hastings' sister and her husband Sir John Donne in the Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (described in Sir John Donne). Lords gave their servants lead or pewter badges to sew onto their clothes. In the 15th century European royalty sometimes distributed uniform suits of clothes to courtiers, as the House of Fugger, the leading bankers, did to all employees.
This practice later contracted to the provision of standardized clothing to male servants, often in a colour-scheme distinctive to a particular family. The term most notably referred to the embroidered coats, waistcoats, knee breeches and stockings in 18th century style, worn by footmen on formal occasions in grand houses. Plainer clothing in dark colours and without braiding was worn by footmen, chauffeurs and other employees for ordinary duties. For reasons of economy the employment of such servants, and their expensive dress, died out after World War I except in royal households.
From this core meaning, multiple extended or specialist meanings have derived. Examples include:
- A livery company is the name used for a guild in the City of London; members of the company were allowed to dress their servants in the distinctive uniform of their trade, and the company's charters enabled them to prevent others from embarking upon the trades within the company's jurisdiction.
- Following on from the decoration of horse-drawn carriages, a livery is the common design and paint scheme a company will use on its vehicles, often using specific colors and logo placement. In this sense, the term is applied to railway locomotives and rolling stock, ships, aircraft, and road vehicles. For example, United Parcel Service has trucks with a well-known brown livery. Another example is the British Airways ethnic liveries. The term has become extended to the logos, colors and other distinctive styles of companies in general. See also trade dress.
- "Vehicle Livery" can be used to promote a brand or for unrelated advertising compared to the goods contained in the vehicle. This can enable companies to become iconic as a result of their livery. An example is Eddie Stobart trucks which have a deal with Corgi to sell replicas of their trucks with livery. The practice is very common with few brands not taking advantage of putting livery on their fleet.
- A livery is the specific paint scheme and sticker design used in motorsport, on vehicles, in order to attract sponsorship and to advertise sponsors. See e.g. Formula One sponsorship liveries.
- Aircraft livery is also the term describing the paint scheme of an aircraft. Most airlines have a standard paint scheme for their aircraft fleet, usually prominently displaying the airline logo or name. From time to time special liveries are introduced, for example prior to big events.
- A "livery vehicle" remains a legal term of art in the U.S. and Canada for a vehicle for hire, such as a taxicab or chauffered limousine, but excluding a rented vehicle driven by the renter. In some jurisdictions a "livery vehicle" covers vehicles that carry up to fifteen passengers, but not more, thus including a jitney but excluding an omnibus or motorcoach. This usage stems from the hackney cabs or coaches that could be provided by a livery stable. By extension, there are boat livery companies for the hire of watercraft. Canada has many businesses offering canoe livery.
- A livery stable (found from 1705) looks after the care, feeding, stabling, etc., of horses for pay.
Historic military usage
The term "livery" is now rarely applied in a military context, so it would be unusual for it to refer to a military uniform or the painting of a military vehicle. Early uniforms were however regarded as a form of livery ("the King's coat") in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. During this period officers of the French Garde du Corps (Royal Bodyguard) petitioned successfully that they not be required to wear uniform while on duty at Versailles, since this livery suggested that they were servants rather than aristocrats. The modern military equivalent for "livery" is the term "standard issue"; used when referring to the colors and regulations required in respect of any military clothing or equipment.
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- Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous adversary: the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford,' Liverpool University Press, 2003 p.71
- Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane; Dress in the Middle Ages; pp. 133-5, Yale UP, 1997; ISBN 0-300-06906-5.
- Tin-glazed earthenware livery-button, ca 1651, Victoria & Albert museum jewellery collection
- National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings by Lorne Campbell, 1998, ISBN 1-85709-171-X - Hastings' collar p389 n88
- Jonathan Alexander & Paul Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry, Art in Plantagenet England, 1200-1400, Royal Academy/Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 1987, Cat 448; see also Steane, John, The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy, Routledge, 1999, ISBN 0-415-19788-0, ISBN 978-0-415-19788-5
- Georges Duby ed., A History of Private Life, Vol 2 Revelations of the Medieval World, 1988 (English translation), p. 578, Belknap Press, Harvard University
- "Except at public functions, the last time I saw a footman in livery was in 1921": George Orwell writing in the Tribune of 3 March 1944
-  Stobart truck replica with livery
-  examples of diverse range of vehicle livery
- etymology online