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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.

Right: Prohibited! Sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of certain fabrics, such as silk, velvet and brocades, based on one's class or income (author's photo).

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.

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