This may not seem like a topic for an art blog, but when I came across these laws, I was fascinated.
I am currently reading ‘The Lady in the Tower’ by Alison Weir, which is about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s wife. Somewhere in the part near her beheading I read the first mention of Sumptuary Laws.
Basically, if you weren’t of a high social standing, you were limited to what kind of material you were allowed to wear, so you couldn’t dress above your station.
I found this chart on The Tudors Wiki which gives a simple overview of the laws from Henry VIII’s to Queen Elizabeth I’s rule –
It seems absurd to me that no one under the level of Barons or Knights could wear embroidery, especially when anyone can wear it today.
It was a form of protectionism and a way of preserving the hierarchy at a time when merchants could afford to buy such luxuries, which they hadn’t been able to in the past, but it is certainly a way of life that is almost unimaginable in today’s society when such things can be mass produced and sold for a pittance. (Maybe not cloth of gold and silver, of course, but you get my meaning I’m sure).
Goldwork on a Catholic vestment (courtesy of Needle ‘n Thread)
If you’d like to read some more about the sumptuary laws, visit Renaissance – The Elizabethan World where they have transcribed the main statutes to do with these laws.
Reading something like this makes me realise how much we take our freedoms for granted nowadays. I’ve never had to think about whether I was allowed to wear a particular kind of cloth, or colour… unless it was about how good or bad it made me look!
NB. There are sumptuary laws in other times and cultures… I have only been looking at those in Tudor times. Google sumptuary laws and you’ll find a lot more information, if you’re interested.