Saturday, May 12, 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 attempts to ban 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.

“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)

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