Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sumptuary Laws of the Sixteenth Century

For a time, England prospered under the reign of Henry VIII (b.149,1 1509-1547) and it became more and more difficult to tell the wealthy merchants and middle class from the nobility. The upwardly mobile middle classes became more influential and began to replace the impoverished gentry. The king however was keen to identify his subjects by their apparel and was responsible for enacting several sumptuary laws. Henry VIII decreed that a countess must wear a train before and behind, fastened to her girdle, while a baroness and all below her in rank might not have this distinction. Men were compelled to wear their hair short, though their beards may be worn in any fashion. These laws and taxes were specific to keep the classes, separate and violation of these laws carried penalties such as loss of property (confiscation of the offending garment) and a fine, in rare cases title may be lost and or in case of the lower classes, life itself.

In 1510, Parliament passed an extensive and detailed law regulating the wearing of all sorts of fabrics and of trim from fur to gold and silver. This law was amended and added to in 1514 and again in 1515 and 1553. The details of the laws changed little, as they were mostly reiterations and reaffirmations of previous admonitions.

In 1530, John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln wrote a letter to the Abbess at the convent of Vinestoww (Elstow, Elnstow, or Helenstow), in which he ordered the sister not to wear crested or slashed shoes. The last sumptuary law to be passed in the reign of Henry VIII came in 1532/33.

Several regulations governing the dress of the people of Ireland were also issued during this period. After the Reformation (1517 - 1648) the daily habits and life of people began to be more and more affected by moral laws and precepts. Reformation invoked the aid of law to keep citizens in a healthy moral condition with the result old regulations were renewed and amplified and new ones enacted.

All men wore tight hose, sometimes puffed at the knees and slashed. Silk stockings become available after the middle of the sixteenth century and Henry the VIII had several pairs in his wardrobe. Shoes were very broad, and sometimes stuffed into a mound at the toes. They were frequently sewn with precious stones (especially seed pearls or cut and puffed with silk).

During the reign of Edward VI (b. 1538 1547-1553) no more sumptuary laws were enacted despite the continued excesses at this time.

When Mary I (b. 1516, 1553-1558) took the thrown a law was passed in 1554 concerning the wearing of silk on shoes and hose. Only the sons and heirs apparent of knights or such person could wear silk. The penalty was 3 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 pounds sterling for every day the shoes had been worn. Persons above the rank of knight could wear whatever they wanted. Popularity of the broad toed shoes also became a concern as the shoes got broader across the forefoot. Like puffed sleeves the uppers of the bloated shoes were slashed revealing banned materials below. According to Baldwin (1926 p.189) no record of a law has been found to control this excess but it was thought to have be in existence.

Shoes of the time fitted the shape of the foot and were worn with square toes. High boots strapped over the knee and half boots with their tops turned over were used for travelling and sport. Often hoes were turned down at the point where they met the trunks.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was an ardent follower of fashion. However, as a ruler she was very autocratic regarding her subjects and their dress. Her reign was marked with much social changes with marked improvement in domestic comforts for all but the poor. Her Royal Majesty and her Parliament felt it necessary to proclaim the importance of the sumptuary laws passed during Henry and Mary's reigns.

Silk stockings were very popular during her reign and could cost as much as 20s a pair. These were often interwoven with gold and silver threads. Corked shoes and slippers, or pantoffles, had an inch-high sole (fingerbreadth) They were hard to keep on the feet, uncomfortable and caused the wearer to flop up and down. The shoes also gathered clay. (Baldwin, 1926, p 206). In 1563, a new act was passed and several more followed during her reign. Some were a deliberate attempt to help ailing manufacturers but all the statutes of apparel originating from the House of Lords were rejected by the Commons. Baldwin (1926) considered the reaction from the Commons was a reaction to the Lords attempt to bolster aristocratic privileges. Many local sumptuary regulations and ordinances were promulgated during the Elizabethan period.

In 1582 the Lord Mayor and Common Council of London enacted a by-law where apprentices had to wear pumps or shoes made in England and pinked, edged or stitched with untrimmed crewel wool, thread or leather. To violate this rule meant the apprentice could be punished at the discretion of his master. Second offences would result in a whipping at the hall of his company. A third offence meant the apprenticeship would be extended some six months. Only men serving at the bench could be seen outside in the street, wearing great ruffs, gowns with velvet facing, or white doublets or stockings. Gentlemen were not allowed to wear cloaks and had to wear gowns instead. Hair was not to be curled or worn long and ladies’ gowns had to be made in a sad colour, if worn outside. According to Hurlock (1965) Elizabeth I attempted to regulate the shape and length of men's beards and stop Oxford students from wearing ruffs around their neck and wrists of a width greater than that of one finger.

As the century progressed more and more body skin was exposed until the point where bare breasts were the fashion for courtesans (Rosenthal S., cited in Tucker, 1999).

Elizabethan women did not wear underwear but did have stockings. Venetian courtesans often wore male style undergarments such as linen knickers embroidered with phrases such as "I want the heart." These too were eventually banned.

According to Hamilton (1998) elaborate sumptuary laws in Venice were promulgated by the church and state for the regulating of "luxury items" such as bed-hangings and food. These laws related particularly to clothing and accessories. In 1530 the decree entitled the "Diet of Augsburg permitted the wife of a noble to own four silk dresses but they were not allowed to wear pearls. The citizens of Genoa (the Genoses) required the Tailor's Guild to register new designs for approval by the censors or Uffico delle Virtu. Most city states turned their sporadic medieval legislation into formal Renaissance codes which were endlessly amended in response to criticism and fashion. In 1512 as the enemies of Venice were preparing to attack the Senate debated dress materials, the size and design of sleeves, fringes and ornaments, belts and head dresses, shoes and slippers, home furnishings and bed linens. (Hughes, 1983).

Baldwin F E 1926 Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England Johns Hopkins Press.
Hamilton W 2000 A tangled weaving: The social status of clothing in early modern Venice.
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.
Tucker C 1999 Dressed (or undressed) for success University of Southern California Chronicle

Reviewed 26/9/2018

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