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6 Times Sumptuary Laws Told People What To Wear

It’s no coincidence that the word sumptuary sounds like sumptuous and consumption. Those words sum up the intent of most sumptuary laws: regulating what people could consume, for instance, by limiting the number of dishes at a feast. Often sumptuary laws focused on what people could and could not wear—limiting the use of fine fabrics, adornments, or even the kinds of necklines that could be worn, with a particular focus on extravagance.

Whatever their stated intent, these laws made it easier to identify which individuals had power in a society and thus helped to maintain the social order. They often prohibited poorer people from wearing finery that might confuse an observer about their station in life, and also forbade women from dressing like men (and thus perhaps enjoying their freedoms).

1. ANCIENT ROME: NO PURPLE, NO SAFFRON, NO TOGAS.

A series of laws in ancient Rome attempted to rein in extravagance in dress and codify clothes by rank. One law dictated that only citizens could wear the toga, with the color and bands on the garment determined by rank. During the period of Roman empire, the emperor was the only person who could wear the imperial color purple (the costly dye extracted by boiling thousands of snails), while only official seers could wear purple and saffron combined (saffron being another color created using costly dye).

Roman women’s clothing was also subject to law. Around 215-213 BCE the Lex Oppia dictated that, among other things, no woman could wear a dress of more than one color. Passed during the Second Punic War to curb excess, it was repealed a mere two decades later, in part because it proved difficult to enforce.

2. KOREA: COLORS THAT OFFER A CLUE TO ROYAL RELATIONSHIPS.

A Korean wonsam. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

In most cultures, sumptuary laws helped distinguish nobility from commoners, but in some places they also helped define royal relationships. During Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392- 1897), when kings had multiple wives and many children, the colors royal women wore helped define their relationship to the king. For example the colors of the wonsam, the ceremonial overcoat worn by royal and high-ranking married women, were strictly codified, with the empress wearing yellow, the queen wearing red, and the crown princess and concubines donning a purple-red color. A princess born to a king and a concubine (or women of a noble family or lower) wore green. These colors made it easier to determine rank from a distance.

3. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND: APPAREL PROCLAIMS SOCIAL STATUS.

Recognizing who to bow down to was also at least partially the rationale behind sumptuary laws in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I decreed that only people above certain noble ranks could wear such luxurious textiles as silk, satin, and velvet. The queen’s law also regulated the size of neck ruffs and other fashionable fripperies. Such decrees were passed, the queen declared, to keep young men from falling into debt after buying luxurious clothing, but a growing middle class who could afford to dress like (and confuse) their betters may also have inspired the decrees.

4. PURITANS: NO FANCY CLOTHES FOR PEOPLE OF “MEAN CONDITION.”

Sumptuary laws surfaced briefly in colonial America, with some settlers wanting to legislate personal luxuries. The Puritans’ Sumptuary Code declared an “utter detestation and dislike that men or women of mean condition, educations and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by the wearing of gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, to walk in great boots; or women of the same rank to wear tiffany hoods or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates; or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable in persons of such like condition.” Fancy clothing was considered improper when worn by persons of “mean condition, educations and callings.” For the Puritans, it was important to both know your place and dress like it.

5. THE MIDDLE AGES: WEARING YOUR FAITH ON YOUR SLEEVE.

Medieval Jews

Throughout history, laws have been enacted to mark people who did not adhere to the majority religion. Such regulations have affected Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims alike. Although not necessarily designed to restrain excess, they meet a broader definition of sumptuary laws that includes restrictions designed to enforce the social order.

In 8th century Baghdad, laws stated that Christians had to wear blue and Jews had to wear yellow. In 1005, Jews living in Egypt were told to wear bells on their clothes. During the Middle Ages, communities of Jews living in Europe often proactively wore drab clothing because they did not want to appear ostentatious or incite jealousy among their Christian neighbors. Jewish leaders issued sumptuary guidelines that included avoiding clothing that might cause them to stand out. However, a series of medieval laws also required that Jews and Muslims wear their faith—sometimes literally—on their sleeves.

The Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215, decreed that Jews and Muslims must wear clothing that set them apart. This decree resulted in a variety of laws in France, Italy, Spain, and England requiring visible identification such as a badge, a hat, or a band. For Jews it was usually a badge, most often yellow, but also white or red.

In 1275, after England’s Edward I issued the Statute of the Jewry [PDF], Jews had to wear a yellow badge in “the form of two Tables joined” to symbolize the Tables of the Law.

Some of the discriminatory fashion dictates could be quite specific. In 1397 Queen Maria ordered Barcelona’s Jews to wear only pale green clothes with a circular patch of yellow cloth that had a red circle in the center.

6. THE RENAISSANCE: FASHION DEFINES RESPECTABILITY.

Henins of the 15th century. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the Renaissance, European sumptuary laws regulated many aspects of a woman’s dress—from the cut of her sleeve to size of her buttons, as well as the body parts she had to cover. According to a law passed in the Italian city of Orvieto, a woman’s décolletage could not descend past a certain point—“two fingers’ breadth below the suprasternal notch on the chest and the same in the back.” There was naturally some controversy about the best way to measure this.

Women were generally admonished to dress modestly and cover their hair, whether it be with a caul, a henin, or a wimple. Yet the time period’s fashionable elaborate headgear—sometimes a few feet tall—was designed to attract attention.

Prostitutes were not subject to sumptuary laws in the same way that governed extravagant clothing, as their profession relied on their ability to lure clients, but they were often assigned colors, specific items of clothing, and adornments as a way to distinguish themselves from other women. Such rules could differ from city to city, which may have created some confusion for travelers. In Venice in the 1300s, prostitutes had to wear yellow. In Milan, they wore a black cloak, and in Florence, they were required to attach bells to their hats.

Prostitutes also generally had to abstain from one fashionable item. In 12th century Arles (modern France) prostitutes were not allowed to wear a veil, the sign of a respectable woman. In some cities, tearing off a woman’s veil was tantamount to accusing her of being a prostitute. Doing so could result in a serious fine and possibly a duel to defend the woman’s honor.

All images via Getty unless otherwise noted.

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Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC
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Pop Culture
Royal Shakespeare Company Auctions Off Costumes Worn By Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, and More
Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC
Helen Maybanks, (c) RSC

The stages of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England have been graced by some of the most celebrated performers of our day. Now, the legendary theater company is giving fans a chance to own the original costumes that helped bring their characters to life. On April 17, more than 50 costumes worn in RSC productions will hit eBay to raise money for the group's Stitch in Time campaign.

With this new campaign, the RSC aims to raise enough money to renovate the aging workshop where costume designers create all the handmade garments used in their shows. Following a play's run, the costumes are either rented out to other theaters or kept safe in the company's museum collections. Designers often make duplicates of the items, which means that the RSC is able to auction off some of their most valuable pieces to the public.

The eBay costume auction includes clothing worn by some of the most prolific actors to work with the company. Bidders will find Patrick Stewart's beige shorts from the 2006 production of Antony and Cleopatra, David Tennant's white tunic from 2013's Richard II, Ian McKellen's red, floor-length coat from 2007's King Lear, and Judi Dench's black doublet from 2016's Shakespeare Live! Costumes worn by Anita Dobson, Susannah York, and Simon Russell Beale will also be featured.

All proceeds from the auction go to restoring the RSC's costume workshop. Shakespeare fans have until April 27 to place their bids.

Patrick Stewart in Antony and Cleopatra.
Pascal Molliere, (c) RSC

Actors in stage play.
Manuel Harlan, (c) RSC

Actor in stage play.
Kwame Lestrade, (c) RSC
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PRNewsfoto/PolyU
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technology
This 3D Human Modeling App Could Revolutionize Online Clothes Shopping
PRNewsfoto/PolyU
PRNewsfoto/PolyU

A team of academics in Hong Kong have developed a 3D human modeling app that could drastically change the way we shop online. Dubbed 1Measure, this “one-click measure” tool allows users to record their body measurements in a matter of seconds by uploading two full-body photos.

After snapping images with both a front view and side view, the app uses artificial intelligence to create a 3D digital model of the user's body in under 10 seconds. Next to this image, over 50 size measurements are displayed, including everything from knee girth to shoulder slope. This information can be saved and accessed at a later date, and the app also lists your size in other countries, allowing you to shop for clothes around the world with ease.

This revolutionary technology was developed by associate professor Tracy P.Y. Mok and PhD graduate Dr. Zhu Shuaiyin of the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).

Other current technologies are capable of carrying out similar modeling functions, but the PolyU team says these methods involve costly, bulky scanners, and their results are only approximate. The 1Measure app’s margin of error is 1 centimeter for users photographed in tight-fitting clothes, and 2 centimeters for those in loose-fitting clothes, according to its developers.

The app is particularly useful when it comes to online shopping. Dr. Zhu says the technology “frees us from the limitations imposed by taking body measurements physically, helping customers to select the right size in online clothing purchases.”

The app can also store multiple measurements at once and track any changes that the body undergoes, making it suitable for those with fitness goals.

1Measure is free to download and is currently available on the App Store in both English and Chinese.

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