The Regulation of Consumption

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The Regulation of Consumption

The Long Tradition.

In both medieval and early-modern Europe a web of laws tightly controlled clothing and the consumption of luxury goods. As a body, these sumptuary regulations—laws intended to control dress and extravagant feasting and celebrations—were one of the largest and most universal sets of regulations in European states, although the specifics of restrictions differed greatly from place to place and over time. Generally, though, sumptuary law fell into two broad categories. First, city and state officials tried to limit the amounts their subjects spent on clothing by stipulating that certain garments might not contain more than a certain amount of fabric, lace, or trim, or by limiting the total sum that might be spent on any one garment. These types of regulations were often very specific, and as such, they were consequently subject to many attempts to circumvent their intentions. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, for instance, restrictions on the amount of cloth a woman's skirt might contain fed the popularity of chopines, which were large stilt-like shoes whose platform soles at times reached heights of twelve to eighteen inches. Perched on these lofty pedestals, late-Renaissance women required more cloth in their dresses so that their skirts reached the ground, another demand of propriety. Thus, as in this case, new fashions often bred a continued outpouring of restrictions, as Italian governments legislated against the chopines even as they had once turned to consider the widths of women's skirts. The second broad type of sumptuary legislation aimed to confine the consumption of certain expensive items of dress to members of the aristocracy. These measures were particularly widespread in the kingdoms of Western Europe. In France and England, for instance, the consumption of costly furs like ermine or of rare feathers was generally reserved only to those who were of noble birth. In this way clothing styles tended to buttress the established social order, to serve as marks of social distinction, and to encourage attempts to get around the regulations. Restrictions of one kind against consumption, then, tended to inspire attempts to control consumption with ever more specific laws, as state and city officials constantly labored to defend against what they perceived were attempts to flout their authority. In most countries, though, the punishments meted out to those who violated sumptuary legislation were comparatively mild when compared against those reserved for theft and other crimes. A system of fines was most frequently used to compel those who violated the laws to comply.

Moral and Economic Incentives.

The tradition of controlling and limiting consumption in Western Europe stretched back into the early Middle Ages and even had its precedents in Antiquity. The high tide of sumptuary legislation in Europe, though, occurred between the fourteenth and early eighteenth centuries at a time when Western industry, commerce, and society were all growing more diverse, and when industry presented consumers with more choices of rich cloth than ever before. At the beginning of this period, problems related to overpopulation, famine, and the Black Death of 1347–1351 winnowed away at Europe's population. Subsequent recurrences of the plague and outbreaks of other epidemics meant that by 1450 there were forty percent fewer people in the continent than there had been in 1300. It was not until about 1620 that the European population again reached its pre-plague levels. In every European region, this massive decrease in population produced long-term inflation, as labor became a commodity that was relatively dearer than previously. Inflation, in turn, made it more difficult for young couples to marry, since the cost of establishing a household was now considerably greater than before. The first rise in the adoption of new sumptuary laws that occurred during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries responded to these realities, as town officials in Italy and elsewhere in Europe tried to limit consumption—particularly of expensive clothing—as a way of keeping household costs low. From the first, these heightened efforts were sanctioned and supported by the religious orders of the day, and the Franciscans and Dominicans, in particular, rode to a high tide of popularity by condemning the wasteful vanities of contemporary society. Women's dress figured most prominently in the sermons of these friars, and fashion was, it was generally agreed, primarily a woman's problem. These judgments were not merely a form of clerical misogyny directed against women, but arose from the peculiar facts that surrounded clothing in both the late-medieval and early-modern world. Cloth was an expensive but necessary commodity, and the establishment of any new household required enormous supplies of linens, bolts of fabric, and other supplies. In Renaissance Italy, the surviving marriage contracts show that families were often incredibly attentive to the precise needs of their children, and the families of prospective brides and grooms competed against each other to display their ability to provide for their offspring. In the weeks immediately before and after a marriage took place, brides and grooms exchanged a series of gifts, the most important of which were the dowry payment made from the bride's father to the prospective husband and the trousseau, or women's clothes given by the groom to the prospective bride. The dowry payment substituted for a woman's share in her father's inheritance, and although it was not equal to the sum that a son received when his father died, it was nevertheless a substantial share of a family's wealth. As fewer young men and women were able to marry in the period between the late fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cost of dowries steadily rose to encourage young men to contract marriages. Yet the rising costs of dowries brought with it other attendant problems, as the other marriage gifts that couples exchanged before their wedding—particularly the trousseau—also rose in magnificence alongside the increase in dowries. In Florence and other cities it became customary for prospective husbands to spend as much as a third of the sum that they received in a woman's dowry to shower their future wives with a trousseau and other rich gifts before the marriage. It was these customs—customs over which women had little control—that tended to identify fashion and consumption as primarily a problem generated by women.

Psychology of Limited Wealth.

In modern times our own economic assumptions have come to differ radically from those of the late-medieval and early-modern world. In the modern world consumer purchasing is taken to be a sign of the health of any economy, and consumer spending is almost universally interpreted as a positive good that aids everyone's economic well-being. The purchase of clothing, luxury household goods, and other consumables is tracked in modern economies as a key indicator of economic health, since it reveals the disposable income that people possess at a given moment. In the late-medieval and early-modern world, by contrast, the total wealth of any society was believed to be scarce and limited, and was linked in the minds of political theorists and the state's officials to the supply of gold and silver coinage that existed within a country. This psychology of limited wealth gave rise to the many efforts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century kings and princes to limit imports and to foster national industries that might discourage consumption of goods made abroad. While cloth and the other raw materials required in items of dress were produced everywhere in Europe, key centers of luxury production were located in Italy and in the Low Countries (modern Holland and Belgium). The flavor of much economic regulation at the time was protectionist, encouraging products that were produced domestically while discouraging the consumption of luxury items. Since many of the luxurious silks, taffetas, and expensive trims that decorated Baroque dress came from relatively few areas throughout the Continent, the efforts to limit consumption were often motivated by attempts to prevent imports. Paradoxically, these efforts often stimulated demand, making lace, golden cloth, and other fabulously expensive items have all the allure of forbidden fruit. These contradictions were observed even at the time; the late sixteenth-century philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne pointed out that prohibitions against the wearing of velvet and gold braid did little more than "give prestige to these things and … increase everyone's desire to enjoy them.…" Then, as now, attempts to prohibit certain items of clothing produced unexpected results, often encouraging the very same perceived vices as the regulation was intended to curtail.

Increasing Importance of Economic Arguments in Sumptuary Restrictions.

If medieval Franciscans and Dominicans had labored to destroy the taste for frills and lace, Calvinists and French Jansenists took up the attack on luxury as a vice in the seventeenth century. Christian morality remained an important feature of sumptuary restrictions at the time, but economic arguments were increasingly being used to justify these regulations. The seventeenth century saw a rash of new sumptuary laws throughout Europe, except in England. By this time the market economy and the trade in cloth and other items of apparel was a significant force in the economy of almost every European region. This rising tide of commercialism, though, was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, and almost everywhere kings and princes responded with a host of regulations designed to keep demand for certain luxurious items in check. Gradually, the old Christian moral arguments used to condemn waste in clothing became less important. In Continental Europe, dress codes now functioned to reinforce social hierarchy, and regulations became minutely concerned with outlining just what items of dress were permitted to each social class. The dominant economic theory of the seventeenth century—mercantilism—pointed to the development of a notion of a "national economy," and protectionist arguments about defending a country's money supply now assumed a greater importance in defending sumptuary law than traditional Christian moral arguments condemning extravagance. The aim of most laws enacted at the time was to prevent imports, rather than to enforce a sober moral vision. By the eighteenth century the increasing penetration of the cloth industry and market economies throughout Europe, and a shift in economic arguments toward new theories that celebrated consumption, was to make the old order of controlling luxury increasingly difficult to maintain. In almost every country throughout Europe sumptuary restrictions gradually disappeared, or their enforcement was relaxed at this time, a recognition of the vital role that consumption now played in the economic household.


In England, by contrast, sumptuary law disappeared a century earlier than in other parts of Europe. The country's controls on clothing were abolished in 1604 when Parliament repealed the previous royal proclamations of Elizabeth I. During her reign the queen had frequently pronounced sumptuary proclamations that, like their French counterparts, attempted to enforce a vision of social hierarchy by limiting certain items of luxurious dress to members of the nobility or other high-ranking classes in society. The Stuart King James I who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 wished to continue to legislate his subjects' clothing in this way, too, but in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, legislation enacted through royal proclamations had grown increasingly controversial in England. The English Parliament attempted to protect its prerogatives as the legislative power within the state by arguing that all regulation should originate under its supervision. In England, sumptuary legislation thus floundered on the disputes between Crown and Parliament that became increasingly common in the first half of the seventeenth century. Numerous new attempts to regulate dress at this time ultimately failed because of the constant wrangling that occurred between king and Parliament concerning the nature of their own powers and prerogatives. As these disputes came increasingly to take on the nature of a religious crisis between Puritanism and Anglicanism, disputes bristled in the country about clothing and the excesses of contemporary dress. The Puritans, in fact, supported a sober and restrained style, in contrast to the aristocratic Cavalier party that stood behind the Crown. Puritan settlers took the traditional regulations of sumptuary law to New England, where a host of restrictions on dress appeared in the seventeenth century. Yet in England itself restrictions on clothing disappeared, not because they were unpopular in and of themselves, but because of disagreements about how they should be formulated and enacted in the English state.


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

Diane Owen Hughes, "Sumptuary Laws and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy," in Disputes and Settlements, Ed. John Bossy. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

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

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

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The Regulation of Consumption

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