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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 Passed during the Second Punic War to curb excess, it was repealed a mere two decades later, in part because it proved difficult to enforce.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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The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it “nonsense.”

For others, the appeal is enduring. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, just hosted its first “mullet festival,” a celebration of all things badly shorn. “We have so many mullets in town,” said co-organizer Sarah Bedford. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years.”

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Invicta, Sideshow Collectibles
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Pop Culture
Invicta's Star Wars Watch Collection Gives Geek Chic a High-End Makeover
Invicta, Sideshow Collectibles
Invicta, Sideshow Collectibles

Whether you identify more as a bounty hunter, stormtrooper, or droid from the Star Wars universe, now you can express yourself in style. As Nerdist reports, Invicta and Sideshow Collectibles have teamed up to produce a line of watches that reimagine characters from the sci-fi franchise as high-fashion accessories.

Boba Fett, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, and a stormtrooper are all available as stainless steel wrist watches. Each product borrows design elements from its namesake character: The Boba Fett models, for example, match the red-and-green color scheme of the bounty hunter's suit, while the faces of the Darth Vader watches mimic the antagonist's iconic mask. The back of each watch is branded with the character's name, face, and the Star Wars logo.

You can get the watches with stainless steel and silicone bands for $299 apiece or spring for the full steel band for $379. And because the Star Wars franchise is far from finished, the watches won't go out of style anytime soon.

Looking for a cheaper way to express your love for the movies? There's plenty of affordable Star Wars-branded swag to choose from.

Star Wars watch.

Star Wars watch.

Star Wars watch.

Star Wars watch.

Star Wars watch.

[h/t Nerdist]

All images courtesy of Invicta and Sideshow Collectibles.

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