Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumptuāriae lēgēs) are laws that try to regulate consumption. Black's Law Dictionary defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc." Historically, they were intended to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures, often depending on a person's social rank.
Societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They were used to try to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They made it easy to identify social rank and privilege, and as such could be used for social discrimination.
The laws often prevented commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats, and could be used to stigmatize disfavored groups. In Late medieval cities, sumptuary laws were instituted as a way for the nobility to limit the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie. If bourgeois subjects appeared to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the ruling nobility, it could undermine the nobility's presentation of themselves as powerful, legitimate rulers. This could call into question their ability to control and defend their fief, and inspire traitors and rebels. Such laws continued to be used for these purposes well into the 17th century.
The first written Greek law code (Locrian code), by Zaleucus in the 7th century BC, stipulated that:
A free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.
The Sumptuariae Leges of ancient Rome were various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (Latin sūmptus) in banquets and dress, such as the use of expensive Tyrian purple dye. In the early years of the Empire, men were forbidden to wear silk.
It was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in personal expenditure, and such restrictions are found in laws attributed to the kings of Rome and in the Twelve Tables. The Roman censors, who were entrusted with the disciplina or cura morum, published the nota censoria. In it were listed the names of everyone found guilty of a luxurious mode of living; a great many instances of this kind are recorded. As the Roman Republic wore on, further such laws were passed; however, towards the end of the Republic, they were virtually repealed. Any such laws which may have still existed were ignored during the period of profligate luxury characterizing the height of the Roman Empire, except the laws regarding the wearing of Tyrian purple.
Only the Roman Emperor could wear the symbol of his office, a Tyrian purple cape trimmed in golden thread, and Roman senators were the only ones who could wear the badge of their office, a Tyrian purple stripe on their toga. During the height of the Empire, expenditure on silk imported from China was so high, Imperial advisers warned that Roman silver reserves were becoming exhausted.
Sumptuary laws existed in China in one form or another from the Qin dynasty onwards (221 BC). The Confucian virtue of restraint was embodied in the scholarly system central to China's bureaucracy and became encoded in its laws.
Some laws concerned the size and decoration of graves and mausoleums. The founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, issued such regulations in the first year of his rule (1368) and tightened them in 1396, allowing only the highest nobility and officials of the top three ranks a memorial stele installed on top of a stone tortoise; the steles of lower-level mandarins were perched on rectangular pedestals, while commoners had to be satisfied with a simple gravestone. The location of graves and the number of attendant statues depended on rank.
After circa 1550, sumptuary law in China was reformed. It had long been ineffective. The consumption of luxuries had risen over the previous several centuries, and at the time of the European Industrial revolution, Chinese consumption of luxuries such as tea, sugar, fine silk, tobacco and eating utensils was on a par with core regions in Europe.
Japan under the shōguns
According to Britannica Online, "In feudal Japan, sumptuary laws were passed with a frequency and minuteness of scope that had no parallel in the history of the Western world." During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) in Japan, people of every class were subject to strict sumptuary laws, including regulation of the types of clothing that could be worn. In the second half of that period (the 18th and 19th centuries), the merchant class (chōnin) had grown far wealthier than the aristocratic samurai, and these laws sought to maintain the superiority of the samurai class despite the ability of the merchants to wear far more luxurious clothing and to own far more luxurious items. The shogunate eventually gave in and allowed certain concessions, including allowing merchants of a certain prestige to wear a single sword at their belt; samurai were required to wear a matched pair when on official duty.
Islamic sumptuary laws are based upon teachings found in the Quran and Hadith. Males are exhorted not to wear silk clothes, nor have jewelry made of gold. Likewise, wearing clothes or robes that drag on the ground, seen as a sign of vanity and excessive pride, are also forbidden. These rules do not apply to women, who are allowed all this, but also need to cover their bodies and faces.
Medieval and Renaissance Europe
Sumptuary laws issued by secular authorities aimed at keeping the main population dressed according to their "station" do not begin until the later 13th century. These laws were addressed to the entire social body, but the brunt of regulation was directed at women and the middle classes. Their curbing of display was ordinarily couched in religious and moralizing vocabulary, yet was affected by social and economic considerations aimed at preventing ruinous expenses among the wealthy classes and the drain of capital reserves to foreign suppliers.
Special forms of dress for prostitutes and courtesans were introduced in the 13th century: in Marseille a striped cloak, in England a striped hood, and so on. Over time, these tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. Later restrictions specified various forms of finery that were forbidden, although there was also sometimes a recognition that finery represented working equipment (and capital) for a prostitute, and they could be exempted from laws applying to other non-noble women. By the 15th century, no compulsory clothing seems to have been imposed on prostitutes in Florence, Venice (the European capital of courtesans) or Paris.
In England, which in this respect was typical of Europe, from the reign of Edward III in the Middle Ages until well into the 17th century, sumptuary laws dictated what colour and type of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims were allowed to persons of various ranks or incomes. In the case of clothing, this was intended, amongst other reasons, to reduce spending on foreign textiles and to ensure that people did not dress "above their station":
The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow (by bringing into the realm such superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost for the quantity thereof as of necessity the moneys and treasure of the realm is and must be yearly conveyed out of the same to answer the said excess) but also particularly the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts, whereby they are not any ways serviceable to their country as otherwise they might be
A 1571 Act of Parliament to stimulate domestic wool consumption and general trade decreed that on Sundays and holidays, all males over six years of age, except for the nobility and persons of degree, were to wear woolen caps on pain of a fine of three farthings (¾ penny) per day. This law instituted the flat cap as part of English wear. The 1571 act was repealed in 1597.
An extremely long list of items, specifying colour, materials, and sometimes place of manufacture (imported goods being much more tightly restricted) followed for each sex, with equally specific exceptions by rank of nobility or position held. For the most part, these laws seem to have had little effect, though the Parliament of England made repeated amendments to the laws, and several monarchs (most notably the Tudors) continually called for stricter enforcement, especially at Court "to the intent there may be a difference of estates known by their apparel after the commendable custom in times past."
Adam Smith was against the necessity or convenience of sumptuary laws, he wrote: "of 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... They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will."
During the Medieval and Renaissance era in Italy, various towns passed sumptuary laws (leggi suntuarie) often in response to particular events or movements. For example, San Bernardino da Siena, in his public sermons in Siena, thundered against the vanity of luxurious dress; this, however, was counterbalanced by the economic benefit Siena derived as a manufacturer of items, including clothes, of luxury. One source describes these types of laws as constantly published, and generally ignored. These laws, mostly aimed at female apparel, sometimes became a source of revenue for the state: the Florentine laws of 1415 restricted the luxury that could be worn by women, but exempted those willing to pay 50 florins a year. The laws were often quite specific. Low necklines were prohibited in Genoa, Milan, and Rome in the early 16th century, and laws restricting zibellini (sable furs carried as fashion accessories) with heads and feet of precious metals and jewels were issued in Bologna in 1545 and Milan in 1565.
Montaigne's brief essay "On sumptuary laws" criticized 16th-century French laws, beginning:
The way by which our laws attempt to regulate idle and vain expenses in meat and clothes, seems to be quite contrary to the end designed ... For to enact that none but princes shall eat turbot, shall wear velvet or gold lace, and interdict these things 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?
Early modern era
In the early modern period, sumptuary laws continued to be used to support native textile industries in the face of imports. Prohibitions continued to be tied to rank and income and continued to be widely ignored.
In 1629 and 1633, Louis XIII of France issued edicts regulating "Superfluity of Dress" that prohibited anyone but princes and the nobility from wearing gold embroidery or caps, shirts, collars and cuffs embroidered with metallic threads or lace, and puffs, slashes, and bunches of ribbon were severely restricted. As with other such laws, these were widely disregarded and laxly enforced. A series of popular engravings by Abraham Bosse depicts the supposed effects of this law.
In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles. After a few decades, the law was being widely defied.
While there are rarely restrictions on the type or quality of clothing, beyond maintenance of public decency (covering parts of the body, depending upon the jurisdiction; not exhibiting unacceptable wording or images), it is widely forbidden to wear certain types of clothing restricted to specific occupations, specifically the uniforms of organisations such as police and the military.
Many American states in the 20th century prohibited the wearing of KKK hoods, masks, masquerade, or drag; gay men in New York City seized on the exemption for masquerade balls in the 1920s to 1930s to go in drag.
Proscription or requirement of native dress
Sumptuary laws have also been used to control populations by prohibiting the wearing of native dress and hairstyles, along with the proscription of other cultural customs. Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I, banned the wearing of traditional woolen mantles, "open smocks" with "great sleeves", and native headdresses, requiring the people to dress in "civil garments" in the English style.
In a similar manner, the Dress Act of 1746, part of the Act of Proscription issued under King George II of Great Britain following the Jacobite risings, made wearing Scottish Highland dress including tartans and kilts illegal in Scotland for anyone not in the British military. The Act was repealed in 1782, having been largely successful, and a few decades later, "romantic" Highland dress was enthusiastically adopted by George IV on a Walter Scott-inspired visit to Scotland in 1822.
In Bhutan, the wearing of traditional dress (which also has an ethnic connotation) in certain places, such as when visiting government offices, was made compulsory in 1989 under the driglam namzha laws. Part of the traditional dress includes the kabney, a long scarf whose coloring is regulated. Only the King of Bhutan and Chief Abbot may don the saffron scarf, with various other colors reserved for government and religious officers, and white available for common people.
Pejorative uses of the term sumptuary law
The term sumptuary law has been used as a pejorative term to describe any governmental control of consumption, whether based on moral, religious, health, or public safety concerns. American Judge Thomas M. Cooley generally described their modern form as laws that "substitute the legislative judgment for that of the proprietor, regarding the manner in which he should use and employ his property." Policies to which the term has been critically applied include alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition, smoking bans, and restrictions on dog fighting.
As early as 1860, Anthony Trollope, writing about his experiences in Maine under the state's prohibition law, stated, "This law (prohibition), like all sumptuary laws, must fail." In 1918, William Howard Taft decried prohibition in the United States as a bad sumptuary law, stating that one of his reasons for opposing prohibition was his belief that "sumptuary laws are matters for parochial adjustment." Taft later repeated this concern. The Indiana Supreme Court also discussed alcohol prohibition as a sumptuary law in its 1855 decision Herman v. State. During state conventions on the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, numerous delegates throughout the United States decried prohibition as having been an improper sumptuary law that never should have been included in the Constitution of the United States.
In 1971, a United States federal study stated that federal laws on alcohol include "sumptuary laws which are directed at the purchaser", including, "Sales are not permitted to minors or intoxicated persons. Credit is often prohibited on liquor sales as well. Criminal penalties may be imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as for drunken behavior."
When the U.S. State of Washington considered cannabis decriminalization in two initiatives, 229 and 248, the initiatives' language stated, "Cannabis prohibition is a sumptuary law of a nature repugnant to our Constitution's framers."
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