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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, often with a device or badge sewn on, denoting a great person 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:
The term is now rarely if ever applied in a military context, so it would be unusual for "livery" 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.
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