Sumptuary legislation has existed for centuries - one of the earliest examples one is found in Greek law which ‘ordained that no woman should wear gold or embroidered material unless she were a prostitute.’[ii] In the early modern period the sumptuary laws in England forbid prostitutes to wear anything as elaborate or excessive, but this serves to illustrate that different time periods have different ideas of what is fitting for each social class to wear.
Using N. B. Harte’s ‘Social Control of Dress and Social Change’, A. Hunt’s ‘Governance of Consuming Passions’, and F. Baldwin’s ‘Sumptuary Legislation’, we can fast-track through the legislation relating to apparel, and covering the period 1337 to 1604 in England.
Sumptuary legislation was introduced into England relatively late compared to the rest of Europe, with the first Act of Apparel being established in 1337, forbidding all but the royal family to wear cloth manufactured outside England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This legislation was obviously introduced for economic reasons, and intended to promote internal production.
Between 1388 and 1604, when the Acts were repealed again entirely, the legislation was continuously updated and shored up by nineteen royal proclamations.[iv] The 1463 Act divided society into seven social groups, which were intended to make the act more enforceable and to aid distinction between the groups[v].
The Act of 1510, allowed King Henry VIII to ‘grant licences of exception’ and ‘excluded all women without distinction’.[vi] Henry did grant licences, and two are on record from 1517, allowing commoners to wear prohibited garments. In 1537 a licence grants members of the Artillery Company of Finsbury to wear silks, velvet and furs.[vii]
‘The necessary repressing, avoiding and expelling of the inordinate excess daily more and more used in the sumptuous and costly array and apparel customarily worn in this realm, whereof hath ensued and daily do chance such sundry high and notable inconveniences as to be to the great, manifest and notorious detriment of the common weal, the subversion of good and politic order in knowledge and distinction of people according to their estates, pre-eminences, dignities and degrees, and to the utter impoverishment and undoing of main inexpert and light persons inclined to pride, mother of all vices…’[x]
Two things are reflected in the changes to the legislation - the changes in social mobility and class structure, and the creation of fashion. Enforcement of the Act came in a variety of manners, and altered over time: one might have the offending item confiscated (the person accusing you might keep the items confiscated); one could face a fine (half of which might be paid to the informer); and in the 1554 Act if your servant wore silk outlawed garments, you could be fined £10 per day, and the servant would go to prison for three months.[xii]However in order to fine you, you had to be caught ‘in the act’ as it were.
One of the few early examples of enforcement during the reign of Henry VIII relates to ‘a gentleman named Symon fyzEichard’ who had taken from him ‘an olde Jacket of Crymosyn velvet & diverse brooches’ by Cardinal Wolsey. This apparently caused Wolsey ‘to be hated, & by his exsample many cruell officers for malice evell intreated diverse of kinges subiectes’.[xiii]
Elizabeth I seems to have been resolute in her intention to enforce the Acts, and she declared that officers arrest those inappropriately dressed at court, and that ‘in the City of London, four ‘substantial and well-meaning men’ were to be appointed in every ward to bring offenders before the court of aldermen; in all other places, the relevant mayors, bailiffs or JP’s were to establish a similar system’.[xiv] Any offences had to be reported back to the Lord Chancellor every six weeks for the next year.
Within a year of reaching the throne Elizabeth: ‘gave notice of her determination to have the acts of apparel obeyed. In a proclamation dated 21 October 1559 magistrates and men in authority were charged to see that the law is observed … Early in the following month a letter was sent by the privy council to the city corporation, which shows that the proclamation was not to be allowed to pass unheeded. It contained the novel suggestion that two watchers should be appointed for every parish, armed with a schedule of all persons assess to the late subsidy at £20 per annum, or £200 in goods and upwards, in order to see that the prohibition against silk trimmings was being obeyed.’[xv]
In this proclamation Elizabeth also dealt with ‘a new abuse not mentioned in the statutes which seems, had recently grown to serious proportions. This was ‘the use of the monstrous and outrageous greatness of hosen, which, it is asserted, have crept a late into the Realme’.[xvii] Tailors were specifically restricted as to how much material they could put into ‘hosen’, and more incredibly ‘as a further precaution, search was to be made, once in every eight days, in the house of every hosier’.[xviii]
According to Harte, in 1574 ‘there was an appeal for people to reform themselves, and for an example to be set by noblemen, privy councillors, mayors and ‘generally to all that hath any superiority or government over and upon any multitude’, as well as by ‘each man in his own household for their children and servants’’[xix].
By 1597 however, the proclamation for that year declared that ‘no reformation at all hath followed’. Elizabeth enjoined JP’s to enforce the acts which represented a’ ‘pestilent canker in a commonwealth, the confusion of all degrees’.[xx] Here again the thing which causes the problem is the lack of distinction between the classes.
With the passing of Elizabeth I and the ascension of James I, we come full circle in our examination of the legislation – for in Scotland ‘it be lauchfull to na wemen to weir abone their estait expect howris’, that is, it is unlawful for anyone but whores to dress above their station.[xxi] One of the only Scottish examples restricting dress mirrors that of the earliest examples known to us, the restrictions on all but prostitutes in Greece.
Although the sumptuary laws were repealed in 1604, this cannot be viewed as a relaxation in views on social class with the ascension of James. James had in fact attempted to introduce new legislation which would have allowed him the direct right to dictate legislation through Royal Proclamation, and it was for this reason that the bill was not passed. As a result the Act was repealed before any new legislation could be agreed. Indeed, further bills were presented in 1610, 1614, 1621, 1626 and 1628, though some were raised by merchants interested in protectionism rather than maintaining distinctions between social classes.[xxii]
James did issue Royal Proclamations relating to the wearing of bands dyed with yellow starch[xxiii], although this caused a sensation by being associated with the Overbury affair, which I will not attempt to detail here. Put simply and within the context of this discussion, James banned the used of starch for bands because it was deemed wasteful to utilise a foodstuff for fashion.[xxiv]
Scholars agree that the earliest Acts were concerned with the importation of cloth from overseas, and with ‘inordinate and excessive apparel’ leading to the ‘impoverishing of this realm of England and to the enriching of other strange realms and countries’.[xxv] This level of protectionism was matched by legislation from Elizabeth I between 1571 and 1597 making it ‘obligatory for the non-gentry to wear an English-made cap of knitted wool on Sundays and holy days’.[xxvi] Harte states that ‘This was specifically intended to benefit the trade, claimed to employ eight thousand in London alone’[xxvii], although one might conclude that this would probably ensure that your woollen cap became the thing you resented wearing most, becoming a form of livery not sought.
However later legislation is increasingly concerned with maintaining the social classes, and ensuring that everyone understands their place within that structure. People other than the Court are interested in enforcing these codes, and consideration must be given to the impact of the Reformation. The Church had undergone a massive change in the way it presented itself, and shows of flashy clothing became associated with either excessive pride, or worse still, with foreigners and Catholics.[xxviii] In a society which removed all obvious displays of ostentation from the churches, an impact must have been felt in clothing too, as can be evidenced in Philip Stubbs, Anatomie of Abuses[xxix].
One can see, therefore, that an incredibly simple way of reinforcing a stereotype within a play is to produce a character with yellow bands, or with enormous hose, padded throughout. Such types would be immediately recognizable, and one has only to reflect the specifics of the latest legislation within the outfit of the character to achieve such recognition.
There is also the very real impact of the theatre being both a reflection of fashion, and a creator of / showcase for the latest fashions too. One can see the way in which the legislation increasingly created and (literally) fashioned the importance of clothing both within society, and within the theatre.