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 James I (1566-1625) fearing the mood of the people repealed many sumptuary laws.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

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