Dress Codes and Anti-Fashion

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Dress Codes and Anti-Fashion

The Origins of Sumptuary Law.

Sumptuary laws, named from a Latin word that joins the ideas of magnificence and expense, were enacted across Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Such laws had economic, moral, and social foundations. Economically, they regulated personal spending, with the intention of controlling inflation, discouraging the depletion of state resources for purposes of ostentatious display, and limiting the trade deficits that could occur through the import of luxury goods from faraway places. At the same time they regulated behavior, reinforcing the virtues of modesty and moral seriousness that were often thought to be especially lacking among women and young men. Finally, they performed a social function in clarifying the lines between classes through visual signs, slowing the encroachment of the commercial classes on the privileges of the aristocracy. The earliest such laws in the Middle Ages were those decreed by Charlemagne and by Louis the Debonnaire who ruled the Frankish kingdom after Charlemagne's death in 814. These were, respectively, attempts to control the prices that nobles might pay for their customary garments and attempts to forbid the wearing of silk and ornaments of gold and silver. Later sumptuary laws, with the earliest dated 1157 in Genoa—followed by similar statutes in France, Spain, and the rest of Italy—attempted to regulate economic conditions of a political area such as entire countries and individual city-states. Sometimes their purpose was to restrict trade with an eye to promoting local production at the cost of other states' profits; for example, in England at certain periods citizens were forbidden to purchase imported cloth and could only wear clothing made of locally produced fabric. When royal coffers were getting depleted, governments attempted to regulate traffic in consumable goods and monies spent on ceremonial occasions, such as weddings, funerals, knightly investitures (the "dubbing" ceremony), and birth celebrations. It should come as no surprise that during a period of lavish and luxurious costume in fourteenth-century England, sumptuary laws were initiated there, as they had been previously in other parts of Europe. From time to time, the king and/or his nobles in Parliament attempted to regulate dress by the two standards of income and birth status. Despite their efforts, these laws—passed, sometimes passed then rescinded (1363), or proposed but rejected (as in the case of Richard II)—were never capable of curbing fourteenth-century fashion excesses. Nonetheless, they serve as valuable indicators of the attitudes of certain portions of the nobility toward costume.

Sumptuary Law and its Moral Implications.

Not only noble wastefulness, but any excess in dress was the target of sumptuary laws. And sometimes a moral point was made—that excessive consumption of these goods, with clothing specifically mentioned, resulted from the sin of pride. Thus, such practices must be moderated or else such sinfulness would draw upon the community natural disasters such as plague, famine, and war as signs of God's punishments. In many cases, especially in Italy, sumptuary laws were directed at women particularly, the reputed source of all temptation to excess. Indeed, women as temptresses drawing men into sin through pride and lust were a favorite target for medieval moralists. A striking combined attack against prideful exhibition in male and female costume appears in the Book of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, a late medieval French "courtesy book" intended by the author for the moral education of his daughters. The speaker mentions a sermon against pride—preached to a fashionably dressed crowd of men and women—which presents Noah's Flood as an exemplum of destruction caused by bad behavior and then goes on to remark on women in the church who wore "horned" headdress. The preacher compares the women to snails who are displaying their "horns" to men who have come to church in such short costume that they are showing their behinds and their underpants and even their genitals. Thus, each outdid the other in foolish pride, the ones in short clothes and those wearing horns.


introduction: Medieval moralists singled out female headdresses as a special target for attack on the immorality of certain fashions. Not only sermons, but also popular poetry pointed out the dangers of excessive headwear. The male writer of the early fourteenth-century poem reproduced here specifically attacks a style in which women fashioned "horns" of false hair enclosed in a net known as a crispinette on both sides of their heads, in this case making the point that women wearing horns were adopting male roles, since horns were a sign of masculinity on animals like bulls and deer. Variations of this style of headdress, with the horns growing longer or taller, survived into the reign of Henry VI (1422–1461 and 1470–1471) and continued to incite satirical comment.

The Bishop of Paris, a theologian
and a philosopher, observes that
a woman who puts false hair on her head
and paints herself to please the world
is too foolish a hussy. …
If we do not take care of ourselves
we shall be slain by these women.
They wear horns to kill men; they carry great masses
of other people's hair upon their heads.

Woman began to turn herself to evil
from the time she caused our first father [Adam]
to descend into hell.
Believe me well—

A woman who adorns her head with horns will pay for it;
if she does not mend her ways. …

They make themselves horned
with worked hemp, or flax,
and counterfeit dumb beasts—
they who wish to be known as worthy ladies.
It would be more to their advantage
to think of their souls; as do
the worthy women of simple manners,
who will not display themselves,
nor show their flesh to attract libertines.
They [horned ladies] make men much worse—greater fools,
and greater sinners—by their enticement;
this foolish behavior entices those who would,
long ago, have kept out of temptation,
I do not doubt.

And I believe,
May God bless me, that a woman
who decorates herself thus,
and disfigures herself, and loves
and values her flesh so much,
is not much occupied with goodness of heart.
Even if she were my cousin, or my sister,
I could only believe that such a one,
horned, is a foolish woman.

source: Frederick W. Fairholt, ed., Satirical Songs and Poems on Costume: From the 13th to the 19th Century (1849; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corp, 1965): 29–39. Text modernized by John Block Friedman.

Opposition to Extravagant Garments.

Many of the styles that took hold from the middle of the fourteenth century onward caused especially strong reactions from conservative members of society. Not surprisingly, one of the concerns was the new trend towards emphasis on the body, as expressed both in the men's short styles just mentioned and women's low necklines. The arguments against these styles took a number of forms. In a poem by Eustache Deschamps, for example, dated around 1398, the concern mainly seems to be a matter of jealousy, the complaint from older women that they are put at a disadvantage when young women use corsets to push up their breasts: "Because bosoms are being shown about / In all manner of places, generally, /A desire has arisen in many a person/To have them covered again; / For it makes many a heart suddenly fill with sadness / To see them … /For the thing that has put them in this situation/Is youth alone:/ Round, small, firm …" (Ballade 1469). The sideless gown also seems to have disturbed moralists: the resulting openings were called "devil's windows" since it appeared they made women's bodies accessible. For men, the revealing pour-point excited a strong backlash across Europe. For example, the Italian city-state of Aquila passed a sumptuary ordinance in 1375 legislating against men who wore very short pourpoints, and the Middle English poem Brut (c. 1346) mentions how the "madness and folly of the foreigners" has brought to England a taste for "short clothes." The well known Middle English satiric poem "Huff A Gallant" remarks on the fashion for "gowns/Too short their knees to hide," while a similar poem, "Now is England perished," mocks those with "short gowns." One Middle English sermon of about 1380 treats several of these points with an added concern about class transgressivity: "Now are the common people afflicted by the sin of pride. For now a wretched knave, who walks behind a plow and a cart, and has no money but serves from year to year for his livelihood, whom once a white girdle and a russet gown would have served quite well must now have a fancy doublet costing five shillings or even more and over that a costly gown with baggy sleeves hanging down to his knees and pleats under his girdle like those on a bishop's surplice, and a hood on his head with a thousand little tags on his tippet, and gay hose and shoes as though he were a country squire." The extravagant cut of the houppelande, though it was not revealing, likewise excited considerable comment at its appearance in the 1360s because it required so much expensive cloth (and often fur and other decorative touches), resulting in a wasteful display of wealth. French chronicler and poet Jean Froissart wrote a pastourelle in which several humble shepherds discuss this garment with awe and a certain ironic lack of understanding of its function as an indicator of social status.

The Battle over Shoes.

As early as 1298, extravagant shoe fashions drew criticism from both monarchs and moralists. An edict issued in France by King Philip the Fair in that year intended to curb excess of fashion among the rising bourgeois by restricting the length of the toes on poulaines. Such shoes were condemned at the Council of Anvers in 1365 and again by royal edict, for King Charles V of France on 9 October 1368 forbade the wearing of poulaines by all classes under a penalty of a fine of twelve florins (a gold coin). An English statute of 1465 decreed a fine of 20 shillings—a very large sum of money at the time—for those with pointed shoe tips over two inches long. As with many shifts in fashion in the later Middle Ages such as the replacement of long with short costume, the taste for poulaines had some significance in the economics of the cordwainers' (leatherworkers') guild and the general rise of guild autonomy throughout Europe and the British Isles. According to Gregory's Chronicles, the pope issued a bull in 1468 excommunicating those who made any shoes with pointed toes exceeding two inches in length: "And some men said that they would wear shoes with long pointed toes whether the Pope approved or disapproved, for they said the Pope's threat of excommunication was not worth a flea. And a short time later, some members of the Cordwainers guild got privy seals to make such shoes and caused trouble for those fellow guildsmen who heeded the papal edict."

Backlash Against Women 's Hennins.

The fashion for the tall dunce-cap-like female headdress called the hennin or cornet soon drew the attention of social critics. Although this headdress is the one most commonly associated with medieval female costume in the modern consciousness, it was in fact a late phenomenon mainly limited to France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries. The hennin could be as much as a yard tall, and it was worn inclined to the rear. On its peak was attached a thin veil, which might be short, so as to flutter in the wind, or long, reaching all the way to the floor. The Carmelite friar Thomas Conecte (died 1433) singled out hennins in a sermon as among the worst expenditures of women on their fashion. His sermons against gambling and extravagance in clothing were enormously popular in northeast France and what is now Belgium, drawing crowds in the thousands.


introduction: As a poet in the court of Edward III of England in the late 1360s, the French chronicler Jean Froissart wrote a number of "historical pastourelles," poems using the form and context of traditional songs about aristocratic encounters with shepherdesses, but transformed to comment on current events. In a poem that appears as "Pastourelle 1" in both of the original manuscripts, Froissart imagines an aristocratic narrator who overhears a group of shepherds discussing the houppelande fashion of a nobleman who has just passed by. Quoting the words of the shepherds, the poet simultaneously makes fun of both the shepherds' misunderstanding of what they see and the absurdity of the garment itself, which used a tremendous amount of cloth. In the poem, one shepherd wonders if a single ell of cloth (a measurement equal to about 45 inches) would be enough to make a houppelande for himself, and is promptly informed that he would need nine times that much just to line the garment.

Between Aubrecicourt and Mauny
Near the road, upon fallow ground,
The other day I heard shepherds talking
Around the hour of noon.
And Levrins Cope-osiere was saying:
"Gentlemen, yesterday didn't you see
Men on horseback riding by
Or hear talk about houppelande cloaks?
I saw each man wearing one of them,
And the sight brought me such great joy
That, ever since, I've done nothing but wish that I
Could dress in a houppelande."

"A houppelande, dear God, oh my!"
Thus answered Willemes Louviere,
"And what can that be, now tell me that!
I know what a bread sack is, all right,
A tunic and a traveling pouch,
Leggings, a needle holder,
A hare, a collar, a greyhound,
And I know how to guard sheep well,
Care for them and get rid of disease;
But I don't have the slightest idea
What on earth could make you talk about
Dressing in a houppelande."

"Listen, and I will tell you:
It's because it's the latest style,
For the other day I saw someone wearing one,
One sleeve in front, another behind;
I don't know whether such clothes are expensive,
But they certainly are valuable;
They are good both summer and winter,
You can wrap yourself up snugly inside,
You can put whatever you like in there;
You could easily hide a wicker basket—
And that's what makes me think about
Dressing in a houppelande."

"By my faith," said Ansel D'Aubri,
"I am sure that some time ago
Shepherds used to wear cloaks of that kind,
Except theirs were made of light cloth,
For I still have the very first one
That belonged to my grandfather Ogier."
Then Adins, son of Renier, responded:
"Ansel, by the body of Saint Omer,
Please bring it with you tomorrow;
We will use it to cover our food,
For I might also decide that I wish to
Dress in a houppelande."

"Gentlemen," said Aloris d'Oisi,
"By the faith that I owe Saint Peter,
I will go to Douai Saturday,
And buy an entire ell of cloth,
And I will make the most excellent cloak
That anyone has ever seen a shepherd wear.
Will I have enough cloth to have one made
And have a fourth left over?"
—"My, no; to line it you will need
Nine ells of broad Irish cloth."
—"Alas! It would cost me too much to
Dress in a houppelande."

Prince, I saw them thinking it over
And talking among themselves and making plans:
It would be good to require of all shepherds
That every one of them should agree to
Dress in a houppelande.

source: Jean Froissart, "Pastourelle 1," The Short Lyric Poems of Jean Froissart: Fixed Forms and the Courtly Ideal (New York and London: Garland, 1994): 108–111. Translated by Kristen M. Figg.


Anonymous Sermon (London: British Library MS Additional 41321 folios 101–102, c. 1380–1440).

Frances Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1926).

Jeanne Bayle, Le costume en Bourgogne de Philippe le Hardi à la mort de Charles le Téméraire (1364–1477) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956).

Friederich W. D. Brie, ed., The Brut or Chronicles of England. Early English Text Society OS: 136 (Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1965): 296–297.

Eustache Deschamps, Oeuvres Complètes de Eustache Deschamps. Vol. 8. Ed. Gaston Raynaud. Trans. Kristen Figg and John Friedman (London: Johnson Reprint Co., 1966): 169.

James Gairdner, ed., The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London. Camden Society, New Series 17 (London: 1876): 238.

Diane Owen Hughes, "Regulating Women's Fashions," in Silences of the Middle Ages: A History of Women in the West.

Vol. 2. Ed. C. Klapisch-Zuber (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap, 1992): 136–158.

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

Catherine Kovesi Killerby, Sumptuary Law in Italy, 1200–1500 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

A. de Montaiglon, ed., Le Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l'Enseignement de ses filles. Trans. John Block Friedman (Nendeln and Lichtenstein: Kraus, 1972): Ch. 47, 98–99.

Rossell Hope Robbins, ed., Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959): 138, 139, 149.

Wendy Scase, "'Proud Gallants and Popeholy Priests': The Context and Function of a Fifteenth-Century Satirical Poem," Medium Aevum 63.2 (1994): 175–186.

M. Scott, A Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Batsford, 1986).