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At the nucleus sumptuary law regulates personal habits that offend the moral or religious beliefs of the community. The law intends to regulate personal expenditures designed to restrain extravagance, especially in food and dress.

Encyclopedia Britannica comments that sumptuary law had its beginnings from ... Spartan inhabitants of Laconia, for example, were forbidden to attend drinking entertainments and were also forbidden to own a house or furniture that was the work of more elaborate implements than the ax and saw. The possession of gold or silver was also forbidden to the Spartans, their legislation permitting only the use of iron money. A system of sumptuary laws was extensively developed in ancient Rome; a series of laws beginning in 215 BC governed the materials of which garments could be made and the number of guests at entertainments and forbade the consumption of certain foods.

Conquering peoples commonly employed this device to make all the spoils of war theirs by enacting decrees forcing the conquered to forfeit everything over a certain amount. Often it was the church that set limitations on conspicuous consumption, either for the good of its flock's souls or the fattening of its own purse. Sumptuary laws have been enacted in attempts to halt inflation during a time of rapid economic growth, or to keep the newly wealthy merchant class from trying to out dress and outlive the king and his court. By using clothing as a complex system of communication they desired others to be able to read what is communicated with some degree of certainty. These laws, as applied by the English in Ireland, record some of the more interesting aspects of what Irish life was like in the 16th century. The English were quite detailed with descriptions of what was not allowed, which in turn determined what people were doing. Without these details, we would have much less information about period.

Sumptuary laws were passed in England and Europe, from about the mid 1300s, to the mid 1600s, and were devised to control behaviors from the wearing of certain apparel to the consumption of certain foods, beverages, (usually of an alcoholic nature), and other miscellaneous products, to gaming and hunting. These laws also often prescribed what prices could be charged for various consumables, from clothing to food.

The Sumtiaoriae Leges concept is of Greek in origins and refers to the name of various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumtus) in banquets, dress. (Gellius, ii.24, xx.1). In antiquity it was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons, and among the Romans in particular traces of this can be found in the laws attributed to the kings and in the Twelve Tables. The censors, to whom was entrusted the disciplina or cura morum, punished by the nota censoria all persons guilty of what was then regarded as a luxurious mode of living: a great many instances of this kind are recorded (CENSOR, p264, a.] But as the love of luxury greatly increased with the foreign conquests of the Republic and the growing wealth of the nations, various Leges Sumtuariae were passed at different times with the object of restraining it. These, however, rarely accomplished their objectives, and in the latter times of the Republic were virtually repealed

Sumptuary laws were not peculiar to the states of antiquity.

"Our own legislation, which in its absurd as well as its best parts has generally some parallel in that of the Romans, contains many instances of Sumptuary Laws, which prescribed what kind of dress, and of what quality, should be worn by particular classes, and so forth. The English Sumptuary Statutes relating to apparel commenced with the 37th of Edward III. This statute, after declaring that the outrageous and excessive apparel of divers people against their estate and degree is the destruction and impoverishment of land, prescribes the apparel of the various classes into which it distributes the people; but it goes no higher than knights. The clothing of the women and children is also regulated. The next statute, 3rd of Edward IV., is very minute. This kind of statute-making went on at intervals to the 1st of Philip and Mary, when an act was passed for the Reformation of Excessive Apparel. These Apparel statutes were repealed by the 1st of James I."

Long's Translation of Plutarch's Life of Sulla, c.2.(paraphrased)

Some prime examples of this English Sumptuary Laws of Apparel enacted during the Renaissance between the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth during which time the Parliament of 1510 passed a law governing the wearing of all kinds of fabrics and trim from fur to gold and silver. Amended with additions in 1514 and again in 1515 and 1553 few details were changed since they were for the most part reiterations and reaffirmations of previous admonitions. The wearing of certain colors were restricted to nobility; purple could only be worn by royal family and red was worn only by the royal family and the highest nobles in the land. Most of these were reflections of the expense of the dyes in relation to the economy of the times. The most frequent punishment for the abrogation of these laws was the confiscation of the offending garment and a fine of several shillings to ten pounds per offense.

One such declaration reads:

Forasmuche as the greate and costly array and apparrell used wythin this realme, contrary to good statutes therof made, hath be the occaion of grete impovershing to divers of the Kings subjects and provoked many of them to robbe and to doo extortion and other unlawful dedes to maynteyne therby ther costeley arrey: In exchewyng wheof, Be it ordeyned by the authority of this present Parliament that no persone of whate state, condiion, or degre that he be, use in his apparel eny cloth of golde of purpoure purple coloure or sylke of purpoure coloure, but onely the Kyng, the Quwene, the Kyng's Moder, the Kyng's Chylder, the Kyng's Brethers and Susters, upon payne to forfett the seid apparel, . . . and for using the same to forfaite 20 pounds.

However, the King could, and did, grant special dispensations to wear articles of clothing forbidden by law, to whomever he pleased.

Sumptuary laws regarding the wearing of pearls of Europe through the ages:

  • 1299 - a Venetian decree proclaims that at a wedding the bride alone, and nary one guest, was allowed to wear pearls. And then only in moderation with only one strand around her waist.
  • 1345-- Germany in the city of Ulm, no women, married or single, high birth or low birth were allowed to wear pearls on their dresses until 1411 when they were permitted to wear a single pearl wreath on their heads
  • 1479. A Frankish sumptuary law-- declared an ordinary noble serving a knight at a tournament was not allowed to wear any pearls whatsoever, except for one string around their hats.
  • 1495-- The Diet of Worms sets forth that citizens who were not of noble birth, and nobles who were not knights could wear neither gold or pearls. The Diet of Augsburg, circa 1530, said this: If you were the wife of a noble--ordinary or otherwise--you were allowed four silk dresses...but no pearls.
  • 1692-- Duke John George of Saxony said: The nobility may not wear dresses of gold, or silver, and no adornments of pearls. Professors and doctors of universities, their wives included, could also not wear anything with gold, or silver, or pearls. As to those who worked in courts of law...same thing. No gold, no silver, and no pearls.

Jews that lived in Venice in 1797 came under strict regulations as outsiders to the community with regards to dress along with prostitutes, and women:

The first ghetto officially came into existence in Venice on March 29, 1516, where, "The Jews must all live together in the Corte de Case. . .in order to prevent their roaming about at night. . ." Although there are claims that the creation of the ghetto, ". . .did not represent a deterioration in the status of the Jews, but rather the opposite." since the ". . .ghetto represented a kind of middle ground between unconditional acceptance. . .and expulsion," the Jews were nevertheless walled off from the center of society. In addition to being forced to live in the Ghetto, sumptuary laws forced Jews to first wear a star-shaped yellow badge and then, when the Senate ruled the badges were too easily hidden ". . .Jews were compelled, unless they were doctors of medicine, to wear a yellow bareta (a type of hat)if they were male. Eventually the Council of Ten revoked the medical doctors privilege of being excluded from the wearing of the yellow bareta and they were forced to don the hats as well. Such items made the Jews instantly identifiable as outsiders and open to the taunts and various other cruelties of society. In fact, the baretas were considered such a hazard that when traveling, Jews were legally allowed to wear the same head coverings as Christians to protect them from any trouble they might encounter on the road. Generally though, the Jewish community more strictly regulated themselves than the outside laws did, prohibiting any fur or bright colors so as not to draw attention on themselves as well as because it was a Christian characteristic to dress in that manner and, according to their beliefs should be avoided. In fact, "Dignitaries and persons in power were permitted to have the same exterior aspect as the Christians" when outside the ghetto. This was justified inside the Jewish community by the fact that they should appear as equal to their Christian interlocutors when dealing personally with them.

paraphrased from Clothing in Early Modern Venice

Today most sumptuary laws have been rendered obsolete with the advancement of democratic ideals, industrial mass production, and consumerism. On a related subject see Blue Law.

A Pearl of a Law:
Clothing in Early Modern Venice:
Sumptuary Law:

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