Inns of Court, part 3: How they dressed

Giovanni Battista Moroni. Wikimedia commons.

I can’t find any portraits of inner barristers — students at the Inns of Court — and precious few portraits of barristers. I find no portraits of lawyers in their work clothes; at least none that prominently feature the details of their robes. The kids in the Harry Potter movies wore wizard’s robes over their everyday jeans and sneakers. Replace the jeans with galligaskins and you’ll get the general idea.

The picture shows an Italian lawyer, very correctly dressed in somber black, with restrained — yet impeccable — ruffs and cuffs. He’s not wearing a gown over his doublet and hose, but note the velvet welts on his sleeves.

Regulation dress

One’s status at the Inns of Court was displayed by means of one’s robe or gown.

  • Benchers, governors of the Inns, wore knee-length gowns tufted with silk and velvet.
  • Barristers, aka outer barristers, or men who had passed the bar, wore long black grogram gowns with two velvet welts on the long hanging sleeves.
  • Students, aka inner barristers, wore sleeveless black gowns with a flap collar, topped by a round black cloth cap.


Student caps are not like academic mortar boards. They’re like this fine fellow (thanks to A bluestocking knits  for the link.) Ludger_tom_Ring_d__J__Selbstbildnis_wikiped

Grogram is a blend of silk and mohair. According to Knitpicks , “the silk adds a radiant core that shimmers and shines through the soft halo of the mohair.” Warm, too.

Rules made to be broken

Has any dress code ever, anywhere, been obeyed?

Legal gowns were to be worn at all times in the Inns and presumably in the Westminster courts. It was forbidden to wear them into the City, any further than Fleet bridge, Holborn bridge, or the Savoy. Why, I have no idea. Francis Bacon was often seen walking about the City in his barrister’s gown, so it can’t have been much enforced. They announce one’s status. Who would give that up?

Like sumptuary laws in general, the dress code at the Inns of Court seems to have needed constant reinforcement. I get the sense that the benchers kept having to add items to the list of forbidden garments and accessories, posting and reposting their rules on the screen in the hall. (When you enter a hall in this period, you first encounter a floor-to-ceiling screen of oak paneling. Such a screens passage  can be quite elaborate and long enough to form a corridor. This is where notices were pinned.)

Here’s a sampling of forbidden items of dress:

  • Breeches of any light color, coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on study gowns. Great breeches made after the Dutch, Spanish, or German fashion; or cut [slashed] doublets.
  • Any light colors in hose or doublets, except scarlet and crimson.
  • White jerkins.
  • Buskins or velvet shoes.
  • Double cuffs on shirts.
  • Feathers or ribbons in caps.
  • Spanish cloak, sword and buckler, or rapier.
  • None under the degree of a knight do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of 1 s. and so double for every week after monition.


For some reason I thought lace would be on that list, but apparently not. The rules about beards seem peculiar too. They seem to be promoting a sexy stubble. Pointed short beards and long hair became increasingly stylish over the 1590’s.

The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh
The always stylish Sir Walter Raleigh

Punishment was 3s. 4d. for the first offense, upon pain to forfeit, and expulsion for the second. I sincerely doubt anyone was ever really expelled for clothing violations. The most common punishment was undoubtedly a stern frown, an open palm, and the command, “Give me that feather, Mr. Clarady. And don’t let me catch you wearing such fripperies again!”


Honored in the breach: sumptuary laws

Robert Dudley wearing silk from head to toe. Wikimedia Commons.


Sumptuary laws are way for the upper classes to restrict the symbols of their wealth and power. In rigidly stratified societies, knowing a person’s social status is essential; sumptuary laws allow this vital fact to be determined at a glance. And persons aspiring to be taken for greater than they are have a handy list to take to their tailor!

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is displaying a silk velvet cap with a gold band. His suit is silk with many tiny slashings. His hose are both slashed and wide, stuffed probably with horsehair. Both ruffs and cuffs are trimmed with lace, probably imported from the Low Countries. He wears a sword with both gold and silk on the hanger.




What not to wear

Here’s a sampling from sumptuary laws from China to Mexico:

Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Wikimedia Commons.
  • Ancient Greece: limit women to 3 traveling dresses.
  • Republican Rome: limit use of gold ornaments and multicolored garments.
  • Sui and Tang Dynasty of China: only emperors could wear yellow; only high officials could wear purple.
  • Aztec Mexico: only kings could wear mantles of multicolored threads and featherwork; common people could not wear cotton clothing, but only cloth of maguey fiber.
  • Tudor England: no man under the rank of lord could wear wool not made in England; no serving man could use more than 3 yards for a long gown.
  • Tokugawa Japan: embroidery was prohibited in women’s clothing.
  • Elizabethan England: no silk on hats; no puffy pants for servants.


Special note for the early Tudor period: The act of apparel passed in November 1515 made a special exemption allowing gentlemen of the Inns of Court to wear satin, damask, and camlet like the nobility. How many of those legal gentlemen were Members of Parliament during that session? (Camlet~chamlet was a blend of silk and linen; later of silk and wool.)

Failure to comply

Shively’s article shows that in Japan, as in Tudor England, these laws were issued, re-issued, and issued again. He found seven laws issued in 1683 alone! Frequency of repetition is a good sign that laws are not being obeyed.

Samurai of the Tokugawa period. Wikimedia Commons
Samurai of the Tokugawa period. Wikimedia Commons

Enforcement was the challenge. There were no clothing police. You’d have to be noticed by a powerful person who already had a reason to cause you trouble, in which case you were cruisin’ for a bruisin’ no matter what you wore. A typical penalty throughout the Tudor period for such infractions was a fine along with the forfeiture of the item in question.

The act of 1510 made it lawful for anyone to seize any apparel worn contrary to the statute outside the court and to keep it for his own use. I’ll bet that was a popular law! “Give me that hat, thou wretch!” I can see duchesses ripping silks off the backs of their ladies in waiting or more likely, a master snatching a bit of finery from his puffed-up apprentice.

Punishments could be more severe. Cardinal Wolsey made a very unpopular attempt to enforce the sumptuary laws for a while in Henry VIII’s early days. He actually set one young man in the pillory for wearing a slashed shirt. (Slashing revealed silk linings, very stylish. Not to mention the microscopic hand stitches around each slash. Expensive!) I’m betting the young man in question did more than just wear that shirt. Back talk, at a minimum.

The last act of apparel was passed in 1554 under Queen Mary, amending the law of 1533. The new act prohibited silk of any kind in or upon hats, bonnets, nightcaps, girdles, hose, shoes, scabbards, or spur leathers for persons below the rank of son and heir-apparent of a knight OR persons with incomes less than £20 per annum. Offenders might suffer 3 months in prison or a fine of £10. Dire! Except the odds were about like getting a ticket for a rolling stop in your own neighborhood today. (How many have done this? Raise your hands. What’s that on your hat — a silk ribbon?) Hooper discovered only one prosecution under this act. Note the exceptions: if you could legitimately afford it, you could wear it, apart from some very special stuffs like ermine.

Efforts to control outward show increased under Elizabeth, not surprisingly, since she was the Show Master par excellence. Her sumptuary policies were set forth in the form of proclamations, rather than acts, because she did not like to work through parliament. She and her right-hand man, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, made an attempt to clamp down in the 1560s and 1570s on persons such as ‘som Smithfield Ruffian’ flaunting ‘som new disguised garment, or desperate hat, fond in facion, or gaurish in colour.’ (“Byerlady, Will, that hat is like totally desperate!”)

Aztec prince, Codex Magliabechiano. Wikimedia Commons.

Burghley devised schemes to appoint watchers in each parish to keep sharp eyes out for prohibited silk trimmings. Parish courts didn’t like prosecuting such matters, however, so they dragged their feet through various forms of appeal. Still, Burghley kept refining his methods, creating a schedule of reports to be made by the watchers and rules for the judges of assize to follow during their circuits. Briefs of the apparel statues were provided for handy reference. Hosiers and tailors were required to enter into bonds, money they would lose if they were found to be supplying prohibited garments.

Officials did do some prosecuting, especially of servants wearing monstrous hose (puffy pants.) The offenders’ hose were emptied of stuffings right there in the court, a humiliating experience. People were fined. No one was pilloried. There was a lot of pushback, often in the form of detailed requests for clarification. How much silk exactly? Here, or there? It’s devilishly difficult to enforce a law when the people tasked with enforcement are among the chief offenders.

Hooper sums up the topic admirably: “Fashion, however, was stronger than law.”


Anawalt, Patricia. 1980. “Costume and control: Aztec sumptuary laws,” Archaeology, Vol. 33 No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1980) pp. 33-43.

Hooper, Wilfrid. 1915. “The Tudor sumptuary laws,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 30, No. 119, (Jul., 1915), pp. 433-499.

Secara, Maggie. 2011. A Compendium of Common Knowledge.

Shively, Donald H. “Sumptuary regulation and status in early Tokugawa Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 25 (1964-1965), pp. 123-164.

Xinru, Liu. 1995. “Silks and religions in Eurasia, C. A.D. 600-1200,” Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 25-48.