Being a clothes horse might be a crime.
At least in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Yes it is true the clothes police really existed in history. As far back as the Roman and Greek empires, laws and enforcement of laws concerning what people wore (and ate and did in their “free time”) were in place. So it seems there is nothing that man cannot create which it will not try to regulate. We could have all just stayed naked I suppose…. Or maybe not.
These laws, known as sumptuary laws, were being used and changed and repealed for centuries but during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries they were almost fanatical in their use. Although most of these laws were either repealed or impractical to enforce by the mid 16th century, their influence carried over into the period of exploration and colonization. The Puritans had very strict sumptuary laws in their settlement (and you thought they wore black to be practical).
So why these laws concerning what people wore (ate and did)? What purpose did they serve?
In truth they were not very practical at all, more or less they were a means to separate the classes. However, not every sumptuary law was strictly an “I am better than you, look at what I wear law” so I will address this use of the laws first.
Industry during the 15th century was very limited. Most everything was “cottage” industry meaning individuals or very small groups would create the products that would eventually end up in markets. The crafts men and women, in time would form guilds to protect themselves, relied heavily on the ruling class to protect their markets from competition. Sumptuary laws served this purpose. By restricting what materials could be imported and used in a kingdom, many items could only be bought if made in the homeland. Gives a whole new twist to “made in…” doesn’t it.
So what did this kind of sumptuary law have to do with clothing? For a very long while cloth made of cotton as well as silks and velvets had been available for use in clothes making, but some nations, England being one of them, refused to allow the import and use of these fabrics so as to protect their wool industry which was a huge part of the economy. Thus for many people clothing was made of either wool or flax (linen) and fashion was a little more limited. With the refinement of manufacturing of cloth better clothes were developed and fashion opened up.
A second, if far less practical (or not considering the times and societal structure) reason was to distinguish between the social classes. Fashion, while it changed as fast as it does in modern times, often only varied slightly in style between the nobility and everyone else. There were hardly designer labels in the Renaissance so the only way to tell the higher classes from the working classes was through the use of fabric types and amounts.
The upper classes often used silks, velvet, lawn, freize, satin, brocade, taffeta, scarlet and damask became popular in 1415. The creation of fuller sleeves and broader skirts appeared in the fashions of refined women.
The lower classes and working classes still were regulated to using linen, wool, flannel, russet, canvas and serge and for the practical purpose their clothing served material was minimal with tighter sleeves and trimmer dress.
In contradiction to the general population and use of sumptuary laws smaller societal groups, usually religious groups, used sumptuary laws to reduce potential “class warfare” (yah go figure in a time of nothing but class differentiation). However these laws were usually limited to internal controls and applied only when one was within the group. The Jewish people especially used sumptuary laws so as not to make other Jewish members of society envious but likely also to simply keep a lower profile in general society where sentiment was not always favorable.
Examples of sumptuary laws are many but one that always struck me as ‘odd” was the one which prevented anyone from wearing “Fur” (no specified species of donor for that fur) who didn’t have an annual income of at least 100 L , which was probably like a million dollars in today’s accounting. The reason for this was people did get permission to hunt small game so rabbit fur was readily available and hides from live stock might have constituted “fur” if some over lord wanted to be a jerk about it. Still laws such as these came and went.
Then certainly as trade routes opened and the merchant class (middle class) began to gain in wealth through trade these laws became harder to enforce when their purpose was to separate the classes. With the influx of new materials and fashion crossing boarders sumptuary laws which mandated clothing wear waxed and waned until they simply disappeared in the middle 16th century. The carry over that was seen in the Puritan Colonies was more likely a matter of religious views which equated luxury with idleness that the non availability of cloth.
For sure the varying sumptuary laws regarding clothing caused some problematic issues for people who wished to have more choice in what they wore but they also gave people the chance to learn how to make clothing they did have last. One thing people of the time managed to come up with… underwear. Not like the bra, panties, boxers and briefs we have now but with the use of material which could not be easily laundered such as wool and silk the development of more elaborate shifts, shirts and leggings made of linen and cotton happened.
Fashion in the middle ages and renaissance was a high priority, especially for the nobility and the new wealthy merchant class. Fashion was a statement of having made it having “arrived” in fact it was very little different then than now. Laws regarding what people could or could not wear helped make those statements more meaningful. Clothing could mean the difference between respect and disrespect, between being able to socialize with those who could advance a person even further or being friends only with others of the same social status.
Hummmm has much really changed?
Hope you enjoyed this little fact and that you now are in a mood for a shopping trip, if not just settle in and READ ON!