Sumptuary laws astound me. Prohibiting people from lavishing money on fine foods and fabrics, when all our economy does is urge us to spend more than we earn on conspicuous consumption? We have made a twisted sort of progress. Today, we would never dream of forbidding the possession of gold and silver, as the Spartans did, resolutely exchanging only iron money. Nor would we banish silken clothing for men, as Tiberius did, shuddering at the thought of such softness against a man’s skin. Nor would we reserve silver plating for knights’ spurs and long colorful clothing for the aristocracy, as Henry V did.
Our pimps wear gold teeth and shiny-bright shirts and drive Cadillacs.
The concept of sumptuary laws is so alien, I am intrigued. Though they pretended to be highminded and austere, a free pass could nearly always be bought. Ancient Rome, feudal Japan, and Confucian China did take it all rather seriously; the Roman censors even published the names of everyone found guilty of an indulgent, luxurious way of life. But in most cases, sumptuary laws were either protectionist (in trade terms) or elitist (protecting the aristocracy from wannabes who pulled off too plausible an imitation).
Sometimes the laws targeted women: the Lex Oppia, enacted in Greece in 215 BCE, ruled that females could not wear more than half an ounce of gold or colored tunics. A later Greek law amuses me: it held that a free-born woman could not be accompanied by more than one enslaved female unless the free-born woman was drunk; she could not leave the city at night unless she was planning to commit adultery; and she could not wear gold jewelry or a purple-bordered garment unless she was a courtesan.
By the time we reach mid-sixteenth-century England, women are exempt from sumptuary restrictions—though decolletage is regulated for respectability’s sake.
Strategies to discourage sex work took two opposite tacks. Sometimes, authorities insisted that these women dress plainly, reserving luxurious fabrics, furs, and adornments as a reward for women of virtue. At other times, opulence was made the purview of the prostitute in order to discourage all the women of virtue from indulging.
You can taste the xenophobia that tagged along with economic fears, with the sixteenth-century Brits worried about “the enriching of other strange Realms and Countries.” (The word “other” hints that they knew themselves to be strange as well; did anyone proofread?) By then, Edward III had already prohibited the import of textiles from anywhere outside what is now the U.K.—and banned exporting domestic wool.
But the strongest impetus for sumptuary laws was to keep the merchant class on the other side of the moat. In 1657, a Nuremberg law called it “unfortunately an established fact that both men and womenfolk have, in utterly irresponsible manner, driven extravagance in dress and new styles to such shameful and wanton extremes that the different classes are barely to be known apart.” In short, the rise of an aspiring middle class had led to a “crisis of recognizability.” French kings restricted the use of gold and silver embroidery, silks, and fine linens. An act of Scottish parliament in 1433 reserved pies and baked meats for those who held at least the title of baron. Edward III tried to stop merchants and manservants from eating more than one serving of flesh or fish per day. Edward IV restricted the use of “royal purple” in garments intended to enhance the silhouette.
For centuries, English law dictated furs, fabrics, and trims according to class. A 1571 act of parliament decreed that all males over age six—except for the nobility and persons of degree—would wear a flat woolen cap every Sunday and holiday or be fined three farthings. In 1574, Elizabeth I warned that “such superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost” would bring about “the manifest decay of the whole realm,” not to mention “the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen.”
But karma is not kind; when the bourgeoisie gained political power, they swiftly set limits on what those “above” them could spend on weddings, feasts, funerals, and dowries.
Sumptuary laws came with the pilgrims to the New World—and fizzled out fast. The Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to reserve the pleasures of bone lace and embroidery, silk hoods, metallic thread and buttons, hatbands, belts, ruffles, and capes for those whose fortune totaled at least two hundred pounds. But within a few decades, even the Puritans were openly defying the restrictions.
In some senses, sumptuary laws were their own scam: they seldom worked, yet created cozy government positions for the many officials appointed to enforce them. They also fanned desire; Montaigne called them “a very improper way to create a disgust.” If you limit certain kinds of consumption to princes and forbid them to the people, “what is it but to bring them into a greater esteem, and to set every one more agog to eat and wear them?”
Predictably, Adam Smith bore such laws no affection. “It is the highest impertinence and presumption…in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense,” he wrote. “They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society…. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.”
Capitalism, with its mass production and consumer economy. turned the very concept on its head. The spending of the lower classes should be as lavish as possible, fueling a robust economy that would further favor and privilege the wealthy. Before, they had bolstered their inheritance with the labor of the indentured or enslaved. Now that workers earned small sums for their labor, that money should be spent, if not on the still unreachable silks, jewels, and caviar, at least on the goods anchoring the investments of the top ten percent.
I am not sure which is the greater trap, but at least we can all wear royal purple now.
There is no current need for sumptuary laws. We have inflation. Also luxury taxes, import tariffs, and corporate dress codes. But what about a little kindly common sense? No status symbols that break the nonexistent banks of teenagers by insisting they need $400 kicks. And for the planet’s sake, no luxuries that plunder natural resources or slaughter animals for vanity. Golden threads and $1,000 leather purses to be recycled in shelters for people who carry all their belongings with them. A complete redefinition of aristocracy.
And a little more sumptuousness all round.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.