Sumptuary Laws and the Elizabethan Fashion Police

May 1st, 2011 10:00 am


We’ve all bought that item of clothing that we couldn’t quite afford or was a bit of a stretch for the image of ourselves that we usually present. It is our prerogative as women to take fashion risks and to treat ourselves to the latest looks.

But imagine a time when stepping out of the house in the wrong garment for your station in life could –quite literally –bring down the fashion police.

In Elizabethan England, extensive Sumptuary Laws were put in place banning “excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares.”  Such “great abuses” of fashion threatened to “so manifest a decay of the wealth of the realm and to the ruin of a multitude of serviceable young men and gentlemen and of many good families.”

The laws purported to protect family fortunes and to curb extravagant spending of money that could be put to better use within the country, such as acquiring horses. But the laws also served to keep commoners from attempting to look like nobility and to keep everyone easily identifiable. The idea was that if you couldn’t tell a farmer from a count at a glance, the very fabric of society was weakened.

Clauses within the Sumptuary Laws (outlined here circa 1574) go into great detail as to what men and women of different social strata could and couldn’t wear.

For example, no one below the degree of vicountess or baroness or similar rank could wear “cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver or pearl, saving silk mixed with gold or silver in linings of cowls, partlets, and sleeves.” But the laws expanded to include “wives of barons and knights of the order” for the wearing of “velvet, tufted taffeta, satin, or gold or silver in any cloak or safeguard.”

For both men and women, the laws also stipulated which servants could wear which items of clothing as would be appropriate for their stations in relation to nobility. As a result, “caps, hats, hatbands, capbands, garters, or boothose trimmed with gold or silver or pearl; silk netherstocks; enameled chains, buttons, aglets” were allowable by nobility as well as “the gentlemen attending upon the Queen’s person in her highness’s Privy chamber or in the office of cupbearer, carver, sewer [server], esquire for the body, gentlemen ushers, or esquires of the stable.”

There was one small note of mercy in all this though, as the laws allowed, “that her majesty’s meaning is not, by this order, to forbid in any person the wearing of silk buttons, the facing of coats, cloaks, hats and caps, for comeliness only, with taffeta, velvet, or other silk, as is commonly used.”

So, the next time you go out on a limb with your outfit, think of what those poor Elizabethan women would have given to walk in your Manolos.


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