Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Medieval Word Wednesday - Sumptuary Laws

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

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
  • The importation of silk and lace by Lombards and other foreigners were forbidden
These Sumptuary Laws distinguished seven social categories and made members of each class easily distinguished by their clothing.

The Medieval Europe is not alone in this phenomenon. Many cultures have employed such restrictions for various purposes over the centuries (See

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?


Laynie said...

We often hear the common advice: "Don't judge a book by its cover." However, I beg to differ. Certainly, we cannot know a person's nature solely by his or her appearance, but to ignore chosen outward appearance is just plain silly. This applies largely to women, as did your post, so I'll stick to that. (For some reason, this brings to mind people I see walking by at the mall.)

For example, If a girl's clothing is trendy, we can get a good idea she keeps up with pop culture and prefers to take part in the latest fads, We might infer that she has friends of the same mindset and that they like popular music on the radio, current movies, and she may enjoy "making a statement" by her appearance, hoping people will notice her. Depending on how far she's gone into the trendy (or even strange), we might infer she's seeking attention, and her maturity level and professional presentation would be lacking, even if she were to attempt to present herself in that context.

On the other hand, a young lady in a more professional outfit, suck as a ladies' business suit and blouse, send the image that she has a job requiring responsibility and that her personality and maturity level has risen to the occasion. A message is also delivered to an observer when a young girl dressed casually, such as in blue jeans and a classically styled (stylish in any year or season) button-up top with a simple clip in her hair. Someone seeing her might conclude that she does not engage in the same popular obsessions as the girl making trendy statements by her attire. It can reflect maturity level, types of friends, and even the level of intellect involved in her favorite pass-times.

Name brands can show off wealth. Tennis shoes can imply casual or athletic interests. Hair styles may display how much time (and money) a girl is willing to spend on her basic appearance.

It may not be fabrics, colors, and restrictive styling now as it was then. Instead it's now about... um... fabrics, colors and styling... hmmm. I guess, on a fundamental level, not much has changed.

(Sorry this is so long. Ask a writer a question; expect a writer's answer. teehee.)

Laynie said...

Most of us have been given the same advice all our lives: Never judge a book by its cover. While first impressions should not dictate a permanent opinion, these rules obviously proved that old adage wrong. I think primarily of girls and women as I answer this question, and I, for some reason, picture myself sitting at the mall watching people go by.

There's a young lady over there by the food court. She is sporting a very trendy hair style and her clothing and clothing reflects the latest fashions. She's obviously made a great effort to perfect her appearance by keeping up with what's in style. I can guess she has also kept up with the pop culture, movies, famous people, and music of the moment. I imagine most of her friends dress and behave the same way, since a young lady tends to have friends who reflect her interests and opinions.

Walking down the main corridor, I see a young woman in a business suit wearing heels, a white blouse, and carrying a black purse. Her hair is styled fashionably, but does not call attention. I can infer that her maturity level is high and she probably has a job that requires her appearance to reflect that.

Walking in the other direction, I notice another young lady, about the same age, dressed casually. Maybe this is her leisure time. She's in blue jeans or khaki plants, and a plain button-up top either in a stylish color or a simple basic solid or pattern. She's wearing casual boots or shoes, perhaps comfortable athletic shoes, and her hair color and style is attractive, indicating she took the time to make it look nice, but it isn't flashy. I'm betting she has the higher maturity level and could present herself professionally in the necessary situation. She's not interested in wasting her money or her time on the popular styles or making a statement with her appearance. She cares about looking nice, but she is responsible. At this time, two years from now, she might very well be wearing this same outfit, and will look no less out of place as she does now. She's chosen a classic, basic look that reflects responsibility.

Then there are name brands which sometimes shout "I'm wealthy and I want you to know it." (I do not have room to talk. I wear my sister's name-brand hand-me-downs, so this is not always true.) There are also some who are simply sloppy and just don't care. Invent your own stories for that one.

We can see that there are many changes now, as opposed to those times when women were identified by their fabrics, colors, and styles. Instead, women are now identified by their, um... fabrics... colors... and styles. Hmmm. Perhaps not much has changed after all. The difference is the lady's choice.

(I would apologize for the length of the answer, but you ask a writer a question, and you should expect a writer's answer. teehee.)