As we always like to emphasize at
Jolique, dress is a language that communicates many important messages
about ourselves, such as our gender, ethnicity, age, social status
and marital status. It also speaks volumes about the political/economic
climate in which we live, ranging from capitalist to communist.
Although there are many kinds of oppression, one of the most curious
forms of oppression is the restriction of a citizen's right to purchase
goods, even if the citizen has the currency to pay for them. Laws
which regulate citizens' consumption of goods based on "religious,"
"moral," "ethical" or even "economic" grounds are known as sumptuary
laws, and nearly every government in the world has at one time or
another enforced them.
The sumptuary laws most often discussed
in books on dress and costume are, naturally, those that deal with
dress and costume. While arguments for sumptuary laws governing
the consumption of drink and drugs can perhaps be more easily made,
arguments for the regulation of dress are more tenuous, and it's
not surprising that their enforcement has been difficult.
Prohibited! Sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of certain fabrics,
such as silk, velvet and brocades, based on one's class or income
Sumptuary laws relating to dress seem
to have served two purposes: 1) to maintain class distinctions and
2) to serve economic (protectionist) or political ends. These purposes
have been achieved by fining or incarcerating those whose dress
was deemed "extravagant," "sinful," or "immoral." So what was considered
extravagant or immoral? As one might suspect, "extravagance" is
a relative term within the context of sumptuary law, since what
was (is) considered extravagant for one class of people was (is)
considered perfectly appropriate for another. Indeed, many of those
who drafted sumptuary legislation were members of the privileged
classes and as such were perhaps granted some leeway in defining
the meaning of the term "extravagant." For this reason, in this
essay we'll define sumptuary laws to mean those laws that restrict
the personal consumption of goods based on class, income, occupation,
creed or any other equally arbitrary criteria.