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 Passed during the Second Punic War to curb excess, it was repealed a mere two decades later, in part because it proved difficult to enforce.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.