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section heading icon     overview

This page considers sumptuary law, complementing more detailed discussion elsewhere on this site regarding identity, censorship and discrimination.

It covers -

subsection heading icon     introduction

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 about deportment 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.

subsection heading icon     frameworks

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 and consumers.

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 goldfish.

subsection heading icon     issues

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 -
  • requiring 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)
  • prohibiting 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 affinity.

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 hellfire.

Enlightenment economist Mandeville, reacting to 18th century miserabilism, sarcastically proposed a reverse sumptuary law in 1709 as a mockery of

the 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

His law would compel everyone to buy new clothes each month, buy new furniture every year and eat four meals a day off fine china plates.

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 and amber.

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

While 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

Negley 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.



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version of February 2008
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