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.

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