During a recent blog team meeting, one of my colleagues mentioned restrictions during the early modern era concerning who could consume that newly discovered drink–chocolate. Having studied medieval history in college, I was reminded that during the Middle Ages there had also been efforts to pass laws regulating many aspects of daily life, with the aim of limiting excess–for example certain accoutrements or textiles. Goldwork and cloth of gold were usually restricted for the use of high(est) nobles and their families. These laws were known as sumptuary laws. So I decided to do a little research on this subject.
I started with one of our most useful resources, Gale Encyclopedia of American Law. The entry for sumptuary laws is short. It states in part, that “sumptuary laws are designed to regulate habits, especially on moral or religious grounds … These laws existed in Rome and were enacted in a variety of forms … to regulate the ornateness of dress … The primary purpose of the laws was to distinguish the different classes of people,and often, a person’s social class could be determined by something as simple as the style or length of his or her coat.”
Several of the sumptuary laws from the time of Elizabeth I of England are available online and make for entertaining reading. Four of these laws were passed on May 6 and 7, 1562, four years after her accession to the throne. May 1562 was a busy month for the Queen and her government. The Calendar of British State Papers reveals that at the beginning of the month the Queen’s government was preoccupied with intrigues of Lady Lennox , and her illicit contacts with Mary, Queen of Scotland – women who were both possible Catholic heirs to the English throne. Despite these worries, the government was also concerned with the enforcement of existing dress codes. In May 1562, they issued four laws on this subject. The first law regulating clothing is simply an enforcement of existing legislation passed by her father Henry VIII and her sister Queen Mary I regarding the “excess of apparel.” The accompanying law on ruffs, hose and sword is a combination of the penalties for excessive apparel along with specific regulations for tailors and hosiers. The penalty for transgressing the statutes on excessive apparel was a hefty two hundred marks while tailors and hosiers who contravened the regulations on hose would be assessed £40 – if they could not or would not pay then they could not longer work as tailors. Given these substantial penalties, enforcement of the sumptuary laws would appear to have been a money raising exercise as much as enforcement of the Elizabethan dress codes.1
The 1574 Elizabethan sumptuary law provides another insight into contemporary concerns. The law begins with a statement about how the importing of excess apparel and unnecessary foreign wares in essentially bankrupting the country:
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:
In other words, the pursuit of fine clothes was bringing the country into decay not only because of the upending of the import/export balance but also because young men were running through their inheritances and turning criminal to supply their desire for fancy clothes! After this dramatic beginning, the law proceeds to provide considerable detail about who can wear what, stating: “None shall wear any velvet, tufted taffeta, satin, or any gold or silver in their petticoats: except wives of barons, knights of the order, or councilors’ ladies, and gentlewomen of the privy chamber and bed chamber, and the maids of honor.”
Sumptuary laws were present in the American colonies. A 1651 Massachusetts law restricts any person whose estates does not exceed £200 pounds from wearing “any gold or silver lace, or gold and silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, upon the penalty of 10s. for every such offense.” Interestingly enough, although there are no sumptuary laws in in the United States today, Federal courts have upheld the right of companies to impose dress codes on their employees (West’s Federal Practice Digest 4th, Labor and Employment,§83) ruling that dress codes are not a violation of employees’ civil rights.
 A quick survey on the equivalence between Elizabethan currency and modern values shows that one pound would be equivalent to $400 today. A mark was not coinage, but was calculated at the value of 2/3rd of a pound, so a fine of 200 marks would currently equal about $53,000.