The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a sumptuary law as “any law designed to restrict excessive personal expenditures in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury…usually on religious or moral grounds. Such laws have proved difficult or impossible to enforce over the long term.”1 In western Europe as well as across the Atlantic in the Aztec sphere of influence, both cultures instituted (or attempted to impose) laws that outlined what could and could not be worn by people in each social class. This imposition independently occurred in both societies, perhaps because of humans’ natural propensity to create order and to gain and retain power. Archaeologist Patricia Anawalt states: “As a visual symbol and display of position and wealth, elaborate clothing served most effectively to trumpet social status. To guard these prerogatives of power and to prevent imitation by the lower classes, since earliest times the elite have attempted to dictate who can wear what…”2 With convoluted wording (or inaccurate translation and depiction, as was the case in pre-Columbian Meso-America) and impractical implementation, these medieval sumptuary laws served as a means by which the social stratification that was so crucial to maintaining a stable, hierarchical political system would not be threatened. Naturally, the imposition of such stringent rules in order to preserve the status quo of society produced a wide array of rebels, who risked monetary fines, public humiliation, and even execution, as was the case in the Aztec empire—in order to express themselves sexually, mock social norms, and occasionally gain benefits limited to members of elevated social strata. This discussion of sumptuary and its dissidents should shed some light upon how regulation worked cross-culturally, why those with political authority sought to impose these orders in the first place, and where and how dissenters arose.
The unifying purpose of the sumptuary laws in both Meso-America and Europe was to separate and distinguish classes within a hierarchically-organized social structure by means of vestments and jewelry. Throughout history, people, proving themselves to be of a singular human nature, have compartmentalized themselves into different societal levels or have had such categorization imposed upon them by an overlord. For example, the proclamations of the Aztec emperor, which dictated both the material and decorative elements of ceremonial garments, served to illustrate just how meaningful to the Aztecs fabrics were, as far as their cultivation and trade in markets were concerned. Even the difference between fibers – a seemingly minuscule detail to some people of today’s society – could convey social standing. Peasants sported draped garments of a palm material while nobles had the luxury of a softer cotton fabric. In Aztec society, the “supply of raw textile materials and finished fabric through trade and tribute made possible the variety of clothing and decorations required by this stratified society’s sumptuary laws.”3 One could earn entrance into a higher class based on personal achievement, and it is apparent how highly the Aztec people esteemed the right to sport more decorated garments of softer and more expensive material such as cotton. Anawalt states: “For both nobles and free-born commoners the key to attaining the permitted degree of sartorial splendor was their outstanding service to the State…For both groups the principal means of advancement was warfare.”4 In the Aztec empire, rebellion and failure to comply with whatever the emperor decreed resulted in death, and one’s status was much more fluid than was the case in Europe, due to the possibility of social mobility through serving the empire through battle.5 Therefore, specific and widespread forms of rebellion in the Aztecs’ realm are not expounded upon as much in the articles.
In western Europe, there was the same degree of importance placed upon what each social class wore for the purpose of keeping the foundation, upon which European monarchies were constructed, stable. In Elizabethan England, for example, one sumptuary edict outlines Elizabeth I’s reasoning behind this sartorial legislation: “The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares…is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow.”6 Elizabeth feared that such attempts at overcoming the social boundaries that were definitive of England as a powerful monarchy foreshadowed potential political disruption and rebellion, and the lower classes’ quest for increased social mobility by means of seeking out lavish garments and accessories would ultimately result in the same pursuit by means of political revolt.
With such codified regulation, whose purpose was to prevent the disruption of the social hierarchy upon which these monarchial societies were built, came rebellion. Such fashion revolutionaries fell into many different categories, most notably cross-gender and cross-class dressers. These sartorial rebels and their choice of wardrobe elicited conflicting sentiments from the general population. According to Vern and Bonnie Bullough“Men who both cross dressed and acted feminine were stigmatized, and their actions were linked with deviant eroticism or, in more modern times, with psychopathology. In this view, such men were aberrant…Society, in fact, traditionally encouraged women to assume male roles as a sign of their superiority to other women and only rarely regarded such women as abnormal. Only when women threatened the male establishment by taking a too overtly masculine role have they been ostracized in the past.”7
Interestingly, Europeans often esteemed (and even canonized) females who sported men’s garbs. The permissibility of female cross-dressing in Europe was based in the belief that women were imperfect men. Classical Greek philosopher and theorist Aristotle“…believed that he had scientific evidence of female inferiority and went on to claim that women were not only intellectually but morally inferior to men. Proof of such a conclusion, he said, could be observed in nature, where the male of each species was demonstrably more advanced than the female—larger, stronger, and more agile. He reasoned that what was true for animals was also the case with humans. From this he concluded that male domination was the will of nature.”8
However, men who donned more effeminate clothes and adopted a woman’s demeanor were looked down upon, as they were perceived as choosing the lesser gender over their dominant masculinity. The Bulloughs note: “[I]t was assumed they [women] wanted to become more like men and, therefore, were striving to ‘better’ themselves. Males who cross dressed other than in a comic burlesque…not only lost status but also aroused suspicions.”9
Another, more stigmatized form of sumptuary law violation was wearing clothes that suggested that one was of a class higher than his or her actual social standing. Christine Varholy asserts that not only did this cross-class dressing appear to threaten the firmness of the social categories of society, “…the practice of cross-class dressing opened up a wealth of erotic possibilities at the same time that it provoked cultural anxieties about transgressive sexuality and the manipulation of identity, conduct traditionally associated with both the brothel and the theater.”10 Women were held to the high standard of maintaining a feminine purity that epitomized the reputation of their family as a whole, so donning gaudy clothes could have suggested that their chastity was in danger. Varholy continues, stating: “[A] woman’s wearing of luxurious clothing could be transgressive in and of itself, but such activity could be perceived additionally as both the sign and the source of further misbehavior…[C]ross-class dressing was often cited as evidence of women’s sexual promiscuity…Opulent clothing, then, was understood to enable early modern English women to play the whore.”11 It is clear that despite complex guidelines that hampered the individualism of the subjects in the realm, people risked rebellion to maintain some control over their own identities.
The sumptuary laws of the Europe and Meso-America defined what could and could not be worn by the various social classes, for the express purpose of differentiating between classes. However, a variety of rebellious individuals emerged during this time, each manipulating the system for their own purposes. Anawalt summarizes the take-away message of these readings perfectly, stating that “…authoritarian efforts to govern artistic expression as reflected in dress have seldom been successful and personal adornment irrepressibly appears to be people’s favorite art.”12
Now click here to watch a humorous video clip, which gives the viewer a taste of the specificity of the Elizabethan sumptuary laws.
Anawalt, Patricia. “Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws.” Achaeology Vol. 33, No. 1 (January/February 1980): 33-43.
Bullough, Vern. L and Bonnie Bullough. “Crossdressing and Social Status in the Middle Ages.” Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender (1993): 45-74.
Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes (England, 1573).
“Sumptuary Law.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014.
Varholy, Christine M. “’Rich like a Lady’: Cross-Class Dressing in the Brothels and Theaters of Early Modern London.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring- Summer 2008): 4-34.