The following is a guest post by Francesca Marquez, who served as a fall 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.
If, in the words of Victor Hugo, “curiosity is a sort of gluttony. To see is to devour[,]” then life itself implicates excess, fashion included. Dependent upon an audience, the glitz and glamour of fashion can evoke feelings of vanity among its participants since it is, after all, meant to be visually attractive. Although an aesthetically pleasing sight might conjure up positive connotations today, it is precisely what the Kingdom of Spain once sought to legally forbid. Everything from “…trimmings of silk” to “…other embroidered things,” was at one point banned, and Herencia’s Royal Order of February 10, 1623, leaves no room for doubt of the criminal nature such a sight would represent in 17th century Spain (p.9).
More specifically, the Royal Order legally decreed what attire was forbidden from being worn, or sold, in the Kingdom of Spain. It shows how neither “swimsuits [nor] dresses” were allowed, and “…the use of gold and silver, in cloth and garnish, inside and outside the home, in everything, and any genre of dresses,” was absolutely forbidden in all spheres of life (p.9). Wholly uncompromising in its opposition to dress and luxury, this order was especially stern when it came to women (and their virtue) exclusively. But the precedent was already there, and this type of regulation was not the first of its kind.
Spain’s Royal Order on wardrobe restrictions traces its origins back to ancient Greece in the fourth century B.C.E. where similar laws, called sumptuary laws, were enacted to control dress and social activities. For example, Spartans were prohibited from attending drinking events and possessing gold or silver. And the Romans’ Lex Oppia law declared that no woman should hold more than one semuncia of gold, nor wear a multicolored garment, amongst other things. England in the late-16th century, for example, is a prime example of sumptuary laws’ peak. During this period, England’s towns, industries, and professions all expanded and gave way to a burgeoning English middle class (Earle, at 4). As more people moved into this middle station, and further away from rural and agricultural society, they began to blur the social strata of their era (Id.). The nonhierarchical trend this new wealth distribution presented spurred Queen Elizabeth I to act; by passing a series of strict laws dealing with dress codes, the monarch was able to define and set distinctions between the different strata of society once again. Hence the creation of sumptuary laws like the Statute of Apparel and the Calico Acts of the 1700s, both of which impeded the rise of cotton and silk imports as well as the public’s access to these finer goods.
This particular Spanish law, then, is very much like its predecessors; each sumptuary law does its part to reinforce social hierarchies and, to a certain extent, mitigate any loss of wealth via excessive expenditure. But does it depart from the mold? Perhaps, as it perfectly aligns with the sober style of its creator, Philip IV, this Spanish order also begins to represent something else: a Spanish identity. Philip IV, known colloquially as the “Planet King,” reigned with an austere look, notably breaking away from the ostentatious dress of previous royal courts to emphasize a Spanish fashion. For Philip IV and his forefathers, “dressing Spanish” meant donning black garments that looked almost somber in contrast to their white ruff collars. Such a strait-laced appearance rejected stereotypical patterns of French fashion to cultivate a new Spanish custom.
Indeed, this Spanish order is a chip off the old, noble block, and it certainly harks back to old sumptuary laws. There is even evidence that it carved out a particular Spanish style distinct to its time and place. Yet, this muted style, despite all its restrictions, only represents an escape from one mode to another. This Spanish order may have accomplished its assignment, but did it ever elude its aesthetic circumstances? In my opinion, fashion, made to be visually devoured, is a type of gluttony that might be unavoidable. If we are to believe Victor Hugo, then gluttony is unavoidable. The Herencia collection, at least, allows us to answer this age-old question of sin for ourselves.
- Earle, Peter. (1989). The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 1660–1730. University of California Press.
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