This page considers sumptuary law, complementing more detailed
discussion elsewhere on this site regarding identity, censorship
It covers -
The history of Western and other societies has featured a succession
of sumptuary statutes, codes and edicts - rules concerned with
consumption by elites, by ordinary people and by people who
were stigmatised (eg prostitutes and Jews).
Those rules have encompassed a wide range of consumption, including
ownership of hunting dogs, ownership of gemstones and pearls,
behaviour at weddings or funerals, the decoration of carriages
and gondolas, the number of courses at a meal. However, they
have often centred on an individual's clothing, for example
restricting particular textiles and patterns to an elite or
requiring 'strangers' to signal their identity by wearing a
yellow star, a special hat or other attribute. In essence they
render social status legible.
They have been promoted as fostering virtue, encouraging saving,
inhibiting impersonation and reinforcing self-policing by communities
during times of economic volatility or political instability.
They have been ignored, contested or subverted.
Sumptuary law is no longer a major feature of life in the UK,
Australia, Canada and other liberal democratic states. It is
regarded by many as archaic, even as an amusing - if not bizarre
- curiosity, or as an attribute of a totalitarian state (eg
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Atwood's The
Handmaid's Tale). However, it is evident in contemporary
theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia, with breaches on occasion
being severely punished.
Its survival offers a perspective on Australian expectations
in public places (eg arrests for wearing offensive tshirts)
and debate about security (eg disagreement about prohibitions
on wearing the burqa, motorcycle helmets and balaclavas in banks).
It also offers a perspective on historic
and contemporary challenges in managing signifiers of identity,
whether those signifiers were fur hats, gold chains and embroidered
silk coats or clipboards, briefcases and BMWs.
Sumptuary law had a national, regional or urban basis.
It typically affected people living in towns and cities more
than those who dwelt on farms or even in villages. It is evident
in Pharaonic Egypt and Imperial Rome, in Han China and Ming
China, in Mediaeval England and in early Renaissance Venice.
It might take the form of a royal edict, quickly promulgated
in circumstances approximating to a moral panic, and thereafter
be indifferently enforced. It might instead be systematised
through citation in later law and enforced by officials using
powers regarding summary offences.
That enforcement is of interest because recent research has
tended to rescue sumptuary law from the condescension of posterity,
arguing that mediaeval and early modern states - notably some
of the Italian and German city states - did indeed enforce particular
rules on an ongoing basis rather than plaintively issuing ridiculous
fashion statements that were consistently ignored by both officials
As the preceding paragraphs indicate, sumptuary law in the pre-industrial
East and West was concerned with the social manifestations of
consumption. That consumption might be quite public, through
an individual or class's appearance in streets and other public
places. It might instead be quasi-public, with some laws aiming
to restrict what took place in the home, for example what meals
were served to guests and by servants.
The blurred demarcation of 'private' and 'public' space illustrates
contemporary liberal democratic assumptions about personal life
and privacy. It also illustrates both the ambitions and the
capacity of the pre-industrial state, with guardians of morality
in a position to come through the door or hear reports from
an offender's servants and associates, on occasion a denunciation.
Conceptualisation of sumptuary law varies considerably. That
is unsurprising given the diversity of signifiers that people
have sought to regulate and the differing preconceptions of
observers, some of whom might be writing breathless prose for
Vogue and others might be fresh from a seminar by Barthes,
Derrida or Malinowski.
Consumption might involve clothing and other adornment, including
clothing which the wearer if uncoerced would chose not
to wear (ie not all sumptuary law involves restriction of extravagance
or what Thorsten Veblen
dubbed 'conspicuous consumption').
It might involve other social manifestations, with rules in
Europe and early North America thus encompassing modes of travel,
the decoration of vehicles and accommodation, expressions of
grief at funerals and patterns of gift-giving. Bologna in 1276
thus prohibited women from howling or rending their clothes
at funerals. A century later the rulers of Aquila restricted
grieving male relatives to remain unshaven for ten days. Their
peers in Perugia were recurrently forbidden to give lavish gifts
to babies. Contemporaries in China were discouraged from ostentatious
ceremonies to mark rites of passage such as weddings and funerals.
Peasants north of the Alps were prohibited from riding to church
on a cart or a horse, with a sociologist commenting that they
"should know their place and be reminded of it". Venice
placed restrictions on the decoration of gondolas; German, Burgundian
and French rulers sought to crimp 'excess' in the decoration
of carriages and barges or the adornment of horses (whether
for pleasure or in funeral processions). Sung China placed restrictions
on bells and elaborate dinners. Tokugawa Japan prohibited gold
and silver leaf appliqué on courtesans' clothing, houses
decorated with gold leaf, and gold lacquer riding saddles.
States have on occasion sought to restrict ownership of companion
animals, from high-status functional beasts such as hawks and
mastiffs through to decorative creatures such as lapdogs and
Sumptuary law is thus not restricted to a semiotics of
clothing (including garment shapes, patterns and material) and
adornment such as rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
It may take positive or negative forms, ie -
particular classes to indicate their status by wearing clothing
or using other signifiers that signalled status (eg forcing
Hester Prynne to wear the telltale scarlet letter, obliging
female prostitutes in some mediaeval Italian cities to wear
'wanton' gowns to demonstrate their lack of virtue in contrast
with the austere dress of respectable women)
people from adopting the accoutrements of a privileged class
(eg restricting peasants from wearing elite furs such as
ermine, restricting anyone except the royal family from
wearing cloth-of-gold garments, restricting lower class
women from wearing pearls in their hair or wearing trains,
restricting lesser nobles in Japan from decorating their
kimonos with the symbols of royalty).
Why regulate ownership and display? Was that regulation effective?
Proponents of sumptuary law and later analysts have typically
offered several rationales.
The first has been to reinforce class distinctions, reminding
members of a community that there were demarcations on the
basis of lineage, wealth, power, gender and ethnic/religious
A corollary of that reinforcement has been the expectation
that regulation would prevent people from pretending to be
of another class. That restriction would, it was thought,
allow both experts and ordinary people to quickly determine
an individual's rank and authority.
Another rationale was more overtly moral, reflecting perceptions
that 'luxury' or 'excess' was either sinful or was politically
deleterious, symptomatic for example of a weakness or corruption
that would lead the gentry to fail obligations of good governance
in pre-1400 China or lure Savonarola's audience to eternal
Enlightenment economist Mandeville, reacting to 18th century
miserabilism, sarcastically proposed a reverse sumptuary law
in 1709 as a mockery of
pernicious tenets of the Catos, the Senecas, and other moralmongers
that extolled content and frugality, and preach’d
against gluttony, drunkenness and the rest of the supporters
of the commonwealth
law would compel everyone to buy new clothes each month, buy
new furniture every year and eat four meals a day off fine
A further rationale was mercantilist or revenue-based, with
governments seeking to decrease consumer spending on 'fripperies'
(with more money thus available for the tax gatherer) or to
promote production of domestic commodities by restricting
spending on expensive imported material such as fur, silk
Responses to sumptuary law varied. Some people directly breached
the code, successfully or otherwise. Others respected the
letter but not the spirit.
The notion of clothing as a reliable identifier of authority
could of course be subverted, in much the same way that contemporary
Australians are sometimes overly credulous regarding what
is claimed to be legitimate photo identity documents, academic
qualifications and biometric cards. If clothes maketh the
high status man, some identity offenders in the past simply
borrowed, bought or stole the symbols of status and gulled
strangers into handing over the loot or otherwise aiding the
criminal. Sumptuary law worked best in closed communities
- eg at a royal court or in an urban setting where everyone
knew everyone - or as a symptom of elite anxieties about social
rather than spatial mobility.
Hunt's Governance of the consuming passions: a history
of sumptuary law (New York: St Martins 1996) notes that
sumptuary laws were concerned to secure a stable connection
between appearance and entitlement, the social conditions
in which it did so were every day making the achievement
of its goals ever more unrealizable. The history of women's
veils attests to the instability of external appearance.
On the one hand, the veil exhibits piety and modesty, but,
on the other hand, it signifies allure by facilitating concealment
of identity. In Italy there were tensions between clerical
and secular sumptuary activity over the wearing of veils.
While the Church favoured head covering as symbolizing religious
piety and sexual modesty, the secular authorities were concerned
that veils could also encourage conspicuous consumption.
In addition, veils allowed women a problematic anonymity.
In Sienna officials were empowered to demand of a veiled
women the name of her father or husband
Harte notes that "silk did not slip into the minds of
Europeans as easily as it did on their bodies". States
exhibited confusion about whether prostitutes should simulate
virtue through sober dress or be singled out as wicked through
colourful and expensive fabrics.
Some social critics derided sumptuary law as insufficient,
with women of the lower orders adopting the style of their
betters although unable to afford the same costly fabrics
and forbidden features - marcasite rather than diamonds, 'mutton
dressed up as ermine'.
Others suggested that law was excessive, unduly crimping possessive
individualism, or irrelevant.
Silesian and Irish peasants might thus want to wear gold chains
and silk coats with ermine linings but would never be able
to afford to do so and prohibitions were accordingly not needed.