Saturday, August 21, 2010

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 8/01/2016


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  2. That long-toed shoe looks like a tripping hazard.