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Jottings #5: Sumptuary Laws and Customs

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue.

Sumptuary laws were originally enacted ostensibly to control excessive conspicuous consumption, but they eventually morphed into a tool of social control and enforcement of social stratification. Over time, many habits of dress that were originally imposed from without via sumptuary laws became self-imposed sumptuary customs. A good start on researching the topic would be Wikipedia, “Sumptuary Law”.

Some historical—or at least pseudo-historical—sumptuary laws that could be justified under the “conspicuous consumption” rubric include:

As a tool of social control/stratification, the following historical and pseudo-historical sumptuary laws have been mentioned:

Some communties with Calvinist or Mennonite origins, because of their religious views on personal vanity or “distractions” from faith, have self-imposed sumptuary customs. The best-known among these are the Amish communities (Mennonite origins) of southeastern Pennsylvania in the United States, who rarely wear clothing not of black or white (and the white is usually that of unbleached and undyed cloth), and eschew most use of most technology beyond about the late 18th/early 19th century. The Puritans (Calvinist origins) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were similarly austere of dress, though there is no indication of opposition to then-extant technology.

Fiction portrayals of some exclusive groups have suggested that being able to afford ‘bespoke’ clothing, of the ‘correct’ pattern and material, made by specific and exclusive tailors, can be a signal that one is properly a member of said exclusive group. Of course, you may have to be invited to visit the specific and exclusive tailor, or be brought to the shop by someone already a member of the group…

While the best-known examples of sumptuary law involve dress, this was not the only area in which such laws were applied:

In modern times, while not cast as such (except in some political diatribes against them), there are various restrictions that could be considered sumptuary laws or customs:

Generally, these prohibitions differ from “traditional” sumptuary laws in that they are “universal” (that is, there are no exemptions within the context of enforcement from them (except for uniform restrictions, where those who legitimately have the requisite status/authority may be required to wear them in the course of their official duties)).

The possession and use of certain articles (e.g., pens, wristwatches, etc., of specific brands or styles) may be used to send signals about one’s status or intent. Sometimes, being able to read the signals is itself proof that one is a member of the ‘right’ group in context.