A Brief Treatise on Sumptuary Laws

June 23 2020


Word origin

Sumptuary comes from the word sumptuarius meaning something that relates to expenses. Something that is “sumptuous” in English today is expensive-looking. Expensive things are luxurious (itself from the Latin luxus, i.e. [offensive] opulence) and, as such, “sumptuous” precedes words such as “consume” — to take up — or “presume” — to take before entitled to.


Sumptuary Laws throughout history were a frequent and constant attempt to regulate the spending and lifestyle of private citizens of a community. The reasons for sumptuary laws were varied and the consequences usually minor due to non-compliance.

In Religion and Morality

An early case of anti-luxury observations were the philosophically inspired laws in Sparta, Ancient Greece. Homoioi, free Spartan citizens, were not permitted to engage in economically productive activities and had to let a separate class of citizens do the manufacturing and trade that the Spartan state needed. In a similar vein, Spartans were also forbidden from living in separate houses (they lived communally) or own furniture of elaborate construction. They were further forbidden from owning silver or gold, the currency was made of iron.

The Locrian code of Zaleucus from the 7th century BCE, took Greek laws on curtailing abundance even further. Zaleucus stipulated that free-born woman “may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.”

Zaleucus, being a Pythagorean philosopher (and thus following strict laws of restriction), also forbid the drinking of undiluted wine for non-medical purposes, and the entering of the Senate House while armed.

Long-pointed shoes became a fashion in the 13th century and the church was unimpressed with its vanity. Charles V. of France outright forbade the wearing of them in 1368. He justified the law due to the appearance of poulaines (a long-pointed toe) being an “ostentation […]against good manners and disrespects God and Church with its worlds vanity and foolish presumption.

Edward II tried to limit the amount of meat and fish eaten by both nobles and commoners alike, seemingly to prevent vulgarity.

In 1651 in the American colonies, Massachusetts passed a law very much concerned with the people’s godliness.

“[…] in regard of the blindness of men’s minds and the stubbornness of their wills, to set down exact rules to confine all sorts of persons, yet we cannot but account it our duty to commend unto all sorts of persons the sober and moderate use of those blessings which, beyond expectation, the Lord has been pleased to afford unto us in this wilderness.”

The law concerned the wearing of laces, certain buttons and silks on the penalty of 10s per offence.

Out of Tradition and Fear

During the 6th century BC, the Solon Constitution made varying and far-reaching rules about the dress and movement of women in Athens. There is a pervasive argument to be made that this was to control their husbands’ display of wealth. To show the latter, an Athenian man would make sure his wife and daughters were well dressed. Solon attempted to restrict excess and thereby limit social mobility to keep the classes as they were.

While Edward III’s regulations on food and clothing were phrased as offensive to God and had an element of economic insecurity in them, they appear to have been primarily established out of a worry for the destabilisation of social hierarchies. The Black Death had resulted in a growing merchant class and subsequent wealth. The parliamentary edicts from 1365 reads:

“various people of various conditions wear various apparel not appropriate to their estate” […] “craftsmen wear the apparel of gentlemen, and gentlemen wear the apparel of esquires, and esquires wear the apparel of knights … and poor clerks wear clothes like those of the king and other lords”

An appeal to tradition can be seen in 1524 after the Bauernkriege (Great Peasants’ Revolt), when the people of Langensalza tried - in vain - to be allowed to modify their traditional costumes by adding a red Schaube, (a wide, loose topcoat, only worn by the higher classes).

The most blatant traditionalist society can arguably be found during the Tokugawa period (also known as the Edo period) in Japan. The over 250 year-long period effectively froze any kind of upward mobility between the four classes of people. The largest class, the peasant farmers, were forbidden from pursuing non-agricultural work to ensure prosperity for the higher classes. During the third Shogun, farmers were forbidden to eat any of the rice they grew. Foreign ideas of any kind were squashed by decree in 1633, stating that any Japanese subject may not be travel from or to Japan, ever. The separation between the classes was extremely strict and comprehensive.

“[…] every detail of a man’s life was regulated down to the least particular - from the wearing of a beard or the dressing of the hair down to the cost of his wife’s hairpins or the price of his child’s doll.”

In Economics

During the height of the lengthy Second Punic War, the Romans passed the Lex Oppia in 215 BC. This law text was largely economic in nature (although later morphed into a social code), and sought to regulate spending in matters concerning women:

“[…] no woman should have more than half an ounce of gold, or be dressed in “coloured clothes, or be carried by a vehicle in Rome or in a town within the distance of a mile, apart from the celebration of a religious festival.”

Purple trim on clothing was also forbidden (it took a very large number of predatory sea snails and intensive labour to produce purpura or royal purple, and was thus highly valued). Furthermore, the Lex Oppia dictated what expenditure was appropriate for a meal, what food could be served and how many guests one might be allowed.

In Genoa, in 1157, there was a short-lived law that forbid the buying of particularly pricey sable furs. It appears that this was done to stop the sale of sable to foreign courts.

In 1294, Philip IV made varying provisions to curb especially the rich’s spending on garments. How many sets of clothing counts and barons could have, how much they may cost, and how many could be given and received as gifts were all laid out. This was a direct result of the extensive wars against Aragon, England and Flanders, and of the decline in Saxony’s silver production.

In Elizabethan England, the growing penchant for every kind of person to wear whatever they liked led Elizabeth I to make varying edicts to forbid the same in the 1560s and 1570s. Her concerns were phrased primarily in economic terms, the problem being that conspicuous consumption of foreign wares, such as silks and cloth of gold, were assumed to bankrupt the young gentlemen of the time in both morale and coffers. There were even allegations that said men would turn to crime to finance their vanity. She also regulated the size of swords and neck ruffles popular at the time.

In 1729, the court of Bavarian had a total of 33 gala days which the court members were required to attend. Gala days were all birthdays and name days of every member of the plentiful Bavarian imperial family. This caused consternation for many since re-wearing an outfit was not desirable, and many courtiers were unable to keep up with the expense of new clothing. Thus, in 1774, Maximilian III Joseph, the prince-elector of the realm, decreed that the only gala days, henceforth, were to be New Year’s and Corpus Christi.

In an attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit, George Bush passed a luxury tax in 1991. The tax included items such as watches, furs, and jewellery, as well as expensive cars, yachts, and private jets.

Consequences of Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary Laws were, at worst, a slight annoyance to the populace.

For women, sumptuary laws meant more misogyny (the main driver of laws concerning women’s dress, were based on them being “sinners”). Such laws either ignored women as inconsequential or specifically targeted women for their perceived luridness and vanity. In 1670, in the American colonies, women were to be punished in the same way as witches if they broke the puritan rules of dress and hair. It could be argued that dress codes for the monarchical court in the UK today (closed-toed shoes and stockings) or dress codes for religious institutions and certain workplaces (e.g. customer-facing jobs demanding minimal cleavage) are still fullfilling this role today.

Prostitutes, in particular, were highly regulated in what they may wear (often yellow clothes and striped coats) and simultaneously encouraged to flaunt sumptuary laws to appeal to customers.

Jews were affected similarly by their “otherness” and prescribed clothing and colours (yellow, like prostitutes), to distinguish them from Christians. This was to prevent sexual relations between them and Christians. Muslims were similarly identified. “In the Abbasid Caliphate, it was Christians who were singled out.

The Upsides of Sumptuary Laws

The effects of sumptuary laws were largely negative. They impeded upward mobility, marginalised those already deemed lesser, and made the rich richer.

However, there were some positive effects. During the Edo period, the isolationist stance of the Japanese made for a largely peaceful society for 250 years.

Adam Smith, while generally against the idea that the poorer population should be restrained, when it is the richer who consume the most, still argues that in some cases (tobacco and alcohol), a tax on each can make the “sober and industrious poor” better off.

The same argument is now used for taxes on sugary drinks. While Denmark has had sugary drink taxes since the 1930s, most other places, foremost in Europe, have introduced such taxes in the last decade due to the rising adverse effects of obesity.

The Reason They Don’t Work

With the exception of the newest sumptuary laws targeting public health, most such laws throughout history failed. The reoccurrence of the same laws in the same countries under different authorities can attest to such failures.

The biggest issue was enforcement. In 1562, Italy, there was an attempt to enforce laws against luxuries via “bocca”, or ‘mouths’. These were two boxes into which the public could put forth denunciations against others. One box was for the public who had offended, and the other for the officials who may have offended. It stands to reason that if even those who were meant to enforce the rules could not be trusted with them, who could be trusted to read the denunciations and enforce them?

Furthermore, many nobles, or those well-off, had the ability to buy licenses to wear otherwise forbidden or restricted items. Some wealthy Florentine men in the late Middle Ages would pay a fine for a clothing item that their wives were not meant to wear to keep them happy. It is also said that the same Florentine women would simply argue semantics. If an enforcer called an item ‘ermine fur’, she could simply say that it was not this but another animal. And buttons, a restricted item, were really only buttons when they were accompanied by buttonholes.


Ultimately, sumptuary laws were philosophical and, thus, removed from the realities of human life. They tried to impress views on people who were not privy to the other side. It is easy to tell a person of lower status to fear god and thus adhere to poverty when one is sitting in gold-embroidered clothing upon a throne.

Humans are always reaching for betterment and betterment is easiest to achieve in the accumulation of better things. If we want to propose laws helping our current population succeed in health and environmental issues, we too have to be better. For a law only has value if it applies to all.

Alan Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law (MacMillan Press Ltd, 1996)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911


C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes with an English Translation, (Vol. 4-8. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd. 1989.)

Marie-Josèphe Bossan, The Art of the Shoe (Parkstone Press, 2004)

https://www.constitution.org/primarysources/sumptuary.html Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, 1651

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken, 1995)

Steven A. Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, 958-1528, (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) p. 67

Jochen Burgtorf and Paul F. Crawford, The Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307–1314) (Routledge, 2010), p.59

Thomas Ertl, Barbara Karl, Textiles in Inventories: Studies on Late Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, (V&R Unipress, 2017), p.83


Margaret Wood, The Library of Congress (2014)

Samuel John Klingensmith , Christian F. Otto , Mark Ashton, The Utility of Splendor: Ceremony, Social Life, and Architecture at the Court of Bavaria, 1600-1800., (University of Chicago Press, 1993), p.150

Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Penguin Classics, 1982), p.378