Saturday, October 13, 2018

Transient nature of Sumptuary Law

Sumptuary Law describes the autocratic control of clothes and customs which has been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Today in the West, attempts to ban the hijab, the niqab and the burka or hoody jackets is viewed as a gross infringement of personal liberties, whereas in the past it was all part of keeping the ruling class separate from those being ruled.

Sumptuary laws were passed in England and Europe from about the middle of the 1300s to the middle of the 1600s. They were devised to control behavior from wearing of certain apparel to the consumption of particular foods, beverages (usually alcoholic nature) and other miscellaneous products. Sumptuary laws also related to gaming and hunting. The laws often prescribed what prices could be charged for various consumables, from clothing to food. Clothing styles and fashion remained unchanged for long periods of time due to sumptuary legislation. However as trade and commerce increased and towns became more centres of wealth, the feudal lords found competition in the wealthy middle class and as a consequence were forced to set a new standard of differentiation. As middle class merchants became princes in wealth they soon began to outstrip true nobility in luxury. Extravagance became so universal that the church and crown thought it necessary to put a check on the ostentatious display of the newly rich. While these laws were aimed primarily at extravagant expenditure on dress they were not limited to it.

From the 8th century many Christians and Muslim cities and countries forced their Jewish population to wear badges to identify themselves. In the 20th century after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to wear a badge in the form of a Yellow Star as a means of identification, and humiliation. The badges were usually printed on coarse cloth of garish yellow. The star, which represented the star of David, was outlined in thick, black lines and the word 'Jew' was printed in mock-Hebraic type. In the Warsaw ghetto, Jews wore a white armband with a blue Star of David on their left arm. In some ghettos, even babies in prams had to wear the arm bands or stars. Jewish shops were also marked with a Yellow Star. The star was intended to humiliate Jews and to mark them out for segregation and discrimination. The end of the Second World War (1945) saw the end of forced wearing of the Yellow Star.

“History has proved that all sumptuary laws have after a brief time, been abolished, evaded or ignored. Vanity will always invent more ways of distinguishing itself than the laws are able to forbid."

Giraudias E. (1910) Etude historiquesur les lois somptuaries (Poitiers) Reviewed 14/10/2018

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Sumptuary Law: The jury is still out.

It is not entirely clear what combination of events led to the making of sumptuary laws. Private extravagance, moral degeneration and political decline were certainly key factors but not always the only variables involved. During the time of plague, Hughes (1983) documents the absence of new sumptuary laws. However, the church's condemnation of the poulaine, or long toed shoe was cited as the reason for God's wrath in sending the plague. Medieval laws were too often merely an articulation of an ideal.

Nutter, (1992) considered there was little evidence to indicate sumptuary laws in England were aimed to codify class differences as a result of some general disparity between income and rank. Instead most were anti-inflationary, wage controls and protectionist in their intents. Prior to the eighteenth century there were laws to stop common people from dressing like affluent society. These were laws regulated personal behaviour on moral or religious grounds (Healy, 1977 p 10). Hurlock (1965) wrote sumptuary laws were used primarily to preserve class distinctions. When members of the nobility found their position of supremacy encroached upon by the lower classes that had attained wealth, they passed laws to restore the respect for the inequality of ranks which had previously existed. Clearly a division of opinion exists between historians.

Hurlock went on to say sumptuary laws were often used as a means of inducing people to save money. It was considered necessary to reduce senseless spending on luxuries such as clothing lest the event would result in the country going bankrupt. Sumptuary Laws helped to encourage domestic trade. One law which exemplifies this was a law concerning the wearing of woollen caps to be worn on Sunday and all holy days by all persons over the age of six (except those of high position). The caps had to be made in England.

‘Buy British’ is a modern example of the same type of protectionism but without legislation.

The sumptuary legislation of Tudor times was distinctly the most numerous statutes of apparel. Those passed in the latter part (Mary and Elizabeth) had economic motives and were less detailed than those of Henry VIII. They usually forbade the wearing of a solitary fabric or article of dress. Most of the laws were prohibitive in character though some did contain statements as to what certain classes of person might wear. Besides suppressing extravagance many of the statutes were intended to maintain and perpetuate distinctions in rank by preserving the ancient differences in dress. By the end of the Elizabethan period many writers were questioning the need to enact such acts since they felt high living was advantageous to the nation. This was of course provided the luxuries were manufactured at home since it encouraged domestic manufacture and commerce.

Healey T 1977 History of costume London: Macdonald Educational.
Hughes D O 1983 4: sumptuary law and social relations in Renaissance Italy In Bossy J (ed) Disputes and Settlements NY: Cambridge University Press.
Hurlock E B 1965 Sumptuary law In Roach ME Eicher JB Dress, adornment and the social order New York: John Wiley & Sons 295-301.

Reviewed 7/10/2018

Friday, October 5, 2018

Why were sumptuary laws seldom enforced ?

By the Middle Ages the Church was a powerful body that exerted considerable social control. It was ideally positioned to create and enforce sumptuary laws, yet these laws were generally ignored and went practically unenforced.

In the main the laws were aimed specifically for middle and lower classes, with the nobility and royalty exempt. Laws allowed the upper classes to indulge themselves in grave excesses. This behaviour was eagerly copied by lower tiers of society, particularly the middle classes who would wear elegant fashion, and consume fancy food. These excesses were often cited as the cause of ruin in families with meagre circumstance. Only the very poorest working class strictly followed sumptuary laws, and even they were rarely prosecuted for violating them. Due to their impoverished circumstances most, by necessity, wore rudimentary garments fashioned of the coarsest cloth, and referred to as "russet" or "blanket cloth”.

Despite this, according to Hurlock (1965) the desire for self-display was strong among the lower strata of society and the author suggests this was the origins of national costume. Instead of imitating the upper classes, gratification came from out-rivalling the beauty and elaborateness of costumes of the other members of the same social class. By this means the desire to be satisfied was met without breaking the laws of the land.

Many of the sumptuary laws went ignored although fashions such as slashing were thought to be implemented as a means to overcome the law. Fancy dress was also another clever deception as was, celebration days, where the gentry changed places with other classes.

One explanation as to why so many people ignored the laws was because despite the act of defiance incurring steep financial penalties, the nouveaux rich could well afford to pay them. Alternatively, at times of rising costs of gold and silver men did not want to have their money spent on women's luxuries and hence supported sumptuary restrictions.

Hurlock E B 1965 Sumptuary law In Roach ME Eicher JB Dress, adornment and the social order New York: John Wiley & Sons 295-301.

Reviewed 6/01/2016

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Sumptuary Laws and Shoes: A summary

From the days of antiquity, the right to wear shoes was a privilege only afforded to the free and affluent. Whilst there were several attempts to limit excesses, the dress code for footwear was simple, rich people wore them and ordinary people went without. Colour and styling, including the height of shoes, became the discernible means of class distinction and this was reflected in many cultures. The need to preserve class distinction coupled with clerical conscience would seem to have been the two main motivations for sumptuary laws governing shoes.

Whilst the fashion for long toed shoes lasted four hundred years they were not always in vogue. The restriction in length of shoes was at first to discriminate "the haves" from "the have nots", then to quell the reappearance of the worship of the phallus.

Shoe fashion did change and by all accounts pretty rapidly at the beginning of the 15 century. Rossi believed this had nothing to do with legislation but more to do with the news of a high profile assassination. Alarm was raised when the victim could not escape his attackers because he was wearing long toed shoes. Others believe it may have been due to the birth of the heir apparent to the Spanish thrown who had polydactylism (extra toes). The risks following surgical removal of the extra toe would have presented with many complications and it was much easier to change the fashion to broad toed shoes. Credible reasons perhaps but unlikely to explain the quick transition from long toed shoes to broad shoes (Bear’ Paws).

An altogether more credible explanation would be the presence of disease which would necessitate accommodating painful feet. History records a great syphilis epidemic spread throughout Europe after the return of Christopher Columbus from the New World in 1493. One of the outcomes of tertiary syphilis is Charcot feet. This is a very painful condition and feet ulcerate due to undue pressure. The presence of syphilis in the courts of Europe and sequestrate would be a more satisfactory explanation for the swift change in shoe style. Bears' Paws were fashionable with the affluent and in the spirit of zeitgeist celebrated the Cult of the Virgin Mary with reference to the female genitalia in the form of delicate slashing of the upper.

Eventually Queen Mary (1516 - 1558), keen to comply with the wishes of the Catholic Church banned broad toed shoes from England and her dominions.

The platform shoe, popular with the women from Venice and Florence were eventually legislated against because of the number of accidents reported by ladies falling over. It is thought the term ‘miscarriage’ refers to the fall from the chopines and not specifically pelvic complications.

During the Victorian era high heels became closely associated with sado-masochistic eroticism. This was promulgated in no short measure by the introduction of still photography, then cinematography. The high heeled shoe became the symbol of the Jezebel. During the last century attempts were made at times of national emergency to control heel height through rationing. Rather than reduce interest in heeled shoes this is likely to have been the reason for their continued popularity.

Despite the absence of official sumptuary law to curtail the heights of the shoe, subsequent to the introduction of the stiletto heel, free access to privately owned public spaces has become evermore restricted by dress codes. Just to keep a balance the same dress codes apply to thong wearers and barefoot persons.

Reviewed 3/10/2018

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sumptuary Laws of the Seventeenth Century

The upwardly mobile middle class became more influential during the 17th century and began to replace impoverished gentry. James I (1566-1625) fearing the mood of the people repealed many sumptuary laws.

In early Colonial America the The Puritans were concerned with the incompatibility of European fashionable clothing and the wilderness. Many sumptuary laws were introduced and it was prohibited to wear silver, gold, silk, laces, slashed sleeves, ruffs, and beavered hats. The following is a quote from Colonial Sumptuary Laws issued in Massachusetts, 1651.

"Although several declarations and orders have been made by this Court, against excess in apparel, both of men and women, which have not taken that effect as were to be desired, but on the contrary, we cannot but to our grief take notice that intolerable excess and bravery have crept in upon us, and especially among people of mean condition, to the dishonour of God, the scandal of our profession, the consumption of estates, and altogether unsuitable to our poverty. And although we acknowledge it to be a matter of much difficulty, in regard of the blindness of men's minds and the stubborness of their wills, to set down exact rules to confine all sorts of persons, yet you cannot but account it our duty to commend unto all sorts of persons the sober and moderate use of these blessings which, beyond expectation, the Lord has been pleased to afford unto us in this wilderness. And also to declare our utter detestation and dislike that men and women of mean condition should take upon them the garb of gentlemen by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in great boots; or women of the same ran to wear silk or tiffany hoods, or scarves which, though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, we cannot but judge it intolerable...

It is therefore ordered by this Court, and authority thereof, that no person within the jurisdiction , nor any of their relations depending upon them, whose visible estates, real and personal, shall not exceed the true and indifferent value of 200 pounds, shall wear any gold or silver lace, or gold or silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2 shillings per yard, or silk hoods , or scarves, upon the penalty of 10s for every such offense and every such delinquent to be presented to the grand jury .For as much as distinct and particular rules in this case suitable to the estate of quality of each person cannot easily be given: It is further ordered by the authority aforesaid, that the selection of every town, or the major part of them are hereby enabled and required , from time to time to have regard and take notice of the apparel of the inhabitants of their several towns respectively: and whosoever shall judge to exceed their ranks and abilities in the costliness or fashion of their apparel in any respect, especially in wearing ribbons, or great boots (leather being a scarce commodity in this country) lace, points, etc., silk hoods or scarves, the select men aforesaid shall have power to assess such persons, so offending in any of the particulars above mentioned, in the country rates, at 200 pounds; according to that portion that such men use to pay to whom such apparel is suitable and allowed; provided this law shall not extend to the restraint of any magistrate or public officer of this jurisdiction, their wives and children, who are left to their discretion in wearing of apparel, or any settled militia officer or soldier in the time of the military service, or any other whose education and employment have been above the ordinary degree, or whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed."

New Jersey was still a British Colony (1670) when a law was passed which stated

" Be it resolved that all women, of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree; whether virgin maids or widows; that shall after the passing of this Act, impose upon and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty's male subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery, and such like misdemeanours, and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void."

In England from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century burial in woollen shrouds was prescribed by law. This was at attempt to lessen the importance of linen and promote the home wool industry. In 1692, the Elector of Saxony decreed no noblility, professors and doctors of universities, their wives, or those who worked in courts of law could wear clothing incorporating gold, silver or pearls. Very soon after the death of Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603) parliament passed an act which undid all the work of the previous acts. The reason for the decline in interest in sumptuary legislation is difficult to surmise but it is thought by many experts by this time control of apparel was considered passé and distinctly medieval in spirit.

In 17th century Venice and other Italian city states fashionable women wore platform shoes called Chopines (Choppines or chioppines) (Baldwin 1926, p 252. Made from wood or cork the shoes elevated the wearer and soon the height of the shoe from the ground signified social status. The chopines were sometimes 24” off the ground which made walking very difficult. The ultimate embellishment was two servants to help madam perambulate and a sedan carriage to carry her from her rooms, through the streets, to her eventual destination. The fashion was mainly restricted to the affluent Italian City State although platforms were worn on Spain and to lesser extend in Elizabethean England.

"Upon the morrow, after the blessed new year, I came trip, trip, trip over the market Hill, holding up my petticoats.... to shew my fine coloured stockings and how trimly I could fit in a new pair of corked shoes I had bought."

Willy Beguiled, (1623) Seventeenth Century Play

The fashion is thought to have been associated with the wives of rich merchants keen to show off their family fortunes by wearing sumptuous clothing. The purpose of the platform was to increase leg length necessitating longer and more expensive drapes. Eventually concerts from males keen to curb their wives and concubines’ excesses introduced sumptuary controls.

Comments made by the Venetian ambassador in 1618 suggested all gentle women should wear men's shoes (i.e. very low slippers).

Baldwin F E 1926 Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England Johns Hopkins Press

Reviewed 30/09/2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Sumptuary laws: Prostitutes, Jews and Courtesans

At the end of the 12th century Pope Clement III (1187-91) ruled harlots should dress differently from honest women (Freiberg 1879, cited in Brundage, 1987). Prescriptive codes, along with sumptuary legislation prohibiting prostitutes from wearing certain luxury materials followed. This action was thought to demonstrate a degree of tolerance i.e. as long as prostitutes remained clearly labelled they could remain within society. Laws relating to prostitution mainly applied to professionals but other sexually active women, were often included. The focus of this legislation was to shame and stigmatize these women.

In twelfth-century Arles (South of France), prostitutes were prohibited from wearing a veil, the sign of a respectable woman, and anyone who saw an "immoral" woman wearing one had the right and the responsibility to take it from her. Similarly, in fifteenth-century Dijon , although it was not established in the law, removing a woman's headgear was an accusation of sexual immorality.

In England prostitutes were required to wear a striped hood in some towns and used as punishment for prostitution in others. Sumptuary legislation required prostitutes to dress according to their station and distinguished them from "respectable" women. Although such laws often were ignored (as indicated by their frequent reiteration) they were nonetheless an important part of the discourse that constructed the prostitute.

In 1243, Avignon law prohibited Jews and prostitutes from touching food at the market and requiring them to purchase whatever they touched.

Similarly, clothing regulations labelled the Jewish people. In late medieval German towns, "both Jews and prostitutes were believed to perform essential services for the community, yet both groups were excluded from full membership of the city," and both were buried in unconsecrated ground. Medieval societies not only treated Jews, heretics, and lepers in ways comparable to prostitutes or sodomites, but also sexualized them, basing at least part of their otherness, on their sexuality. The idea of Jewish men having sex with Christian women was an important undercurrent in the development of hostility toward the Jews; the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council cited this as the reason why Jews had to wear distinguishing clothing.

Courtesans were a prominent feature of Venice in the seventeenth century. According to Rosentham (cited in Tucker, 1999) courtesans were sexualized versions of aristocratic women, kept in court and often used by upper crust men for the purposes of sex. In Occidental society courtesans were similar to Chinese concubines. Some were kept by nobles and had extravagant homes and clothing fit for royalty. Others had a different client every night and were reported to amass fabulous fortunes (often more than most of the town's merchants).

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was attribute to say "Publish and be damned." when the courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to publish her memoirs and his letters.

Throughout history courtesans have dressed as ornately as aristocratic women (Masson, 1975). The habit had little to do with imitating their superiors but instead a deliberate display of their wealth and prestige. Courtesans often set the fashions and by doing so made statements of beauty and identity. Whilst governments saw the women's costumes as a symbol of their city's wealth and stature, the male dominated republic, also cracked down on the courtesan’s dress through sumptuary laws. These regulations were intended to protect the honour of female patricians from the courtesans, who mimicked their noble bearing and costumes. Courtesans became so established and wealthy in their own right it was difficult to separate them from true noblewomen. The action of subsequent governments was to restrict the wearing of some clothes to the nobility, according to Rosenthan (cited in Tucker, 1999). These laws were often flaunted by the courtesans but did influence women of the lower class. Karras (1999) described how, in most Medieval towns, prostitution was illegal or in some cases regulated, clothing regulations required prostitutes to wear distinguishing marks (Weaver, 1999).

Brundage JA 1987 Sumptuary laws and prostitution in late Medieval Italy Journal of Medieval History 13:4 343-355.
Karras RM 1999 Prostitution and the question of sexual identity in medievel europe Journal of Women's History 11:2 159-177.
Masson G 1975 Courtesans of the italian renaissance London: Cox and Wymann Ltd.
Tucker C 1999 Dressed (or undressed) for success University of Southern California Chronicle.

Reviewed on 29/09/2018

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sumptuary Laws: Jews, Christians and Muslims

From about the 8th century in Muslim countries, Christians and Jews were sometimes forced to wear special emblems on their clothes. This was an attempt to prevent inter-breeding. A ninth century Caliph in Bagdad was thought to have introduced the yellow star (Bareta) which was worn by both Jewish and Christian people. Further sumptuary controls were issued in Bagda inthe 12th century.

'Two yellow badges [are to be displayed], one on the headgear and one on the neck. Furthermore, each Jew must hang round his neck a piece of lead with the word Dhimmi on it. He also has to wear a belt round his waist. The women have to wear one red and one black shoe and have a small bell on their necks or shoes.'

By the 13th century sumptuary laws based on religious conviction was introduced into Europe. Pope Innocent III convoked the Fourth Council of the Lateran and in 1215 it ruled that Jews and Muslims must be distinguishable by their dress. The most common form of badge was the "rota" or "wheel", which looked like a ring, of white or yellow. Other European countries folloed with similar sumptuary legislation.

In England Edward I issued the Statute of Jewry which prescribed jews wear two yellow round-topped rectangles (like tablets); in Portugal Jews wore a red star of David; and in France, French Jews were ordered to wear an oval rouelle (a yellow rota). In Venice, sumptuary laws were most strictly regulated and directed towards Jews, prostitutes, and women.

The Venetians were considered a tolerant people but still discriminated against Jewish people. The first ghetto officially came into existence in Venice on March 29, 1516. Sumptuary laws forced Jews to wear a star-shaped yellow badge called a bareta. There were few exceptions made albeit doctors of medicine were exempt. Eventually the Council of Ten revoked the medical doctor’s privilege of being excluded from the wearing of the yellow bareta and they were forced to don the hats as well. Generally, the Jewish community strictly regulated themselves, prohibiting fur or bright colours so as not to draw attention on themselves. Prostitutes and courtesans were also outcasts in Early Modern Venetian society. Prostitutes were required to wear a yellow veil, reminiscent of the yellow bareta.

The Jewish hat (Jewish cap) was a cone-shaped pointed hat, often white or yellow, worn by Jews in Medieval Europe and some of the Islamic world. Initially worn by choice, its wearing was enforced in some places in Europe after 1215 for adult male Jews to wear while outside a ghetto in order to distinguish Jews from others. Like the phrygian cap it often resembles, the hat may have originated in pre-Islamic Persia and resembles a hat worn by Babylonian Jews.

Reviewed 28/09/2018