Skip to main content
Select Source:

Sumptuary Laws

SUMPTUARY LAWS

SUMPTUARY LAWS. Sumptuary laws regulated clothing, ornamentation, food, drink, and other forms of luxury, imposing a hierarchy of consumption. These laws prohibited certain ranks of persons from wearing specified cloths, garments, or ornamentation. Typically, the rarest furs were reserved for royal families, lesser furs for nobles, and inferior furs for commoners. An English proclamation of 1559 stipulated: "None shall wear in his apparel any cloth of gold, silver, or tinsel; satin, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables; except earls and all of superior degrees."

HIERARCHICAL REGULATION OF CONSUMPTION

Sumptuary laws can be traced back to antiquity, but they proliferated rapidly during the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. These laws embodied a paradox: they distributed luxury by rank by imposing constraints on luxury. They focused on rank, specifying the apparel thought to be appropriate to each social class, at the same time moralizating about the vanity of luxury. Such laws were found throughout Europe and were, despite the repeal of all extant sumptuary legislation in England in 1603, taken by the colonists to the New World, where the critique of luxury was endorsed by Puritan sentiment and expressed itself in dress rules and injunctions against "tippling" (idle drinking, the enemy of work), testimony to the widespread moralizing linkage of luxury with idleness.

There was a marked variation in the extent to which sumptuary laws targeted the two sexes; in some periods males were the primary target; at other times it was women's dress. In medieval sumptuary law, men's apparel was the subject, but with the rise of urban mercantile classes, the focus of sumptuary law shifted to women's dress. However, the pattern was complex. For example, the period of sharpening tension between old and new wealth in mid-sixteenth-century England was precisely the time when women were exempt from sumptuary restrictions. Both men and women, however, were subject to respectability regulation: female décolletage and male codpieces attracted the legislators' attention.

Attempts to regulate female dress employed contradictory tactics. The first played on the distinction between the respectable woman and the whore, denying fashionable dress to prostitutes to decrease the attraction of prostitution as a way of life while "rewarding" virtuous women by granting them access to fashionable attire. The second tactic reversed the first: it allowed fashion and luxury to prostitutes in the hope that respectable women would be discouraged from emulating their sinful sisters.

EARLY MODERN SUMPTUARY LAWS

There was much continuity in sumptuary regulation through the Middle Ages into the early modern period, but by the end of the eighteenth century only sparse instances of sumptuary laws remained. However, some significant developments occurred during that time. The sumptuary ethic was strongly implicated in some of the most crucial phases of the expansion of urbanization and the transition from mercantile to manufacturing capitalism. The most extensive and intensive phase of sumptuary law was to be found not only in the great Italian mercantile cities of Venice and Florence, but in the German, Dutch, and English cities as they became the key sites of capitalist development.

Sumptuary regulation came to embrace a variety of objectives in addition to hierarchical ordering, captured in the standard preamble to a number of sixteenth-century English statutes: "the commons of the said realm, as well Men as Women, have worn and daily do wear excessive and inordinate Array and Apparel to the great Displeasure of God, and impoverishing of this realm of England and to the enriching of other strange Realms and Countries to final the Destruction of Husbandry of this said Realm." This statement combines issues of luxury, economic protectionism, and a counterposing of consumption and production with a moral admonition.

A new feature of sumptuary discourses also emerged in the sixteenth century: legislators voiced anxieties and complaints about the difficulty of distinguishing the social rank of individuals. In 1530 the Augsburg Diet drew up clothing regulations "to ensure that each class should be clearly recognized apart." A Nuremberg law of 1657 bluntly stated: "It is unfortunately an established fact that both men and womenfolk have, in utterly irresponsible manner, driven extravagance in dress and new styles to such shameful and wanton extremes that the different classes are barely to be known apart."

The attempt to regulate appearance came up against the slow but inevitable increase in consumerism. As fashion became accessible to more people, the possibilities of competitive consumption increased. An English proclamation of 1575 reveals a certain desperation by prohibiting anyone from "devising any new forms of apparel." In the "world of strangers" of urban settings, not being able to "read" rank from apparel must have been perplexing. This has been described as a crisis of recognizability: in a social terrain of competition, the rising bourgeois classes sought to secure their identities in the process of distinguishing themselves from others, while those above them sought to resist their challenge. This strife resulted in still more overtly urban regulation, and new laws included dress rules for burghers (members of the urban middle class) and merchants, and imposed rules that maintained a visible separation between ladies and their maidservants by specifying the length of headdresses and the width of sleeves.

Attempts to promote the work ethic and to further the Protestant Reformation unleashed enormous legislative energy intended to restrain feasting, drinking, and other indulgences. The contemporary importance of sumptuary law is attested by the fact that the Diet of Worms in 1521, at one of the critical turning points in the political realignment of Reformation Europe, took the time to articulate the urgent need for sumptuary legislation in order to maintain the visibility of social status in attire. When bourgeois interests secured power, they used it to impose sumptuary restrictions or fiscal burdens on the patrician classes, for example, restricting expenditures on weddings, feasts, and funerals; these efforts were also linked with struggles to regulate the size of dowries. Although there is little evidence regarding the degree of enforcement, it is worth noting that a number of Italian cities had officers specifically appointed to enforce sumptuary laws.

It was in Italy that another significant form of regulation, one that had long existed in Florence, spread: it became easier to purchase a license of exemption from sumptuary rules, the harbinger of a shift toward an increasingly fiscal approach. While licensing remained important in Italy, elsewhere economic protectionist motives became increasingly mixed into sumptuary regulation. Protectionism was at the heart of the economic debates during the mercantilist period and sumptuary laws and discourses were increasingly part of these wider economic debates. Hostility to "foreign" goods was woven into sumptuary discourses with the imposition of luxury taxes or prohibitions on the import and sale of foreign goods.

Sumptuary laws did not so much "die" as undergo a process of metamorphosis such that the original is barely recognizable in the result: luxury taxes and import restrictions are the legacy of sumptuary laws. Such laws can perhaps best be regarded as inhabiting the threshold of modernity, without themselves being an active feature of modernity.

See also Capitalism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Clothing ; Commerce and Markets ; Consumption ; Equality and Inequality ; Law ; Mercantilism ; Mobility, Social ; Prostitution ; Puritanism ; Reformation, Protestant ; Women .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Greenfield, Kent R. Sumptuary Law in Nürnberg: A Study in Paternal Government. Baltimore, 1918.

Harte, N. B. "State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England." In Trade, Government, and Society in Pre-Industrial England, edited by D. C. Coleman and A. H. John, pp. 132165. London, 1976.

Hunt, Alan. Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law. New York, 1996.

Vincent, John M. Costume and Conduct in the Laws of Basel, Bern, and Zurich 13701800. Baltimore, 1935; reprinted New York, 1969.

Alan Hunt

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sumptuary Laws." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sumptuary Laws." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws

"Sumptuary Laws." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws

sumptuary laws

sumptuary laws appear to have reflected a view of society as a pyramid of social groups which had to be held together by preventing too great a variation in overt affluence. Such laws were enacted in many countries between the 14th and 17th cents., and sought to prevent ostentatious display by the wealthy, and to keep the lower orders in their place. A statute of 1337 in England restricted the wearing of furs to those with an income of £100 p.a., while a later scale confined ermine to the richest and restricted the poor to the furs of humble creatures, such as the cat, coney, or fox. By the Tudor period, English laws applied only to clothing and were repealed at the end of the 16th cent. Such laws were used for other forms of social engineering, by Peter the Great for whom western dress was a means to modernize Russia, while the English tried to impose a dress code on the Irish as a civilizing stratagem.

Clive H. Lee

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sumptuary laws." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"sumptuary laws." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws-0

"sumptuary laws." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws-0

Sumptuary Laws

SUMPTUARY LAWS

Rules made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance.

Sumptuary laws are designed to regulate habits, especially on moral or religious grounds. They are particularly directed against inordinate expenditures on apparel, drink, food, and luxury items.

These laws existed in Rome and were enacted in a variety of forms in England during the Middle Ages to regulate the ornateness of dress and to impose dietary restrictions. Sumptuary laws varied according to classes, with peasants being subjected to a different set of rules than the gentry. The primary purpose of the laws was to distinguish the different classes of people, and often, a person's social class could be determined by something as simple as the style or length of his or her coat.

Today sumptuary laws are ecclesiastical in nature and not part of the U.S. legal system.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sumptuary Laws." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sumptuary Laws." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws

"Sumptuary Laws." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws

sumptuary laws

sumptuary laws (sŭmp´chōōĕ´rē), regulations based on social, religious, or moral grounds directed against overindulgence of luxury in diet and drink and extravagance in dress and mode of living. Such laws existed in ancient Greece and Rome, and in Japan they were applied to the peasant and commercial classes until the mid-19th cent. In the 14th and 15th cent. several statutes were passed in England that regulated ornateness of dress and the people's diet. These regulations varied according to the rank of the person, peasants being subject to rules different from those of the gentry. The main purpose of the legislation was to mark class distinctions clearly and to prevent any person from assuming the appearance of a superior class.

See F. E. Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (1926).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sumptuary laws." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"sumptuary laws." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws

"sumptuary laws." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumptuary-laws