Silk, Silliness and Sumptuary Laws

Silliness and Sumptuary Laws

Greek temple at Paestum, ItalyTime: 7th century BCE. Place: an ancient city under Greek law. A fanciful tale by Joanna…

A free-born woman, drunk and reeking of wine, leaves the city accompanied by two female slaves. She is wearing a splendid gown with a purple border, and has gold jewellery in her ears and round her neck. Outside the gates, she meets a man wearing a Milesian-style cloak with a gold-studded ring on his finger.

What do you think might be going on in this silly tale of mine?

The answer was inspired by this first written record of sumptuary laws which made me gasp and then chuckle when I first read it.

gavel balance judgement integrityA free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewellery or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.

In the light of the laws above, you have probably worked out what the man and woman are up to. But I’ve got them sticking to all the laws in the book while they’re at it 😉

Clearly, in those days, any wife would know what her man was planning when he went out wearing his Milesian cloak. Or even just his gold-studded ring.crime scene tape

Seems a hoot to me—I especially enjoyed “only one accompanying slave unless drunk”—but it might not have been so funny for those who got caught. There were almost certainly very nasty penalties for breaking the law.


Colorful threads of Thai silkA few weeks ago, I wrote about the glories of silk in rather more recent times. But in lots of places, and at various times, there were severe restrictions on who could wear silk.

Part of the reason was its cost. Also importation all the way from China.

At the height of the Roman Empire, for example, so much bullion was spent to buy silk that the Empire’s silver reserves were being depleted. And the Empire needed its silver to pay all those legions. Earlier, in the time of the Roman Republic, the censors published the names of those guilty of living luxuriously. Then, in the early years of the Empire, men could not wear silk at all. It’s not clear whether the prohibition applied to women, though.

Targets of Sumptuary Laws — Courtesans

Phryne revealed before the Areopagus by Jean Leon Gerome 1861

Jean Leon Gérome’s 1861 picture of hetaira Phryne’s trial for profanity. The display of her naked beauty resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

The Greek law quoted above is pretty even-handed, targeting all free-born men and women. Except courtesans.

Why do prostitutes get an exemption? Greek courtesans—hetairai like Phryne (right)—could become rich. And, if you’re successful in the sex business, you might well have fine robes and gold jewellery. Perhaps the best way of keeping your possessions safe is to wear them? And maybe your powerful protectors conspired to ensure that the law said you could?

Veronica Franco, Venetian poet and courtesan

Veronica Franco, Venetian poet and courtesan. School of Tintoretto c. 1575

In the early Middle Ages, it was not unusual for courtesans to have to wear prescribed clothing such as a striped hood or cloak.

But by the 15th century, in Venice, which was the European capital for courtesans, there was no compulsory clothing.

Places like Paris and Venice increasingly recognised that finery was part of the courtesan’s stock-in-trade. As a result, different rules applied to them than applied to other non-noble women.

You can see how splendid their dress was from this painting of the celebrated Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco (1546-1591).

Targets of Sumptuary Laws — the Lower Classes

Lower-class men could not wear what they liked, even if they were wealthy enough to afford luxurious garb. During the reign of Edward III in England (1327-1377), we have this Sumptuary Law:

No knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having pikes or points exceeding the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence; and every shoemaker who shall make pikes for shoes or boots beyond the length stated in this statute shall forfeit for every offence the sum of forty pence.

And these are the sort of upper-class shoes we’re talking about. The date of this example is uncertain, according to the V&A, which says 1370-1500. Toes stuffed with moss or wool helped to keep the shape. So who thought winkle-pickers were a new idea?

Leather shoes 1370-1500 © V&A museum, London

Leather shoe fragments, 1370-1500, © Victoria and  Albert Museum, London

During Henry IV’s reign (1399-1413), we have a decree that

15th century houppelande

15th century houppelande (also worn by women)

[no man of low estate shall wear] large hanging sleeves open or closed, nor his gown so long as to touch the ground…[and]…no yeoman shall wear any other furs than those of foxes, of conies and of otters

Lower-class women had similar restrictions placed on them. For example, this (from 1481, under King Edward IV):

…none shall wear an Ermine or Lettice* bonnet unless she be a gentlewoman born, having Arms
[*Lettice, also Letise, is a kind of fur resembling ermine]

King Edward IV’s statutes of 1463 and 1483 were wide-ranging, but the former was more of a protectionist measure to regulate the textile trade. These acts restricted the wearing of royal purple. They decreed that no one under the rank of knight could wear figured satin (brocade), cloth of gold, or ermine. BUT, if you were a member of the gentry, you could wear damask or plain satin provided your income was more than £40 a year.

There could also be royal dispensations by Letters Patent such as this example from 1463:

…the mayors and bailiffs of Colchester and Lynne…and the aldermen of the same, and their wives…may use and wear array as is before limited to Squires and gentlemen…having possession of the yearly value of £40.

But without an exemption, you could be in trouble. Fashion police would actually patrol the streets to check men and women were wearing the appropriate clothing.

The End of Sumptuary Laws

In the late Medieval period, the bourgeoisie was becoming richer and richer. That presented a challenge to the nobility whose members might be less wealthy but wanted to maintain their position in the hierarchy. Sumptuary laws were an attempt to stop conspicuous consumption by the rich upstarts. But, increasingly, people disregarded those laws.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)Some monarchs, especially the Tudors, did try to ensure the laws were enforced. Elizabeth I promulgated a statute of 1574 against “excess of apparel and superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares” potentially leading to “the manifest decay of the whole realm”.

That shows, of course, that part of the concern was money flowing overseas. It wasn’t just about people wearing clothing inappropriate to their station. Elizabeth herself certainly spent vastly on her own apparel as you can see in the famous Armada portrait.

The sumptuary laws were repealed in the early 17th century. In some cases, though, protectionist laws replaced them, forbidding the import of expensive fabrics for everyone. At least those laws didn’t discriminate against the lower classes.

Or in favour of courtesans.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, proud but non-noble wearer of silk

17 thoughts on “Silk, Silliness and Sumptuary Laws

  1. lesley2cats

    Fascinating. I didn’t know most of that I didn’t even know they were called Sumptuary Laws. My education is sadly lacking!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I find it fascinating, too, Lesley. Can’t remember when I found out about Sumptuary Laws. Not all that long ago, I don’t think, so you’re not alone 😉

      1. Josa Keyes

        In an unpublished fantasy novel for children I introduced new detailed sumptuary laws to identify certain out of place l people… should have another crack at it really.

  2. Sophie

    Amazing stuff.

    I sort of see why you might want to stop imports depleting your national coffers. But can’t for the life of me see the point of restricting fashion by class – unless it was anti-fraud, I suppose.

    After all, once you were out of your home area, the only thing that would give someone a clue about who and what you were was your clothes and your own word. Still true to some extent?

    1. Joanna Post author

      No, I don’t think it was anti-fraud, Sophie. A lot of it was about keeping the lower classes in their place. Remember “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate”? And that was written in the 19th century not the Middle Ages.

      A rich middle-class merchant who could dress as well as a member of the ruling classes might get ideas above his station. What’s more, he might encourage others to think themselves the equal of the ruling classes, too. That couldn’t be permitted.

      I’m sure some of it was economic, though. That quotation from Elizabeth I worries particularly about young men vying with each other in extravagant dress and wasting their substance and their estates in the process. The fact that they were buying foreign imports made it even worse.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, there were. I found some of them in one of my costume books while I was researching this but I didn’t include them because they weren’t exactly “sumptuary laws”. If I have time, later, I’ll look them out and put something in the comments.

      1. Joanna Post author

        You sent me down a rabbit-hole, Lesley. Alan Mansfield’s Ceremonial Costume focuses on the period from the reign of Charles II. But I do have some info about earlier rules, especially in relation to mourning wear. For example, this from 1493 (complete with spelling of the time):

        A Duchess to wear a plaine hood without clokes [shoulder capes?] and tippettes [liripipes] at the hoode, in length to the grounde and in bredth a nayle and half an Inche. Lords daughters and Knightes wifes to wear there hoodes with cloakes; and tippettes in bredth three quarters of a nayle, and in length a yarde Demy, to be pynned upon their Arme.
        The Queenes gentlewomen to weare hoddes with clokes, the tippettes a yarde longe and a ynch brode, to by pynned on the sides of there hoodes. All Chamberers shall weare hoodes with clokes and noe manner of tippets. Great estates wearing mantelles, when they ride, to have short clokes and hoodes, with narrowe tippetts, to be bounde about there heades; and as soon as they come to court they [are] to lay away there hoodes; and that after the first month none to weare hoodes in there betters presence, but when they labour.

        The mourning rules in later centuries make more sense to us, like this from 1817, for the death of Princess Charlotte:

        Ladies to wear black bombazine, plain muslin or long lawn crape hoods, shamoy shoes and gloves and crape fans

        Court dress didn’t always move with the times. For example, hoops were required until George IV’s accession in 1820 but they looked totally ridiculous when married with the high waisted styles of the Regency period.
        regency court dress with hoops

        1. Joanna Post author

          I can’t resist adding an anecdote about ostrich feathers. In the illustration above (from La Belle Assemblée of 1817) the lady is wearing 5 ostrich feathers; feathers remained a requirement into the 20th century. It had been the custom for the monarch to kiss the cheek of ladies who were presented. According to Mansfield, William IV stopped that because the feathers kept getting in his mouth. He was a practical old guy, Clarence/William, wasn’t he?

          1. Joanna Post author

            And another anecdote. Details matter for court dress. I know of one military gent who was mightily embarrassed when it was pointed out that he was wearing the wrong uniform ribbon for his OBE. The ribbon for the civil division is rose pink with pearl grey edges; for the military division, there’s an additional pearl grey stripe down the middle. And the gent’s military tailors had put on the wrong one. Red faces all round (plus a quick replacement with no charge, I imagine).

  3. Anne

    I am sure there is still a rule in place regarding choir boys not being able to wear the exact red that Royal Choristers wear

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think you’re right, Anne. There’s often a problem with Royal red. For example, at a coronation, certain nobles are expected to be attended by pages wearing the same livery style as the monarch’s pages of honour but in the individual noble’s colours. If however that noble’s colours happen to include scarlet, their pages are not allowed to wear scarlet but have to wear some other reddish shade such as “murrey or claret”. See Pages of Honour

  4. lesley2cats

    I really did send you down a rabbit hole, didn’t I, Joanna! But it’s completely fascinating, snd now I want to know what a “nayle” is. Thank you for going to so much trouble, and I enjoyed the story of the military gent and the Wrong Ribbon.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Ah yes, a nayle. I wondered about that too and so I looked it up. It’s a medieval measure of length for cloth, equal to 2.25 inches. It was also, I discovered, a medieval measure of weight, for wool, beef, or other commodities and was about 7-8 pounds. Odd that they should be so different. In our case, it’s the measure of length, obviously. So the duchess’s tippets would have been 2.75 inches wide and long enough to reach the ground. I find those rules incredibly specific, don’t you? But I do wonder if the duchesses (and others mentioned) actually did as they were told?

  5. Elizabeth Bailey

    I had to go and look up Sumptuary, and delighted to find that’s where sumptuous comes from. The whole thing, including Lesley’s rabbit hole, is fascinating. Somewhat arbitrary too. And people think their civil rights are being violated because they have to wear a mask!
    I guess this must also have something to do with the cost of clothing. We know that clothing was handed down in wills, for example, and presumably that was so in the Middle Ages. I don’t suppose people had a great many sets of clothes. Except Queen Elizabeth, of course, but even then we only really know what she wore in her portraits. Everyday wear might have been the same day in day out for most people, regardless of rank.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m sure you’re right about everyday wear for most people, Liz. But, like you, I found the research fascinating. And yes, I spent far too much time doing it when I should have been getting on with the wip. Nothing new there, eh?

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