Sumptuary Laws

views updated May 29 2018


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."


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.


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 .


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

Sumptuary Laws

views updated May 21 2018


Sumptuary laws can be dated to at least the fourth century b.c.e., and while they have largely disappeared in name, they have by no means disappeared in fact. By definition, they are intended to control behavior, specifically the excessive consumption of anything from foodstuffs to household goods. By convention, they have come to be largely associated with the regulation of apparel, their most frequent target. Typically, those issued by executive or legislative entities—and that are thus laws in the legal sense—have lasted no more than a few decades before being repealed or annulled. Infinitely more enduring have been extra-legal pronouncements that codify social or religious precepts, such as the injunction against garments woven of wool and linen proclaimed in Leviticus 19:19 and still obeyed by Orthodox Jews. (The longevity of restrictions on women's dress issued by modern theocracies remains to be seen, now that these have passed from custom into law.)


Sumptuary regulation is of two general types: prescriptive and proscriptive. The first defines what people must purchase, wear, or use, the second what they may not. Although both approaches limit choice, proscriptive laws can be seen as less onerous in so far as individual freedom is concerned since they imply acceptance of anything not expressly forbidden.

Goals and Outcomes

Personal liberty is never a factor in such legislation; however, actual statutes are written to address any of a number of sociocultural objectives deemed important by the issuing authority. Rulings in effect between 1337 and 1604 in medieval and renaissance England, for example, reflect multiple (and by no means mutually exclusive) goals: resisting new fashions, protecting public morals, preserving the public peace, maintaining social distinctions, and—extremely important to this commercial nation—defending the domestic economy and promoting home industries. Across the Channel, particularly in Protestant countries, sumptuary laws were more likely to assume the deity to be as offended by sartorial choices as was the government. Here, one might compare an English statute of 1483, which banned without explanation the stylishly short gowns that failed to mask "privy Members and Buttocks" (Statues of the Realm, p. 22) with a Bavarian injunction that prohibited uncovered codpieces because these were offensive to God. After the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648, however, the sumptuary laws of the German states began to resemble those of England in their emphasis on economic issues.

One of the intended outcomes of much sumptuary law is that of separation, the division of people into explicit categories. Modern examples tend to differentiate by religion, whether by choice (the Amish cap) or by coercion (the yellow star). In earlier times, a populace was more likely to be divided by class than by creed; and in hierarchical societies in which ritualized honors were due those of superior rank, status had to be readily recognizable if people were neither to insult their betters (by failing to offer the proper marks of respect) nor embarrass themselves (by extending undeserved courtesies to those beneath them).


The desire for upward mobility may be both innate and unquenchable; however, much of sumptuary legislation is concerned with defining the degrees of rank and wealth that govern the wearing of metals, textiles, colors, decorative techniques, furs, and jewels. Limitations on gold, silks, purples, lace, embroidery, sable, and precious stones are, thus, recurring elements, as are injunctions against certain fashions (including short robes, long-toed shoes or poulaines, and great hose) considered unacceptable for moral, patriotic, or economic reasons. Improving economies raised not only the earnings but also the aspirations of, especially, the merchant classes, however, and England was not unusual in its continuing reformulation of vestimentary prohibitions relative to disposable income. While the threshold most commonly cited in English law is £40, in 1337 Edward III limited the wearing of furs to those with a disposable income of at least £100, and in 1554 Queen Mary lowered the minimum for silk to £20 (although she also insisted on a net worth of £200, an amount reiterated in a Massachusetts law of 1651).


Most sumptuary legislation provides penalties for lawbreakers that could include confiscation of the offending garment, fines (up to £200 in England), tax auditing, the pillory, or even jail. That legislators were themselves subject to (and breakers of) these statutes may help to explain both their lax enforcement and their frequent repeal. In England, at least, lack of compliance was so general that in 1406 Henry IV vainly requested that violators be excommunicated. In 1670, women who used dress and cosmetics to "betray into matrimony any of his majesty's subjects" ( Web site) were to be punished as witches.


As might be expected, the attention paid to women in sumptuary law varies with time and country, and does so in ways that reflect their place in society. Generally speaking, early modern sumptuary legislation treats women in one of four ways: it exempts them specifically or ignores them completely (implying that women were of no consequence); or, conversely, it subjects them either to the same requirements as men or to parallel requirements (implying that women were not to be disregarded). There are of course exceptions. A few statutes imply fear of gender confusion. In the third century c.e., for example, the emperor Aurelian barred men from wearing shoes of yellow, green, white, or red since these colors were reserved for women. Others were aimed at keeping women in the home, as did an edict enacted in Rome in the second century b.c.e., that forbade their riding in a carriage in or near populated areas. More (both written and unwritten) were intended to keep them modest—Hebrews, Romans, early Christians, and early Americans alike mandated simplicity in feminine hairstyles, clothing, and accessories. Perhaps not surprisingly, prostitutes received special attention, as did courtesans, who, finding their consorts among the nobility, rather naturally rivaled well-born women in their dress. From at least the thirteenth century onward, European prostitutes were commonly enjoined to wear some form of distinctive clothing, whether striped hoods, striped stockings, colored patches, or bells (interestingly, such markers were prescribed for other social outcasts, among them lepers and Jews).


Collectively, sumptuary laws reflect a need for permanence that is shared by governments, religions, and smaller societal groups alike. That so many have been written and so few endure speaks to the fundamental dissonance between the institutional need for stability and the personal desire for independence.

See alsoColonialism and Imperialism; Europe and America: History of Dress (400–1900 c.e.)


Baldwin, Frances Elizabeth. Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England. Vol. 44: Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1926.

Benhamou, Reed. "The Restraint of Excessive Apparel: England 1337–1604." Dress 15 (1989), 27–37.

Great Britain. Statutes of the Realm. London: 1890. Reprint, London: Dawson, 1963.

Vincent, John Martin. Costume and Conduct in the Laws of Basel, Bern, and Zurich 1370–1800. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Original edition published in 1935.

Internet Resource "Platform Shoes of the 1600s." Available from <>.

Reed Benhamou

Sumptuary Laws

views updated May 21 2018


SUMPTUARY LAWS , enactments issued by communities against luxury and ostentation; frequently combined with a distinctly class aim – that each should dress according to his standing in the community – allied to the wish to help people withstand the temptation of conspicuous consumption beyond their means. The sumptuary laws were also designed to put an end to anti-Jewish agitations stemming from accusations of ostentatious living. *Takkanot of a sumptuary nature referred either to dress and jewelry or to the size of banquets held at weddings and circumcision ceremonies and the number of guests permitted to attend them: e.g., the Rhenish *synods of 1202–23 limited banquets to those who participated in the religious ceremony. A conference held in 1418 at Forlí, Italy, limited the number of guests who could be invited to a wedding to 20 men, ten women, five girls, and all the relatives up to second cousins. They also permitted the wearing of furlined jackets, in any color other than black, provided that the sleeves and the garments themselves were not fringed with silk. The Castilian synod convened at Valladolid in 1432 forbade Jews aged 15 and over to "wear any cloak of gold thread, olive-colored material, or silk, or any cloak trimmed" with these materials on occasions other than "a time of festivity or at a reception of a lord or a lady, or at balls or similar social occasions." In the 16th and 17th centuries the communities of Salonika, Mantua, and Rome issued periodic anti-luxury regulations. The Cracow community ordinances of 1595 contained paragraphs on sumptuary laws. The Lithuanian Council (see *Councils of the Lands) in 1637, referring to its previous regulations which had been wholly disregarded, empowered local rabbis to decide how many guests might be invited to festive meals. The Polish Council of Four Lands in 1607 enjoined Jews from wearing gentile apparel "in order that the Jews be distinguished by their dress." In 1659 the number of invited guests at a circumcision was scaled according to the host's means: "a person who pays two zlotys in taxes may invite 15 persons, four zlotys 20 persons, six zlotys 25 persons, including the rabbi, the preacher, the cantor, and the beadle." In Moravia the cost of wedding clothes was determined by the amount of the dowry. In Carpentras, the papal possession in southeastern France, sumptuary regulations were adopted in three stages (1712–40). In many places these statutes were honored more in the breach than in the observance.


Baron, Community, 2 (1942), 301–7; Halpern, Pinkas, 17, 91, 460; J.R. Marcus, Jew in Medieval World (1960), 193–7.

[Isaac Levitats]

sumptuary laws

views updated May 21 2018

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

Sumptuary Laws

views updated May 17 2018


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.