Sumptuary laws

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Here a man depicted dressing in accordance with sumptuary laws, wearing only a doublet with split sleeves, forgoing a high-hose and casting aside more embellished clothing.[1]

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James VI (1558-1625), Sumptuary Laws (from Latin sumptuariae leges) were an attempt to regulate clothing and its decoration in order to “curb extravagance, protect fortunes, and make clear the necessary and appropriate distinctions between levels of society.” [2] The laws stipulated which classes were allowed to wear certain colors and fabrics, such as gold, silver, silk, and furs, in an attempt to “reserve the external signs of wealth for the aristocracy.” [3] The major reason for these laws during this period was to keep money from being wasted on “frivolous display,” when it could be more wisely spent on things such as horses, which were very important to the society. Secondly, the laws were in place to prevent “moral decline” that may ensue from letting anyone wear anything, regardless of class. [2]


Clothing Regulations

Peasants' Clothing

Only nobility could wear a double ruff around the neck.[4]

Peasants were only allowed to wear natural colors, such as black, gray, or brown, which symbolized poverty and humility, and which were also the colors worn by monastic orders. Peasants were sometimes permitted to wear blue for festivals or church. It was appropriate for them to wear linen smocks and wooden clogs, and they could only own one pair of leather boots. They were told not to dress above their class because they “must be what God wills.”[5]

Nobility's Clothing

Sumptuary Laws made it such that only nobility were allowed to dress grandly and colorfully, using lush fabrics and embroidery. Bright colors such as crimson, violet, and royal blue were thought to reflect well on the wearer, and were linked to alchemy and magic. [3] The length of the the points on mens' shoes was strictly regulated to distinguish between nobility and common men- 2 ½ times the length of the foot for dukes, 1 ½ times for nights, and ½ the length for common men.[3]


Only the King and Queen and their immediate family could freely wear purple silk. Dukes, marquises, and earls could only wear purple silk in very specific places, such as in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose. Those of the Garter could only wear purple in mantles.[6]

Gold & Silver

"None shall wear: Viscounts and barons were restricted to wearing gold and silver in specific places, and only the degrees above them could wear it freely. The only males who could wear anything embroidered with gold or silver pearl were "dukes, marquises, earls, and their children, viscounts, barons, and knights being companions of the Garter, or any person being of the Privy Council."[6]
"None shall wear: Any cloth of gold, tissue, nor fur of sables: except duchesses, marquises, and countesses in their gowns, kirtles, partlets, and sleeves; cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver or pearl, saving silk mixed with gold or silver in linings of cowls, partlets, and sleeves: except all degrees above viscountesses, and viscountesses, baronesses, and other personages of like degrees in their kirtles and sleeves."[6]

Special Fabrics

Sumptuary Laws restricted the types of fabrics that people could wear based on their societal class, especially silk, velvet, satin, damask, and fur. Common people had only a small freedom in that they were not restricted from wearing silk buttons, or hats and caps made of lush fabrics such as velvet or silk, "for comeliness only."[6]

"None shall wear:
Velvet in gowns, coats, or other uttermost garments; fur of leopards; embroidery with any silk: except men of the degrees above mentioned, barons' sons, knights and gentlemen in ordinary office attendant upon her majesty's person, and such as have been employed in embassages to foreign princes.
Satin, damask, silk, camlet, or taffeta in gown, coat, hose, or uppermost garments; fur whereof the kind groweth not in the Queen's dominions, except foins, grey genets, and budge: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, and men that may dispend £100 by the year, and so valued in the subsidy book."[6]
A duchess is shown wearing an lavish red velvet gown.[7]
"None shall wear:
Satin, damask, or tufted taffeta in gowns, kirtles, or velvet in kirtles; fur whereof the kind groweth not within the Queen's dominions, except foins, grey genets, bodge, and wolf: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, or the wives of those that may dispend £100 by the year and so valued in the subsidy book.
Gowns of silk grosgrain, doubled sarcenet, camlet, or taffeta, or kirtles of satin or damask: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, and the wives of the sons and heirs of knights, and the daughters of knights, and of such as may dispend 300 marks by the year so valued ut supra, and the wives of those that may dispend £40 by the year."[6]


Sumptuary laws were often ignored, and middle class women would dress like countesses, making it hard to distinguish between them. [3] According to the statutes, those in charge of enforcing the laws and imprisoning offenders that have not yet paid the forfeiture were “Justices of Assize and of the peace, sheriffs, stewards in leets, head officers of towns corporate.” [8] However, the laws were poorly enforced and “essentially a lost cause.” [3]


Despite the weak enforcement, disobeying sumptuary laws was still a punishable offense. Penalties could be applied to people found guilty of dressing above their societal class, and even hosiers, tailors, and cutlers who made or sold prohibited extravagant items.[4]

“No Englishman other than the son and heir apparent of a knight, or he that hath yearly revenues of £20 or is worth in goods £200, shall wear silk in or upon his hat, cap, night cap, girdles, scabbard, hose, shoes, or spur-leathers, upon forfeiture of £10 for every day, and imprisonment by three months … If any, knowing his servant to offend, do not put him out of his service within 14 days; or so put out, retain him again within a year after such offense, he shall forfeit £100.”[3]


  1. Bosse, Abraham. Le Courtisan suivant le dernier edit. 29 Dec. 1629; Web; 5 Mar. 2012 <>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Secara, Maggie. Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes. 14 Jul. 2001. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Fashion and Clothing. Films Media Group, 1998. Films On Demand. Web. 1 March 2012. <>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Statute at Westminster on 6 May 1562. 14 Jul. 2001. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <transcribed with modernized spelling>
  5. Peasants, Serfs, and Servitude. Films Media Group, 2004. Films On Demand. Web. 05 March 2012.<>.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Statute at Greenwich on 15 June 1574. 14 Jul. 2001. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <transcribed with modernized spelling>
  7. Kipar, N. Elisabeth Charlotte. 1999. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <>
  8. Statute issued by the Privy Council at Westminster on 7 May 1562. 14 Jul. 2001. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <transcribed with modernized spelling>
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