In the olden days, the aide-de-camp of a knight carried on his shoulder ropes and pegs for tethering the knight's horse. Thus aiguillettes, the gold shoulder braid worn today by senior naval officers' aides, came into being. Another tradition has it that the aiguillette was originally the rope carried on a provost marshal's shoulder and used for hanging the condemned. [If your version differs, send it in.-Ed.]
Source: "How Did it Start?" Bureau of Naval
Personnel Information Bulletin. 322 (January 1944): 48.
206. The origin of the aiguillette. The several origins which have been attributed to the aiguillette possess no authenticity; the following is however, the most probable:
"The Duke of Alva, a Spanish General, having had cause to complain of the conduct of a body of Flemish troops, which had taken flight, ordered that any future misconduct on the part of these troops should be punished by hanging the delinquent, with regard to rank or grade.
"The Flemings replied that to facilitate the execution of this order, they would hereafter wear on the shoulder a rope and a nail, which they did, but their conduct became so brilliant and exemplary, that this rope was transformed into a braid of passementerie, and became a badge of honor, to be worn by officers of princely households, the pages, and corps d'elite," etc., etc. (Translated from Larousse's Grand Dictionary of the XIX Century)."
The following is another version:
In the very early days before knights wore metal armor, they wore coats of thick bull hide or sole leather which laced up the back. At it was impossible for them to "button" such a coat, the act had to be performed by their squires, who were required to carry a supply of stout leathern thongs pointed with the "tooth-pick bones" taken from the leg of a buck, or some kind of metal point such as our common shoestring has at this day. The story goes that the squire carried these thongs in a small roll or bundle hanging over his shoulder and from this has gradually developed the idea of an aide or adjutant wearing the aiguillette as the badge of his office.
Sir: As a Flag Lieutenant, I have been told many stories by various senior officers concerning the origin and early function of the aiguillettes worn by an admiral's aide.
To set the record straight, could you tell me how the practice of wearing decorative cords around the shoulder originated? Were there ever pens tied to the ends, as many people claim? - A.E.T., LT., USNR
If there were, the occasion was probably a costume party.
The word aiguillette means a small needle, and is the tag which covers the ends of cords, such as those of a shoe-string. By extension, the term also refers to any ornamental studs, cords, or pins.
In his book Uniforms of the Sea Services, Colonel Robert H. Rankin informs us that the aiguillette was never a cord and pencil (or pen) worn by generals and staff officers for writing dispatches.
Nor was it a rope carried over an aide's shoulder to hobble the general's horse.
Nor was it a hangman's noose.
It was, COL Rankin says, a term originally referring to the lacing used to fasten plate armor together - particularly the lacing supporting the arm defenses. A knot or loop arrangement was used, which sometimes hung down from the shoulder. It is evident that for such use, pointed tabs would be placed on the ends of the lacing to facilitate threading and to hold the knot. Hence, the term aiguillette.
Aiguillettes were added to the uniform of the US Navy in 1907 to be worn by naval aides to the President and the Secretary of the Navy. Their design was undoubtedly copied from those already worn by officers of other countries. - ED.
Source: "Origin of Aiguillettes." All Hands. 615 (April 1968): 34-35.