Sumptuary laws are legal acts that mark a person’s social status by legally specifying what they could wear, what they could eat, and even what kind of furniture they could have in their homes. Henry VIII’s opulent court called for such laws, but these were also applicable to those lower in rank, and even to monks and laypersons. A difference between the Tudor sumptuary laws and sumptuary laws practiced by other countries was that in England, the laws originated in Parliament, whereas in most other countries, these laws were local, and applicable only within the towns.
Under Henry VIII, Acts of Apparel were passed in 1510, 1514, 1515, 1533, as well as other types of sumptuary legislation. It could well be that the constantly changing nature of trade, religion and society under his rule led to an increasing need for such regulations to keep the social balance intact and to exercise greater control over the masses and the nobility. Henry’s reign was prominent in the development of sumptuary legislation for the different classes of people.
One of the reasons sumptuary laws were made was to ensure that the strata of society was maintained, and no one tried to look better or live better than their social superiors. For instance, in the 1509 An Act against Wearing of Costly Apparel, only the King and his immediate family (the Queen, the King’s mother, the King’s brothers and sisters) could wear cloth of purple silk or gold, while Dukes and Marquises could use only cloth of gold woven into their coats and doublets. An Earl and above could wear sable fur, but those below him in rank could not do so. Other imported furs could be worn by University graduates, Yeomen Grooms and Pages of the King’s and Queen’s chambers and men having land yielding an income of eleven pounds a year. A Lord or a Knight of the Garter was allowed to wear imported woollen, but it was a crime if those lower than them in the social scale wore imported wool. Knight of the Garter and above were allowed crimson and blue. Anyone lower in standing than government servants were not allowed velvet, satin or damask, unless of course, he was a Lord’s son or a gentleman having lands that yield hundred pounds and above a year. Those having lands yielding an income of twenty pounds a year can use satin, damask or camlet in their clothing.
Another reason for so many sumptuary laws passed during this time was due to a rising merchant class with more money than blue blood. In an aristocratic era, one could not allow mere merchants to live like Kings while the King’s own Dukes could not match the opulence of the lower classes.
Another problem these laws seek to address was people living beyond their means. Henry VIIIs An Acte for Reformacyon of Excesse in Apparayle, passed in 1533 shows how the authorities were unhappy with the extravagance in dress permeating the society in general. It could well be that they were also afraid of class distinctions becoming blurred (as it indeed begun to when these laws were lifted) when every person who could afford it was dressed the same, irrespective of class or status.
Where before this tyme dyvers laws ordyn’nces and statutes have ben with greate delibacion and advyse provided established and devised, for the necessaire repressing avoiding and expelling of the inordinate excesse dailye more and more used in the sumptuous and costly araye and apparel accustomablye worne in this Realme, whereof hath ensued and dailie do chaunce suche sundrie high and notable inconveniences as to be the greate manifest an notorious detriment of the common Weale, the subvercion of good and politike order in knowledge and distinction of people according to their estates p[re]emyences dignities and degrees, and to the utter impoverysshement and undoyng of many inexpert and light persones inclined to pride moder of all vices; which good Lawes notwithstanding, the oulteragious excesse therin is rather from tyme to tyme increased than diminysshed, eyther by the occacion of the perverse and frowarde manners and usage of people, of for that errours and abuses ones rooted and taken into long custome be not facile and at ones without some moderacion for a tyme relinquished and reformed.
Some of these laws were also moralistic, and tried to keep the moral code of the day clear. For example, prostitutes were to be arrayed differently in order for them to be distinguished from other women.
Comyn strompetes sholde were raye hodis and white roddis in her hondes
Though why did the authorities think that they would follow these laws when the very nature of their business was deemed illegal and was harshly treated by both Church and State? They might as well have hung a neon sign around their necks! It is well known that married women and unmarried women had different dress codes, but these were also enshrined in the law during Henry’s time.
Sumptuary laws also sometimes focused on the immediate need of the day. Sumptuary laws were often passed to address economic issues. If a particular industry needed boosting, then the public would be forced to keep trade running by purchasing the particular product. Such acts were often passed to boost a certain industry. The woollen trade was one such industry where law after law was passed exhorting people to buy local wool.
Sumptuary laws could also be passed to deal with some kind of social problem. For instance in 1543, a sumptuary law was passed to offset the economic effects of the plague epidemic.
A great mortality happening among the cattle in 1543, a sumptuary law was made by the common council of London to restrain luxurious feasting: it was ordained, that the lord-mayor should not have more than seven dishes at dinner or supper; aldermen and sheriffs were limited to six, the swordbearer to four, and the mayor’s and sheriffs’ officers to three; upon penalty of 40 s. for every supernumerary dish. Beside this restriction, they were prohibited after the ensuing Easter, from buying either swan, crane, or bustard, under a penalty of 20 s. for every such bird.
So what happens when people flouted these laws? In case of clothing, the offending dress (which could have fed a family for half a year) was appropriated, the offending person fined for every day of wearing the garment. Fines were common for people who were caught in the act of flouting these laws. But most people got away with flouting these laws, merely because it was too difficult to see what people were doing in their own homes. It was also probably seen as an offence on a lower scale, and there was just not enough manpower to deal with these so-called crimes. But the sword of justice would always be hanging over them, just in case they offend someone who would take the trouble of informing the authorities.
The large number of such laws passed clearly shows that the Government was fighting a losing battle against social changes of moral codes and ethics, economic upheavals and was fighting to upkeep social distinctions.
Julia Emberly: Venus & Furs – The Cultural Politics of Fur
Leah Kirtio: The Inordinate Excess in Apparel – Sumptuary Legislation in Tudor England
Letters & Papers: A New History of London
Noel Cox: Tudor Sumptuary Laws & Academic Dress