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Setting Social Boundaries: Sumptuary Laws

Appearance has for ages been the object of anxieties that led institution to try and regulate it in order to maintain a defined social order. One of the ways in which this kind of control has been exercised was trough the emanation of laws limiting the possibility to use fashion in order to perform an identity different from the one prescribed by one’s position in society.

Fragment of Silk Brocade, 17th century, Courtesy Les Arts Decoratifs, All Rights Reserved

The term ‘sumptuary’ derives from the latin sumptus, which refers to cost, or to the act of spending. Sumptuary laws were made to clearly define hierarchies in society, above all to safeguard morality and control the social body in its clear definition in classes. Given that appearance was charged of great values, insofar it was the first and more immediate way in which people presented their self to the world, most of these laws had to do with preventing people to ‘self-fashion’ themselves in ways that did not conform to their rank, class or social status.

Sumptuary laws have been originally used by the clergy, whose hierarchy was visually and materially defined by the vestments. Then, secular institutions nobility used them to limit the growing power of the bourgeoisie, preventing the new, dynamic class to imitate or, worse, to provoke the emergence of new fashions. Some social groups were targeted with the precise request to dress some badges in order to be recognisable: this is the case, for instance, of prostitutes, but also of people belonging to precise religious beliefs.

Chausuble made of two different velvets and embroidered in silver thread, probably 15th century, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum CC BY

These kind of laws were usually very detailed, indicating what colours, materials and styles were prescribed for each class, age and sex. Precious materials such as gold and silks were the most targeted. The Tudor dynasty in England is remembered to have enforced many sumptuary laws, even though these were often ignored.

Sumptuary laws have been also used to limit importations in favour of the promotion of national productions; some historians have argued that even in recent times attempts to make a state self-sufficient – as happened in Fascist Italy with Autarchic policies – could be read as attempt to create a sense of deep nationhood by ultimately controlling the surface – the ‘look’ - of the people.

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