Sumptuary law

Sumptuary laws (from Latin "sumptuariae leges") are laws which attempt to regulate habits of consumption. "Black's Law Dictionary" defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc." [Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, p. 1436 (1999)] . Traditionally, they were laws which regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. In most times and places they were ineffectual.Ribeiro, Aileen: "Dress and Morality", Berg Publishers 2003, ISBN 185973782X, p. 12-16]

Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and often were used for social discrimination. This frequently meant preventing commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats, and sometimes also to stigmatize disfavored groups. In the Late Middle Ages sumptuary laws were instated as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie of medieval cities, and they continued to be used for these purposes well into the seventeenth century.

Classical world

Ancient Greece

The first written Greek law code (Locrian code), by Zaleucus in the seventh century BC, stipulated that "no free woman should be allowed any more than one maid to follow her, unless she was drunk: nor was to stir out of the city by night, wear jewels of gold about her, or go in an embroidered robe, unless she was a professed and public prostitute; that, bravos excepted, no man was to wear a gold ring, nor be seen in one of those effeminate robes woven in the city of Miletus." (Quoted from Montaigne, see below.) It also banned the drinking of undiluted wine except for medical purposes. [ [ Britannica 1911 online] ]

Ancient Rome

The "Sumptuariae Leges" of ancient Rome were various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumptus) in banquets and dress, such as the use of expensive Tyrian purple dye. [ [] Dead link|date=March 2008] [ [ In Support of the Oppian Law by Cato the Censor. Rome (218 B.C.-84 A.D.). Vol. II. Bryan, William Jennings, ed. 1906. The World's Famous Orations ] ] Individual garments were also regulated: ordinary male citizens were allowed to wear the "toga virilis" only upon reaching the age of political majority. [Payne, Blanche: "History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century", Harper & Row, 1965. No ISBN for this edition; ASIN B0006BMNFS, p. 167-168] In the early years of the Empire, men were forbidden to wear silkRebeiro, "Dress and Morality", p. 22] , and details of clothing including the number of stripes on the tunic were regulated according to social rank. It was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons, [cite encyclopedia | last = Smith | first = William | authorlink = William Smith (lexicographer) | coauthors = William Wayte, G. E. Marindin | ency = A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities | title = Census | url = | accessdate = 2006-05-25 | edition = third edition | year = 1890 | publisher = Albemarle Street | location = London] and such restrictions are found in laws attributed to the kings of Rome and in the Twelve Tables. The Roman censors, who were entrusted with the "disciplina" or "cura morum", published the "nota censoria". In it was listed the names of everyone found guilty of a luxurious mode of living; a great many instances of this kind are recorded. As the Roman Republic wore on, further such laws were passed; however, towards the end of the Republic they were virtually repealed. Near the end of the Empire, the Emperor Honorius (d. 423) issued a decree prohibiting men from wearing "barbarian" trousers in Rome. [Codex Theodosianus 14.10.2-3, tr. C. Pharr, "The Theodosian Code," p. 415]


Japan under the Shoguns

According to "Britannica Online", "In feudal Japan sumptuary laws were passed with a frequency and minuteness of scope that had no parallel in the history of the Western world". [ [ Online Britannica] ] During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) in Japan, people of every class were subject to strict sumptuary laws, which extended even to the types of umbrellas different people could use. In the second half of that period (the 18th-19th centuries), the merchant class ("chōnin") had grown far wealthier than the aristocratic samurai, and these laws sought to maintain class divisions despite the ability of the merchants to wear far more luxurious clothing and to own far more luxurious items. The shogunate eventually gave in, and allowed for certain concessions, including the allowance of merchants of a certain prestige to wear one sword at their belt; samurai always wore two swords.

The Islamic world

Religious sumptuary laws

Medieval Islamic sumptuary laws were based upon teachings found in the Koran and Hadiths. Regulations on the wearing of silk, and the prohibition of depictions of human and animal figures on clothing, formed the basis for Islamic sumptuary laws. [Liu, Xinru, Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, p.137, 1998, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195644522]

Dress regulations for minorities

Circa seventh- and eighth-century Syria and Iraq, neck sealing were used by non-Muslims in the administration of a poll tax. Tattooing and branding of slaves and captives were widespread in the ancient world whereas lead or copper seals were used to mark non-Muslims and slaves in the Islamic world. Request quotation|date=May 2008 [cite journal
title=Neck-Sealing in early Islam
author=Robinson, Chase F.
journal=Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
volume=Volume 48
issue=Number 3 BS
accessdate= 2006-08-09

Likewise, non-Muslims were not allowed to wear colors associated with Islam, particularly green. [ Hourani, Albert, "A History of the Arab Peoples", London: Faber and Faber, 1991, ISBN 0-571-16663-6, p.117] The practice of physically branding Jews and Christians appears to have been begun in early medieval Baghdad and was considered highly degrading. [ Bernard Lewis, "Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry Into Conflict and Prejudice", 1999, W. W. Norton & Company press, ISBN 0-393-31839-7, p.131 ] In many Islamic states, Christians and Jews were required to wear special emblems on their clothes. The yellow badge was first introduced by a caliph in Baghdad in the ninth century, and spread to the West in medieval times. In public baths, non-Muslims wore medallions suspended from cords around their necks so no one would mistake them for Muslims. Belts, headgear, shoes, armbands and/or cloth patches were also used. [Lewis, Bernard. "The Jews of Islam", Princeton University Press, Jun 1, 1987, pp. 25-26.] In 1005 the Jews of Fatimid Egypt were ordered to wear bells on their garments. [ Jewish Encyclopedia: Yellow badge] ]

Medieval and Renaissance Europe

The earliest sumptuary regulations in Christian Europe were church regulations of clergy, distinguishing what ranks could wear which items of vestments or (to a lesser extent) normal clothes on particular occasions; these were already very detailed by 1200. Next followed regulations, again flowing from the church (by far the largest bureaucracy in Medieval Europe) attempting to enforce the wearing of distinctive clothing or badges so that members of various groups could be readily identified, as branded criminals already could be. The groups covered included Jews, Muslims, heretics such as Cathars (repentant ones were made to wear the Cathar yellow cross), lepers and sufferers from some other medical conditions, and prostitutes. The enactment and effectiveness of such measures was highly variable - efforts to make lepers wear long whiteish robes were apparently not successful, as they are usually shown in pictures wearing normal clothes, but carrying a horn or rattle to warn others of their approach. The efforts to make Jews and Muslims dress distinctively date from 1215 or shortly before (see below); sumptuary laws aimed at keeping the main population dressed according to their "station" do not begin until well after this. [Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane; "Dress in the Middle Ages"; pp. 114-141; Yale UP, 1997; ISBN 0300069065 ]

Non-Christians' clothing

One aspect of medieval sumptuary laws was attempts to make the Jewish and other non-Christian populations identifiable by the wearing of special yellow badges or the conical Jewish hat, the latter having being initially a voluntary form of distinctive dress imported from the Islamic world. [Piponnier and Mane:138 - see Jewish hat for more detail.] Canon 68 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear distinctive clothing; avoiding sexual contact between the populations was the reason given. The Jews of Castile, the largest population in Europe, were exempted by the Pope four years later, but elsewhere local laws were introduced to bring the canon into effect. In much of Europe Jews were supposed to wear the Judenhut or a yellow badge in the form of a wheel or ring (the "rota"), or in England a shape representing the Tablets of the Law. Muslims usually were supposed to wear a crescent-shaped patch, or Eastern dress. Enforcement of these laws seems gradually to have dwindled, and the hat is not often seen in pictures after the fifteenth century, although the ring continues after that. [Schreckenburg, Heinz, "The Jews in Christian Art", p.15 and passim, 1996, Continuum, New York, ISBN 0826409369]

The yellow badge that was compulsory in the Middle Ages was revived in the 20th century by the Nazi regime in Germany, as part of a campaign of harassment of Jews that would later culminate in the Holocaust.


Special forms of dress for prostitutes and courtesans were first introduced in Ancient Rome in the form of a flame-colored toga, and re-introduced in the 13th century: in Marseilles a striped cloak, in England a striped hood, and so on. Over time these tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. Later restrictions specified various forms of finery that were forbidden, although there was also sometimes a recognition that finery represented working equipment (and capital) for a prostitute, and they could actually be exempted from laws applying to other non-noble women. By the 15th century no compulsory clothing seems to have been imposed on prostitutes in Florence, Venice (the European capital of courtesans) or Paris. [Piponnier and Mane:139-141]


In England, which in this respect was typical of Europe, from the reign of Edward III in the Middle Ages until well into the 17th century, sumptuary laws dictated what color and type of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims were allowed to persons of various ranks or incomes. In the case of clothing this was intended, amongst other reasons, to reduce spending on foreign textiles and to ensure that people did not dress "above their station": An extremely long list of items, specifying colour, materials, and sometimes place of manufacture (imported goods being much more tightly restricted) followed for each sex, with equally specific exceptions by rank of nobility or position held. For the most part, these laws were poorly enforced and often ignored, though the Parliament of England made repeated amendments to the laws and several monarchs (most notably the Tudors) continually called for stricter enforcement "to the intent there may be a difference of estates known by their apparel after the commendable custom in times past." [Ibid.]


Many sumptuary laws regulating specific items of dress were issued throughout Italy in the Renaissance. Low necklines were prohibited in Genoa, Milan, and Rome in the early 16th century, [Payne, "History of Costume", p. 222] , and laws restricting zibellini (sable furs carried as fashion accessories) with heads and feet of precious metals and jewels were issued in Bologna in 1545 and Milan in 1565. [Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editors, "Medieval Clothing and Textiles", Volume 2, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, and Rochester, NY, the Boydell Press, 2006, ISBN 1843832038, p. 128-129]


Montaigne's brief essay "On sumptuary laws" criticized sixteenth century French laws, beginning "The way by which our laws attempt to regulate idle and vain expenses in meat and clothes, seems to be quite contrary to the end designed... For to enact that none but princes shall eat turbot, shall wear velvet or gold lace, and interdict these things to the people, what is it but to bring them into a greater esteem, and to set every one more agog to eat and wear them?" He also cites Plato and Zaleucus.

Early Modern era

In the Early Modern period, sumptuary laws continued to be used to support native textile industries in the face of imports. Prohibitions continued to be tied to rank and income and continued to be widely ignored.


In 1629 and 1633, Louis XIII of France issued edicts regulating "Superfluity of Dress" that prohibited anyone but princes and the nobility from wearing gold embroidery or caps, shirts, collars and cuffs embroidered with metallic threads or lace [Kõhler, Carl: "A History of Costume", Dover Publications reprint, 1963, from 1928 Harrap translation from the German, ISBN 0-4862-1030-8, p. 289] , and puffs, slashes, and bunches of ribbon were severely restricted. As with other such laws, these were widely disregarded and laxly enforced. A series of popular engravings by Abraham Bosse depicts the supposed effects of this law. [Lefébure, Ernest: "Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Day", p.230 ]

Colonial America

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles. After a few decades, the law was widely defied — one woman wore into court the dress she was charged with owning — and it became a dead letter. [Linda M. Scott, "Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism" p 24 ISBN 1-4039-6686-9]

Proscription or requirement of native dress

Sumptuary laws have also been used to control populations by prohibiting the wearing of native dress and hairstyles, along with the proscription of other cultural customs. Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I, banned the wearing of traditional woollen mantles, "open smocks" with "great sleeves", and native headdresses, requiring the people to dress in "civil garments" in the English style. [Berleth, Richard: "The Twilight Lords", 1978, Barnes and Noble reprint 1994, ISBN 1566195985, p. 61]

In a similar manner, the Dress Act of 1746, part of the Act of Proscription issued under George II of the United Kingdom following the Jacobite Risings, made wearing Scottish Highland Dress including tartans and kilts illegal in Scotland for anyone not in the British military. The Act was repealed in 1782, having been largely successful, and a few decades later "romantic" Highland Dress was enthusiastically adopted by George IV on a Walter Scott-inspired visit to Scotland in 1822. [Dunbar, John Telfer: "The Costume of Scotland", 1981, Batsford edition 1989, ISBN 0713425350, p. 50-105 "passim"]

In Bhutan, the wearing of traditional dress (which also has an ethnic connotation) in certain places, such as when visiting government offices, was made compulsory in 1989. [ [ US State Dept (two passages)] and [ Submission to UN Committee, p.4] ]

Pejorative uses of the term "sumptuary law"

The term "sumptuary law" has been used as a pejorative term to describe any governmental control of consumption, whether based on moral, religious, health, or public safety concerns. Judge Thomas M. Cooley generally described their modern form as laws which "substitute the legislative judgment for that of the proprietor, regarding the manner in which he should use and employ his property." [Thomas M. Cooley, "Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union", The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.; 5th edition (April 1998) (1868)] Policies to which the term has been critically applied include alcohol prohibition, [Everett Sommerville Brown, "Ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution", (University of Michigan: 1938)] drug prohibition, [ [ Washington State Initiative 229] ] smoking bans. ["Johns-Manville Sales Corp. v. International Ass'n of Machinists, Local Lodge 1609", 621 F.2d 756, 760 (5th Cir. 1980)] ["People v. King", 102 A.D.2d 710, 712 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st. Dept. 1984) (Carro, J., dissenting)] [John C. Fox, "An assessment of the current legal climate concerning smoking in the workplace," 13 St. Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 591, 623-624 (1994)] [Lewis Lapham, "Notebook: Social hygiene" "Harper's Magazine", July 1, 2003] [David Brooks, "" (Simon & Schuster: 2000)] , and restrictions on dogfighting [Barbara Amiel, "Good luck if you've got nasty underclass tastes," "Maclean's", September 10, 2007] .

Alcohol prohibition

As early as 1860, Anthony Trollope, writing about his experiences in Maine under the state's prohibition law, stated, "This law (prohibition), like all sumptuary laws, must fail." [ [ "A History of Alcohol," "Portland Press Herald", October 19, 1997] .] In 1918, William Howard Taft decried prohibition in the United States as a bad sumptuary law, stating that one of his reasons for opposing prohibition was his belief that "sumptuary laws are matters for parochial adjustment." [ [,9171,731975,00.html?promoid=googlep "Burton, Baker, Taft"] , "Time Magazine" (October 15, 1928).] Taft later repeated this concern. [ [,9171,928319-2,00.html Charles Phelps Taft, "No Taft could", "Time Magazine", December 10, 1928] ] The Supreme Court of Indiana also discussed alcohol prohibition as a sumptuary law in its 1855 decision "Herman v. State". ["Herman v. State", 8 Ind. 545 (1855).] During state conventions on the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, numerous delegates throughout the United States decried prohibition as having been an improper sumptuary law which never should have been included in the Constitution of the United States. [Everett Sommerville Brown, "Ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution", (University of Michigan: 1938)]

In 1971, a United States federal study stated that federal laws on alcohol include "sumptuary laws which are directed at the purchaser," including "Sales are not permitted to minors or intoxicated persons. Credit is often prohibited on liquor sales as well. Criminal penalties may be imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as for drunken behavior." [ [ Jane Lang McGrew, "History of Alcohol Prohibition"] , published for the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1971.]

Drug prohibition

When the U.S. State of Washington considered cannabis decriminalization in two initiatives, 229 and 248, the initiatives' language stated that "Cannabis prohibition is a sumptuary law of a nature repugnant to our Constitution's framers." [ [ Washington State Initiative 229] .]

ee also

* Alcohol laws of the United States by state
* Clothing laws by country
* Dress Act 1746, proscribing "the Highland dress" in Scotland
* Drug prohibition
* Prohibition in the United States
* Prohibitionism
* Social aspects of clothing
* Speakeasy
* Smokeasy
* Smoking ban
* Yellow badge


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  • Sumptuary law — Law Law (l[add]), n. [OE. lawe, laghe, AS. lagu, from the root of E. lie: akin to OS. lag, Icel. l[ o]g, Sw. lag, Dan. lov; cf. L. lex, E. legal. A law is that which is laid, set, or fixed; like statute, fr. L. statuere to make to stand. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • sumptuary law — 1. a law regulating personal habits that offend the moral or religious beliefs of the community. 2. a law regulating personal expenditures designed to restrain extravagance, esp. in food and dress. [1590 1600] * * *       any law designed to… …   Universalium

  • sumptuary law — noun 1. : a law common in the 13th to 15th centuries to prevent extravagance in private life by limiting expenditure for clothing, food, and furniture 2. : a law designed to regulate habits primarily on moral or religious grounds but regarded as… …   Useful english dictionary

  • sumptuary law — /ˈsʌmptʃəri ˌlɔ/ (say sumpchuhree .law) noun (formerly) a law regulating extravagance and imposing restrictions on personal habits which offend the moral or religious conscience of the community …   Australian English dictionary

  • 2006 Iranian sumptuary law controversy — On May 19, 2006, the National Post of Canada published pieces by Amir Taheri and Chris Wattie falsely claiming that the Iranian parliament had passed a sumptuary law mandating a national dress code for all Iranians, Muslim and non Muslim… …   Wikipedia

  • sumptuary laws — Rules made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance. Dictionary from West s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. sumptuary laws Rules made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagan …   Law dictionary

  • sumptuary — index financial, pecuniary Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • Law — (l[add]), n. [OE. lawe, laghe, AS. lagu, from the root of E. lie: akin to OS. lag, Icel. l[ o]g, Sw. lag, Dan. lov; cf. L. lex, E. legal. A law is that which is laid, set, or fixed; like statute, fr. L. statuere to make to stand. See {Lie} to be… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Law binding — Law Law (l[add]), n. [OE. lawe, laghe, AS. lagu, from the root of E. lie: akin to OS. lag, Icel. l[ o]g, Sw. lag, Dan. lov; cf. L. lex, E. legal. A law is that which is laid, set, or fixed; like statute, fr. L. statuere to make to stand. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Law book — Law Law (l[add]), n. [OE. lawe, laghe, AS. lagu, from the root of E. lie: akin to OS. lag, Icel. l[ o]g, Sw. lag, Dan. lov; cf. L. lex, E. legal. A law is that which is laid, set, or fixed; like statute, fr. L. statuere to make to stand. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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