Generally speaking, a sumptuary law is one that restricts extravagance in certain items, such as food and clothing. The laws were often justified on religious or moral grounds, but more often had the impression of trying to keep those from the lower classes in their place. There were also legitimate economic concerns, such as promoting a native product over an imported one. Many countries in many time periods have tried to enact and enforce sumptuary laws, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and feudal Japan.
English monarchs had a history of trying to regulate who could buy and wear what. The first recorded sumptuary laws in England date back to London in the late 13th century, and were expanded throughout the following three hundred years. Under Edward III there were nation-wide statutes, including limiting the lengths of shoe spikes and points to certain lengths depending on rank. Later in that reign the wearing of cloth of gold and purple silk was restricted to women of the royal family. Under Edward IV we see more shoe-length regulations, although there is little evidence of these rules being enforced.
In Henry’s VIII’s first parliament, among the laws passed in that session was “An Act Against Wearing of Costly Apparel”. Some examples include “Velvet of crimson or blue is prohibited to any one under the degree of knight of the garter; no person under a knight (excepting sons of lords, judges, those of the king’s council and the mayor of London) is to wear velvet in his gown and doublet, or satin or damask in his gown or coat. Also in the lower classes, no serving man is to use above 2 1/2 yards in a short gown or 3 yards in a long one.
Sumptuary laws reached their zenith in the reign of Elizabeth I, at least for England. The statutes from Henry VIII’s and Mary I’s reigns were kept and elaborated upon, including regulating ruffs, hose and the length of swords. Interestingly, some of the statutes came to the New World with English settlers and there were sumptuary laws passed in Massachusetts up to at least 1651.
Needless to say, the enforcement of these laws was difficult, if not impossible.