Decline of Sumptuary Laws
DECLINE OF SUMPTUARY LAWS
A shopkeeper in London in 1600 could not purchase a silk doublet without threat of being fined or even thrown in prison, for laws on record throughout Europe set restrictions on the kinds of clothes and accessories that could be worn by those outside the ranks of nobles, such as knights, dukes, and earls. In England, King Henry VII (reigned 1509–47) and later his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603), passed a series of laws that restricted the use of certain luxurious textiles such as silk, satin, velvet, and other fabrics to people above certain ranks, such as knight or earl. Elizabeth also passed laws regulating the length of swords and the size of ruffs worn around the neck. Similar laws existed across Europe and in the British colonies in the New World. One law in Massachusetts made it a crime for anyone who possessed an estate below the value of two hundred British pounds to wear clothes made of certain fabrics.
Laws that regulate the types and styles of clothing that could be worn by certain people, as well as other luxuries, are called sumptuary laws. They had existed in Europe hundreds of years, but they reached their peak in the 1500s and early 1600s. Judging from the explosion of sumptuary laws passed during these years, European rulers thought it was very important to keep common people from consuming the clothes and other luxury goods enjoyed by the wealthiest classes. The higher classes were threatened because merchants and skilled workers had more income than ever before and found that by purchasing certain clothes they could appear wealthier than they really were. Rulers and nobles wanted to keep social distinctions clear, and they used sumptuary laws to do so.
Sumptuary laws were also used to help encourage local industries. The French, for example, placed a ban on lace from other countries, and local lace industries prospered as a result. Similar laws were passed in Spain, England, and other countries to promote local production of certain garments or textiles (fabrics). Sometimes these laws were just a reflection of patriotism or hostility towards another country.
By the mid-sixteenth century most European rulers came to accept that sumptuary laws didn't work and never had. People simply ignored the laws, which were nearly impossible to enforce. James I, who ruled England from 1603 to 1625, repealed most of the laws in his country, fearing that they were out of tune with the need for freedom for his people. After this time sumptuary laws became much more rare, though they were still used by rulers intent on enforcing class divisions in their society. The primary obstacle to poor people wearing the clothes of the rich throughout more recent history, however, has been the cost of the clothing and fabrics.