Sumptuary laws are the quaint old laws which made it illegal for peasants to look, eat, or travel in more style than the upper classes. They make for very interesting reading. They’d probably be even more interesting if they were introduced today.
Sumptuary laws are fun because they tell you exactly what got under someone’s skin. The fact that the law against the irritant only exists because plenty of other people clearly loved it is just a bonus. These laws pop up throughout history, and they regulate everything worth paying money for—servants, adornments, necessary clothes, transportation, and the number and content of courses that everyone had for dinner.
In every law it’s the details, the qualifications, and the exceptions that makes it interesting. When you read about an ancient Greek law that states that no free woman was allowed to have more than one maid servant follow her through the street, “unless she was drunk,” you can just picture the makers of the law agreeing that, sure, if she’s drunk, she’s gonna need two servants to keep her vertical. That’s just common sense.
Then there’s the law that a Cardinal Thomas Wolsey of England first wrote. It stated that a cardinal could eat nine dishes at a meal, but nobles, all the way up to dukes, could only eat seven dishes. This was at a time when people at court regularly ate together at banquets, and meant that Wolsey, who had been born a commoner, would be served more dishes than anyone else in the room, except the royal family. Wolsey is a familiar figure to anyone who has seen dramas or studied histories of Henry VIII. Even if you’ve never heard of him, it will surprise no one to learn that, with the enthusiastic support of the nobility, he was eventually stripped of his property. If he hadn’t died of a probable infection, he very well might have been tried for treason. Let that be a lesson to everyone—don’t snatch food from a duke.
Then there are the qualifications. Fancy dress wasn’t always the exclusive privilege of the nobility. In Italy, especially after the advent of the plague made their skills valuable, doctors and their families got to dress like nobles. In England, a merchant, or the daughter of a merchant, could have just as many minstrels at their wedding as a knight could—provided the merchant had double the income of the average knight.
And there were always dress codes which would single out professions. In Rome, prostitutes wore red stockings. In England, they were required to wear their dresses inside out. Servants were not allowed to wear pointed shoes or puffed and slashed sleeves. (Slashed sleeves were deliberate cuts made in an outer garment so an inner, brightly-colored garment showed through or even puffed out through the gashes.) Respected professions got special clothes. Doctors got to wear gold spurs. If that law were still around, I imagine there would be far more medical professionals today.
Sumptuary laws are best known as ways of distinguishing class, which is one of the reasons they’ve gone out of style now. It’s hard to think of legislators coming out with laws such as the one enacted in Massachusetts in 1651, which stated that, “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 dishonor of God, the scandal of our profession, the consumption of estates, and altogether unsuitable to our poverty.” The law goes on and on, the way laws like this always do, talking about the lawmakers’ “detestation” of people who “walk about in great boots,” and “points” (fashionably tied ribbons) at their knees, and specified exactly how many shillings per yard someone with a “visible estate” of less than£200 could spend on lace. The law finishes by listing exceptions, specifying that magistrates and public officers and their wives and children are of course excepted, as are people “whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed.”
There is a practical reason for this concern. Conspicuous consumption was incredibly fashionable, in part because people could convince each other they were rich and powerful just by looking like it. People went deep into debt to finance their clothes and feasts, and when they did so, bad things could happen. An Elizabethan law decries, “the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts.” Seen this way, sumptuary laws are the “get tough on drugs,” laws of their day. If people are addicted to pretty gold buttons, they’re going to go out and rob decent, hardworking citizens to get their fix.
But, in the end, it was class rivalry that drove the making of those laws, which is why it would be interesting if those laws were around today. You have to wonder which class would be insisting on what law. Logically, it would probably be the rich—likely with the full support of certain brands, which are already trying to market themselves as strictly luxury goods. No more second-hand purses for the plebs. No saving up for a fancy car. No knock-off perfumes.
Other luxury items might get banned despite the strenuous objection of the brands in question. Apple would probably be happy to sell their phones to anyone, but if sumptuary laws are explained as a way to deter crime, what better way to stop your phone getting snatched than to declare that anyone who even looks poor has no right to an iPhone?
But these days it’s not only fashionable to dress up. People dress to imitate certain professions, to indicate they come from a certain place, to identify with a certain movement—regardless of their actual circumstances. And this gets under people’s skin. It might be worth getting a few sumptuary laws going, if not to improve things now, then as a gift to the future.
“There shall be no wearing of ripped jeans or work boots by those with income above $27,000 per year. Those who do shall be fined, and shall be made to mend their own jeans and wear them for a month. (Exceptions shall be made for those participating in cosplay or Zombie Walks.)”
“Those wearing a jersey in support of a team on a winning streak shall display tickets to at least three games during which the team lost, or shall be placed in a room with no cameras and at least six long-time fans of the game.”
“Anyone wearing a Straight Outta Compton shirt shall have come straight out of Compton or shall be able to produce the album ‘Straight Outta Compton’ on cassette tape, or both.”
“Clothing purchased during one’s semester abroad shall never be worn after the semester abroad is over. I mean, really. Have some sense.”