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Sumptuary laws were originally enacted ostensibly to control excessive conspicuous consumption, but they eventually morphed into a tool of social control and enforcement of social stratification.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:
- In Rome, only the Emperor could wear a cloak or toga of Tyrian purple, and only Roman Senators could wear togas with a Tyrian purple stripe. This was ostensibly because of the great cost of the murex dye. Tyrian purple was also restricted in other places and times, for the same reason.
- In various parts of Europe at various times, the following items
of dress were restricted to royalty or nobility:
- Cloth-of-gold or cloth-of-silver
- Garments sewn with gold or silver thread
- Garments or outfits of greater than a specified number of colors
- Garments of silk or other fine cloth
As a tool of social control/stratification, the following historical and pseudo-historical sumptuary laws have been mentioned:
- Jews or Moslems were often compelled to wear distinctive badges or dress, which may have included such articles as hats, robes or coats, or footgear; sometimes the men were forbidden to shave. Recent (post-Renaissance Eastern European) examples of this type of sumptuary law imposed against Jews has become something of a sumptuary custom among the most orthodox communities, including the various Hasidic communities in the New York metroplex and the Haredi in Israel.
- Courtesans in the Venetian Republic—generally in Venice itself—were ostensibly required to wear red shoes (and no self-respecting woman not in that profession would be caught dead in such). Other compulsory articles of clothing for courtesans could be found at other times and places.
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:
- Chinese sumptuary law regulated graves, including pedestals and number of statues allowed in mausoleums.
- Feudal Japan, in its later period, allowed concessions from earlier sumptuary law to the merchant class who had in fact become wealthier than the samurai class - they were permitted, for example, to wear a single sword (while samurai in the course of their duties were mandated to wear a matched pair).
- There is evidence that in 16th Century France, and in China, some food items (turbot in France, some kinds of tea in China) were considered luxuries and their consumption restricted to the upper levels of society.
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:
- Prohibitions on the wearing of articles of clothing that could suggest military or police status. In the United States, enforcement of such prohibitions is generally limited to wearing them with logos, patches, embroidery, et cetera, that suggests official status in a context where someone with that status and concomittant authority may be misled.
- Prohibitions on trade in or consumption of alcoholic beverages. In some cases (e.g., among some Moslems not living in Sharia law countries, or the Latter-Day Saints), this is a custom rather than a legislatively-codified prohibition; elsewhere, the prohibition is codified into law (Sharia law countries, and “dry” counties in some areas of the United States).
- The Latter-Day Saints maintain as a custom a prohibition on the consumption of beverages containing caffeine.
- Observant Jews and Moslems have various prohibitions regarding allowable foods. Some of these differ only in the interpretation of the governing text (e.g., under what conditions the meat of a cow, goat, or sheep may be consumed); others differ between the two religions in that the prohibition may exist in one but not the other (e.g., mixing meat and milk—prohibited to Jews, not to Moslems; or consuming alcohol—prohibited to Moslems, not to Jews); still others are the same in both religions (e.g., prohibition of pork).
- Prohibitions on trade in or use of certain “mind-altering” substances. The most controversial such are those prohibiting the use of marijuana (cannabis sativa). [This is presently a politically-charged subject in the United States, and the level and existence of the prohibition varies from state to state, though even in states where the prohibition has been entirely revoked, the Federal universal prohibition is technically still in effect.]
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.