Sumptuary Laws - laws intended to restrain or limit the expenditure of citizens in apparel, food, furniture, etc.; laws which regulate the prices of commodities and the wages of labor; laws which forbid or restrict the use of certain articles, as of luxurious apparel.
(Source: The Free Dictionary, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Sumptuary+laws)
Imagine someone telling you what kinds of clothing you could buy and fining you for wearing something that doesn't fit the law's restrictions. During the Medieval period, that was just what kings did. Frequently, they passed sumptuary laws so that the social status of a person could be easily discerned by their clothing. Some of the laws were for other reasons like promoting local commerce and cutting down on imports.
From The Medieval Life and Times website:
The English Sumptuary Law of 1363: The sumptuary legislation passed in 1363 included the following:
- Women were, in general, to be dressed according to the position of their fathers or husbands
- Wives and daughters of servants were not to wear veils above twelve pence in value
- Handicraftsmen's and yeomen's wives were not to wear silk veils
- The use of fur was confined to the ladies of knights with a rental above 200 marks a year
- The wife or daughter of a knight was not to wear cloth of gold or sable fur
- The wife or daughter of a knight-bachelor not to wear velvet
- The wife or daughter of an esquire or gentleman not to wear velvet, satin or ermine
- The wife or daughter of a labourer were not to wear clothes beyond a certain price or a girdle garnished with silver
- Cloth of gold and purple silk were confined to women of the royal family
These Sumptuary Laws distinguished seven social categories and made members of each class easily distinguished by their clothing.
- The importation of silk and lace by Lombards and other foreigners were forbidden
The Medieval Europe is not alone in this phenomenon. Many cultures have employed such restrictions for various purposes over the centuries (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumptuary_law).
Today in the USA, we still evaluate people by how they dress, but it is more of an judgement of their fashion choices than their status in life. Still, we can figure out some things about a person simply by being observant.
What can we learn about a person from way they dress today?