Historical Fashion Police

Today, we often encounter dress codes in places like schools and the workplace. There was a long period in history, though, where dress codes were enforceable by national law. These laws, known as sumptuary laws, dictated what types of items you could buy, from food to furniture. They were often more directly aimed at clothing, however, since the garments a person wore in public could be more easily monitored than the food that was eaten in the home or the type of luxury goods one consumed in private.

These laws primarily dictated what one could wear by their socioeconomic class. This was supposed to help people distinguish a person’s class just by looking at them. No noble or wealthy merchant wanted to be seen addressing a common labourer as an equal just because they had managed to save up enough money to buy some fancy lace or silk. Every person had their assigned place in the world, and this was to be reflected in all visible aspects of their lives.

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These types of laws have existed since at least ancient Greece, but a particularly detailed set of such rules was developed by Queen Elizabeth I of England. This code not only set out what types of fabrics one could wear based on their status, but it also outlined colors that could be worn and whether a person could purchase imported fabrics. For example, no one below the rank of earl had the right to the unrestricted use of cloth of gold or silver and silk. Viscounts and barons could only use such textiles in their doublets and sleeveless coats. Only those of the rank of knight or above could wear red or blue velvet or imported wool. You couldn’t wear silk at all unless you were worth at least £200. At the other end of the social scale, people worth less £10 a year could not wear any cloth that cost more than 2 shillings a yard. If such a lowly person was caught breaking this law, they could be imprisoned in the stocks for three days.

Aside from social status, clothing laws aimed at religious groups and certain professions have existed since the 13th century. In medieval times, Jews had to wear yellow badges or conical hats. In some places, Muslims had to wear “Eastern” dress and a crescent-shaped patch. This was supposedly done to prevent intermarriage between Christians and these religious minorities.

Prostitutes also had to wear certain clothing so that they could be identified until some time in the 15th century. For some reason, in most countries these laws required them to wear some form of striped clothing, typically a cloak or hood. Eventually, the rules were loosened so that they only had to wear an identifying arm band or tassels. The main goal was to prevent these women from aping the fashions of the nobility and being mistaken for an aristocrat, since many of the finest courtesans could afford the trappings of the upper classes.

Though these laws were supposed to help people identify social class, there were other reasons for these laws. First, they prevented people from spending money on clothing that the government wanted them to spend on other things, like paying taxes. By restricting the purchase of imported goods, these laws also helped maintain a favourable balance of trade and aided national industries. They also made it easier to discriminate against classes of people.

Penalties for breaking these laws could be severe, including loss of property or title, but they were often unenforced. This is because it was difficult to do so. Not many people had the time or inclination to play fashion police. Fortunately, these laws mostly died out after the mid-1700s.

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