Today, the word "motley" is a synonym for "mixed" or "heterogeneous." In the 14th century, however, it signified a textile or garment of two or more colors, particularly the clothing worn by jesters. The jester's multicolored (or "particolored") costume symbolized his place outside of polite society, where sumptuary laws limited the colors and fabrics that could be worn by members of different classes. Diamond-shaped patterns evoked patched garments; by the 16th century, a "patch" was another name for a clown or a fool.
While "harlequin" prints cycled in and out of fashion over the course of the 20th century, they were particularly appropriate to the carnival mood of the 1960s, even appearing on underwear, umbrellas, pajamas, ski wear, maternity clothes, and hosiery. A 1962 Picasso retrospective in New York fueled the trend, providing "plenty of food for thought for Seventh Avenue designers" who "tend to focus on the saltimbanques," or clowns, according to Women's Wear Daily.1
Harlequin prints combined the bold, black-and-white geometric patterns of Mod style with the kaleidoscope colors of Flower Power. Vogue described a Leo Narducci minidress of 1967 as being "diamond-patterned like a jester's motley."2 This coat's materials are as anarchic as its design: the diamonds are dyed Korean rat fur, while the collar and cuffs are raccoon.
Pauline Trigère's Spring 1961 collection featured bisected "Puncinello" styles, combining colors "in big doses with harlequin brilliance."3 This particolored minidress resembles one illustrated in Women's Wear Daily in 1967, which was paired with coordinating tights with mismatched legs. Like medieval jesters, the merry pranksters of the 1960s were characterized by childlike playfulness and a flagrant disregard for authority. As London antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs quipped: "The King's Road is a wilderness of stoned harlequins."4
1Women's Wear Daily, May 7, 1962.
2Vogue, January 15, 1967.
3Women's Wear Daily, October 28, 1960.