Today, wearing flashy outfits may garner rolled eyes and snide comments about needing a visit from the “fashion police,” but nobody will really make you give up your new silk pantaloons or rhinestone encrusted jacket. Even a forgery of a top designer won’t be a risk to carry, even if it wasn’t legally produced. We should appreciate this luxury, as ostentatious, or simply ambitious, fashion choices were once illegal. Dating back to the ancient Romans, sumptuary laws aimed to control items people could buy, largely depending on who those people were.
Identity vs. income
Sumptuary laws varied a lot over the years, and supposedly benefited society by helping curb irresponsible spending by individuals as well as normalize the supply of rarer goods on the market. For instance, a poor peasant may have been banned from buying a horse when they could barely afford to feed themselves first. By the Elizabethan era, this form of paternalistic sumptuary law probably wasn’t enforced very often, partially for practicality’s sake.
Many more details exist around laws that were intended to maintain the stratification of economic classes, often surrounding one’s dress. For example, British sumptuary laws of the 14th century spelled out exactly what job titles and income levels were allowed to wear veils, velvet, satin, sable fur, gold and purple garments, etc. There was a great concern that people might dress “above their station,” which could destabilize power structures— if a merchant wore nicer clothes than a lord, it might make the lord seem less important. If the wife of a knight wore ermine, how could anyone tell her apart from actual nobility? This tension may seem silly, but in some cases reshaped societies— merchants in the Edo period of Japan amassed significant wealth, and with it influence in society, even though they were technically ranked below samurai and nobility in the social hierarchy.
The new standard of scholars
Some of these rules are indirectly observed today, reversing their original intent. While people graduating from colleges don black robes and colored hoods to mark their accomplishments, those robes were originally just the required garb of poor students. They started as a point of practicality and warmth, were then enforced as law to identify students, later continued at specific universities as a sort of student uniform, and are now worn only to mark a student’s ascension to higher learning. The extra stripes for PhDs on their arms, fancy tassels and other detailing would probably make the authors of Medieval sumptuary laws’ heads spin, but so would the fact that the average person can now wear any nearly any clothing they can get their hands on without fear of legal repercussions.
Source: Sumptuary Laws of the Middle Ages, Lords and Ladies.org