Have you heard of sumptuary laws?
These are real, legal, laws passed to control the clothing that people in different levels of social status were allowed wear. From controlling colours and fabrics to styles and trends.
They were particularly rife in the Tudor period, under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I (1509 - 1603) who both used hugely extravagant clothing as a means of asserting their power and control. But don't think they were a Tudor invention - there were sumptuary laws passed as early as the Roman era! Which, for a fashion cultures researcher like me - is a pretty exciting indication of just how important a means of communication clothing has always been!
Tudor Sumptuary Laws
There was a succession of sumptuary laws passed under these two rulers, 4 under Henry VIII and 9 more under his daughter after which what you could wear was based in your status. 18 laws in total were passed during the 267 years of the 'Tudor Period' from Edward III (1327-77) to James I (1603-1625)
The Tudors actually also put such laws interlace to prevent excess extravagance and promote the use of English made materials (eg. wool) with laws as detailed as to what cloths you could wear. Henry VIII actually passed a sumptuary law as his very first act of parliament as a king (what an obvious top priority it was!) he reserved the colour purple for exclusive use by the royal family, he forbid anyone other than elites from wearing expensive imported items such as fur, silk, and gold or silver cloth. Needless to say these laws did not seem to be focused on supporting English trade - Henry VIII was very preoccupied with a fear about competition from the growing wealthy class of merchants, and banning them from wearing such items (even if they could afford them) stirred up a lot of resentment over social inequality.
Clothing so often seems to be swept under the rug in discussions of status, granted it isn't as important as access to education or a home, but it does fascinate me that whether consciously or unconsciously the written and unwritten rules about what we can wear have so many links to our perceived statuses, even today.
Under Henry VIII women were exempt from such laws and monitoring their clothing choices was left to the male heads of the family.
In 1547 though, his daughter Elizabeth I extended these laws to women, being a female ruler she, unlike Henry VIII could feel a threat from the women in her court. Under her rule women had to dress to the status of their husbands. The most luxurious fabrics were saved for her exclusive use and used that display of wealth and power to reinforce her royal status.
Her court was known as a peacock court, with women dressing modestly to avoid competition and men truly showing off!
Enforcing The Law
Despite being all powerful leaders, monarchs actually struggled to enforce these laws. There were punishments defined for breaking them but at the same time the king would often grant his favourites favours and whole socials groups were granted immunity from punishment. Meaning that in the end the Tudor nobility were actually the largest breakers of the rules!
Again, much like we do today they broke rules and showed off to try and climb the social ladder swapping their circumstances to try and use their clothing to define their social hierarchy.
Why Enforce Such Laws?
We already know that these laws were all about power and control.
They also meant that people could easily assess the status of those around them, as for a Tudor the clothing would be incredibly easy to read: the shape, the colour, the fabric it would be like a second language to them, sharing infinite details in an instant.
There were matters of conformity and domination in play too, Tudor rulers actually tried to ban styles outside of England too. For example traditional Irish dress was seen as resistance to English rule, so Henry VIII passed laws demanding English fashions to be worn, increasing these restrictions to control language, clothing and manners.
What does it mean today ?
Here in London, where I write from, we feel pretty free to dress how we please, although it's important to remember that elements like our age, our gender, our status and our financial situations still play a huge role in what we may feel its 'appropriate' for us to wear.
And whilst these laws may sound so defunct and shocking there are so many places across the world where certain social groups, for example women, must legally conform with their clothing choices or face devastating consequences.
So the fashion history world of Tudor world of sumptuary laws and the use of fashion as control, really isn't as far away as you may think.