Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumptuariae leges) are laws that attempt to regulate permitted consumption. Black's Law Dictionary defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc."[1] Traditionally, they were laws that regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions, often depending upon a person's social rank, on permitted clothing, food, and luxury expenditures.

Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and often were used for social discrimination.[2]

This frequently meant preventing commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats and sometimes also to stigmatize disfavored groups. In the Late Middle Ages, sumptuary laws were instituted as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie of medieval cities, and they continued to be used for these purposes well into the 17th century.[2]

Classical world

Ancient Greece

The first written Greek law code (Locrian code), by Zaleucus in the 7th century BC, stipulated that "no free woman should be allowed any more than one maid to follow her, unless she was drunk: nor was to stir out of the city by night, wear jewels of gold about her, or go in an embroidered robe, unless she was a professed and public prostitute; that, bravos excepted, no man was to wear a gold ring, nor be seen in one of those effeminate robes woven in the city of Miletus." (Quoted from Montaigne, see below.) It also banned the drinking of undiluted wine except for medical purposes.[3]

Ancient Rome

The Sumptuariae Leges of Ancient Rome were various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumptus) in banquets and dress, such as the use of expensive Tyrian purple dye.[4][5] Individual garments were also regulated: ordinary male citizens were allowed to wear the toga virilis only upon reaching the age of political majority.[6] In the early years of the Empire, men were forbidden to wear silk,[7] and details of clothing including the number of stripes on the tunic were regulated according to social rank.[7]

It was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons,[8] and such restrictions are found in laws attributed to the kings of Rome and in the Twelve Tables. The Roman censors, who were entrusted with the disciplina or cura morum, published the nota censoria. In it was listed the names of everyone found guilty of a luxurious mode of living; a great many instances of this kind are recorded. As the Roman Republic wore on, further such laws were passed; however, towards the end of the Republic, they were virtually repealed. Any such laws that may have still existed were ignored during the profligate luxury characterizing the period during the height of the Roman Empire, except the laws regarding the wearing of Tyrian purple.[9]

Only the Roman Emperor could wear the symbol of his office, a Tyrian purple cape trimmed in golden thread, and Roman senators were the only ones who could wear the badge of their office, a Tyrian purple stripe on their toga. During the height of the Empire, such vast quantities of silk were imported from Sinica along the Silk Road that Imperial advisers warned that Roman silver reserves were becoming exhausted. Near the end of the Western Roman Empire, the Emperor Honorius (d. 423) issued a decree prohibiting men from wearing "barbarian" trousers in Rome.[9]



Sumptuary laws existed in China in one form or another from the Qin dynasty onwards (221 BC). The Confucian virtue of restraint was embodied in the scholarly system central to China's bureaucracy and became encoded in its laws.[10]

Sumptuary laws were often concerned with the size and decoration of graves and mausoleums. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, issued such regulations in the first year of the empire (1368) and tightened them in 1396. According to the latter rules, only the highest nobility (those of the gong and hou ranks) and the officials of the top three ranks were allowed to have a memorial stele installed on top of a stone tortoise; lower-level mandarins' steles were to stand on simple rectangular pedestals, while commoners had to be satisfied with a simple gravestone. The size of the site and the number of statues in nobles and mandarins' mausoleums varied depending on their rank as well.[11]

Sumptuary laws were not updated in China until after about 1550, but had long been ineffective.[12] Kenneth Pomeranz has researched consumption levels in China over the several centuries prior to and during the period of intense industrial expansion in Europe (after 1800). He suggests that consumption levels of luxuries such as tea, sugar, fine silk, tobacco and eating utensils were on a par with core regions in Europe until industrial expansion.[12]

Japan under the Shoguns

According to Britannica Online, "In feudal Japan sumptuary laws were passed with a frequency and minuteness of scope that had no parallel in the history of the Western world."[13] During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) in Japan, people of every class were subject to strict sumptuary laws that included regulation of the types of clothing that could be worn. In the second half of that period (the 18th and 19th centuries), the merchant class (chōnin) had grown far wealthier than the aristocratic samurai, and these laws sought to maintain the superiority of the samurai class despite the ability of the merchants to wear far more luxurious clothing and to own far more luxurious items. The shogunate eventually gave in and allowed certain concessions, including allowing merchants of a certain prestige to wear a single sword at their belt; samurai were required to wear a matched pair when on official duty.[14]

The Islamic world

Religious sumptuary laws

Islamic sumptuary laws are based upon teachings found in the Quran and Hadith. Males are exhorted not to wear silk clothes, nor have jewelry made of gold. Likewise, wearing clothes or robes that drag on the ground, seen as a sign of vanity and excessive pride, are also forbidden. These rules do not apply to women, who are allowed all this.

Prohibition of depictions of human and animal figures in general are similar to those of the Quranic prohibition on graven images. Hadiths do allow the depiction of animals on clothing items.[15]

Dress regulations for non-Muslims

Template:See Non-Muslims were not allowed to wear colors associated with Islam, particularly green.[16][need quotation to verify] The practice of physically branding Jews and Christians appears to have been begun in early medieval Baghdad and was considered highly degrading.[17]

In many Islamic states, Christians and Jews were required to wear special emblems on their clothes. The yellow badge was first introduced by a caliph in Baghdad in the 9th century and spread to the West in medieval times. In public baths, non-Muslims had to wear medallions suspended from cords around their necks, so no one would mistake them for Muslims. Belts, headgear, shoes, armbands and cloth patches were also used.[18] In 1005 the Jews of Fatimid Egypt were ordered to wear bells on their garments.[19]

In the early years of the 21st century the Taliban in Afghanistan required Afghan Hindus to wear yellow badges.[20][21][22]

Medieval and Renaissance Europe

The earliest sumptuary regulations in Christian Europe were church regulations of clergy, distinguishing what ranks could wear which items of vestments or (to a lesser extent) normal clothes on particular occasions; these were already very detailed by 1200, in early recensions of canon law. Next followed regulations, again flowing from the church (by far the largest bureaucracy in Medieval Europe), attempting to enforce the wearing of distinctive clothing or badges so that members of various groups could be readily identified, as branded criminals already could be.

The groups covered included Jews, Muslims, heretics such as Cathars (repentant ones were made to wear the Cathar yellow cross), lepers and sufferers from some other medical conditions, and prostitutes. The enactment and effectiveness of such measures was highly variable — efforts to make lepers wear long whitish robes were apparently not successful, as they are usually shown in pictures wearing normal clothes, but carrying a horn or rattle to warn others of their approach.

Sumptuary laws issued by secular authorities aimed at keeping the main population dressed according to their "station" do not begin until the later 13th century.[23] These laws were addressed to the entire social body, but the brunt of regulation was directed at women and the middle classes. Their curbing of display was ordinarily couched in religious and moralizing vocabulary, yet was affected by social and economic considerations aimed at preventing ruinous expenses among the wealthy classes and the drain of capital reserves to foreign suppliers.[24]

Non-Christians' clothing

The efforts to make Jews and Muslims dress distinctively date from 1215 or shortly before. One aspect of medieval sumptuary laws was to make the Jewish and other non-Christian populations identifiable by the wearing of special yellow badges or the conical Jewish hat, the latter having initially been a voluntary form of distinctive dress imported from the Islamic world.[25] Canon 68 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear distinctive clothing; avoiding sexual contact between the populations was the reason given.

The Jews of Castile, the largest population in Europe, were exempted by the pope four years later, but elsewhere, local laws were introduced to bring the canon into effect. In much of Europe, Jews were supposed to wear the Judenhut or a yellow badge in the form of a wheel or ring (the "rota"), or, in England, a shape representing the Tablets of the Law. Muslims usually were supposed to wear a crescent-shaped patch or Eastern dress. Enforcement of these laws seems to have dwindled gradually, and the hat is not often seen in pictures after the 15th century, although the ring continues after that.[26]


Special forms of dress for prostitutes and courtesans were first introduced in Ancient Rome in the form of a flame-colored toga and re-introduced in the 13th century: in Marseilles a striped cloak, in England a striped hood, and so on. Over time, these tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. Later restrictions specified various forms of finery that were forbidden, although there was also sometimes a recognition that finery represented working equipment (and capital) for a prostitute, and they could be exempted from laws applying to other non-noble women. By the 15th century, no compulsory clothing seems to have been imposed on prostitutes in Florence, Venice (the European capital of courtesans) or Paris.[27]


In England, which in this respect was typical of Europe, from the reign of Edward III in the Middle Ages until well into the 17th century,[2] sumptuary laws dictated what colour and type of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims were allowed to persons of various ranks or incomes. In the case of clothing, this was intended, amongst other reasons, to reduce spending on foreign textiles and to ensure that people did not dress "above their station":

The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow (by bringing into the realm such superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, silver, and other most vain devices of so great cost for the quantity thereof as of necessity the moneys and treasure of the realm is and must be yearly conveyed out of the same to answer the said excess) but also particularly the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts, whereby they are not any ways serviceable to their country as otherwise they might be. – Statute issued at Greenwich, 15 June 1574, by order of Elizabeth I[28])

An extremely long list of items, specifying colour, materials, and sometimes place of manufacture (imported goods being much more tightly restricted) followed for each sex, with equally specific exceptions by rank of nobility or position held. For the most part, these laws were poorly enforced and often ignored, though the Parliament of England made repeated amendments to the laws, and several monarchs (most notably the Tudors) continually called for stricter enforcement "to the intent there may be a difference of estates known by their apparel after the commendable custom in times past."[29]


Many sumptuary laws regulating specific items of dress were issued throughout Italy in the Renaissance. Low necklines were prohibited in Genoa, Milan, and Rome in the early 16th century,[30] and laws restricting zibellini (sable furs carried as fashion accessories) with heads and feet of precious metals and jewels were issued in Bologna in 1545 and Milan in 1565.[31]


Montaigne's brief essay "On sumptuary laws" criticized 16th-century French laws, beginning, "The way by which our laws attempt to regulate idle and vain expenses in meat and clothes, seems to be quite contrary to the end designed... For to enact that none but princes shall eat turbot, shall wear velvet or gold lace, and interdict these things to the people, what is it but to bring them into a greater esteem, and to set every one more agog to eat and wear them?" He also cites Plato and Zaleucus.

Early Modern era

In the Early Modern period, sumptuary laws continued to be used to support native textile industries in the face of imports. Prohibitions continued to be tied to rank and income and continued to be widely ignored.


In 1629 and 1633, Louis XIII of France issued edicts regulating "Superfluity of Dress" that prohibited anyone but princes and the nobility from wearing gold embroidery or caps, shirts, collars and cuffs embroidered with metallic threads or lace,[32] and puffs, slashes, and bunches of ribbon were severely restricted. As with other such laws, these were widely disregarded and laxly enforced. A series of popular engravings by Abraham Bosse depicts the supposed effects of this law.[33]

Colonial America

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles. After a few decades, the law was being widely defied.[34][35]


A 1571 Act of Parliament to stimulate domestic wool consumption and general trade decreed that on Sundays and holidays all males over 6 years of age, except for the nobility and persons of degree, were to wear woollen caps on pain of a fine of three farthings (3/4 pence) per day. This law instituted the flat cap as part of English wear. The Bill was repealed in 1597, but the flat cap continues to be widely used today.[36]

Present day

While there are rarely restrictions on the type or quality of clothing, beyond maintenance of public decency (covering parts of the body, depending upon the jurisdiction; not exhibiting unacceptable wording or images), it is widely forbidden to wear certain types of clothing restricted to specific occupations, specifically the uniforms of organisations such as police and the military.

In some jurisdictions clothing or other visible signs of religious or political opinion are forbidden in certain public places.[37][38][39][40]

Proscription or requirement of native dress

Sumptuary laws have also been used to control populations by prohibiting the wearing of native dress and hairstyles, along with the proscription of other cultural customs. Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I, banned the wearing of traditional woollen mantles, "open smocks" with "great sleeves", and native headdresses, requiring the people to dress in "civil garments" in the English style.[41]

In a similar manner, the Dress Act of 1746, part of the Act of Proscription issued under George II of the United Kingdom following the Jacobite Risings, made wearing Scottish Highland Dress including tartans and kilts illegal in Scotland for anyone not in the British military. The Act was repealed in 1782, having been largely successful, and a few decades later, "romantic" Highland Dress was enthusiastically adopted by George IV on a Walter Scott-inspired visit to Scotland in 1822.[42]

In Bhutan, the wearing of traditional dress (which also has an ethnic connotation) in certain places, such as when visiting government offices, was made compulsory in 1989 under the driglam namzha laws.[43] Part of the traditional dress includes the kabney, a long scarf whose coloring is regulated. Only the King of Bhutan and Chief Abbot may don the saffron scarf, with various other colors reserved for government and religious officers, and white available for common people.

Pejorative uses of the term sumptuary law

The term sumptuary law has been used as a pejorative term to describe any governmental control of consumption, whether based on moral, religious, health, or public safety concerns. Judge Thomas M. Cooley generally described their modern form as laws that "substitute the legislative judgment for that of the proprietor, regarding the manner in which he should use and employ his property."[44] Policies to which the term has been critically applied include alcohol prohibition,[45] drug prohibition,[46] gun control laws, smoking bans,[47][48][49][50] and restrictions on dog fighting.[51]

Alcohol prohibition

As early as 1860, Anthony Trollope, writing about his experiences in Maine under the state's prohibition law, stated, "This law (prohibition), like all sumptuary laws, must fail."[52] In 1918, William Howard Taft decried prohibition in the United States as a bad sumptuary law, stating that one of his reasons for opposing prohibition was his belief that "sumptuary laws are matters for parochial adjustment."[53] Taft later repeated this concern.[54] The Supreme Court of Indiana also discussed alcohol prohibition as a sumptuary law in its 1855 decision Herman v. State.[55] During state conventions on the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, numerous delegates throughout the United States decried prohibition as having been an improper sumptuary law that never should have been included in the Constitution of the United States.[45]

In 1971, a United States federal study stated that federal laws on alcohol include "sumptuary laws which are directed at the purchaser", including, "Sales are not permitted to minors or intoxicated persons. Credit is often prohibited on liquor sales as well. Criminal penalties may be imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as for drunken behavior."[56]

Drug prohibition

When the U.S. State of Washington considered cannabis decriminalization in two initiatives, 229 and 248, the initiatives' language stated, "Cannabis prohibition is a sumptuary law of a nature repugnant to our Constitution's framers."

See also



  • Garlet, Tamara (2007). Le contrôle de l'apparence vestimentaire à Lausanne d'après les lois somptuaires bernoises et les registres du Consistoire de la Ville (1675–1706). University of Lausanne.
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