Silliness and Sumptuary Laws
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.
A 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 😉
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.
A 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
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?
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?
During Henry IV’s reign (1399-1413), we have a decree that
[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.
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.