Sumptuary laws: Fashion Policing in Shakespeare’s England.
James McGeown is one of this year’s students studying the Shakespeare Studies MA that we run jointly with King’s College London. In this blog, inspired by his MA research, he delves into the world of Elizabethan sumptuary laws.
Elizabethan London, Shakespeare’s playing company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men,
dressed as merchants, Kings and soldiers on stage. What’s more, male players
played women; from country maids to African princesses. Dressing up as someone
you are not has always been a part of the theatre. However, in Shakespeare’s time wearing the
costume of another was potentially a disruptive, or even dangerous act.
1604, England had laws which governed what any particular person could wear.
Elizabethan sumptuary laws dictated which fabrics, garments, and accessories
could be worn by people of differing social status. By definition, sumptuary
laws were related to the limiting of private expenditure. The primary purpose
of such laws was to curb excessive spending on clothing by those who could not
afford to waste their money. Another purpose was that sumptuary laws helped to
set clear visual distinctions between different strata of Elizabethan society.
A statute from Elizabeth at Greenwich from 15th June 1574 reads:
excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by
sufferance to such an extremity
that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow’.
laws played an important role in upholding the economic and social stability of
Elizabethan England. As Maggie Secara 
puts it; ‘If you couldn’t tell a milkmaid from a countess at a glance, the very
fabric of society might unravel.’ The 1574 statutes refer specifically to
‘foreign wares’ as there was a particular concern in the Elizabethan period for
keeping English wealth in England, as the consumption of foreign goods was increasing.
The often more adventurous, or sumptuous, fashion trends of the European
continent which were making their way onto London’s streets were causing disruptions
to the normal social order.
what exactly did these laws say people could and could not wear? The
Elizabethan Sumptuary statutes seem mostly to be concerned with which colours,
accessories, and fabrics could be worn by people of any social station. Before
1604, it was the law that ‘only the King, Queen, King’s Mother, children [and]
brethren’ could wear ‘any silk of the color purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor
fur sables.’ Outside of the Royal family, it was law that no woman could wear
‘Damask, taffeta, or other silk in any cloak or safeguard: except knights’
wives’. Elizabeth I’s sumptuary Laws also stated which fabrics could be used
for hats, and how long swords could be for men of different social strata.
Carlo Belfanti 
writes that a person’s clothing could be considered
accurate indicator of social class and/or ethnic group as well as marking age, profession, and, of course sex;
social hierarchies were faithfully reflected
in hierarchies of appearance’.
So, clothing was central for the formation and display
of identity in Elizabethan England, and sumptuary laws attempted to make sure
that the clothes matched the identity of the wearer. Elizabethan society was
highly structured and hierarchical, with social and legal mechanisms in place
to ensure everyone stayed in their proper place. Sumptuary laws were part of
this apparatus; attempting to stop people dressing up as something they were
not. Indeed, in a culture where identity is based on outward appearance, if a
person wore clothes intended for someone outside of their social station or
gender, that person’s identity could change with their clothes. What might this
mean for the players on Shakespeare’s stage who dressed as Kings, Queens, Lords
and Ladies? A boy player dressed as Juliet potentially represents a startling
destabilisation of personal identity.
clear that ‘cross-dressing’ on the axis of social class or gender could have
disruptive potential for the stability of Elizabethan society. However, it
seems that the sumptuary laws which attempted to restrict dress weren’t all
that effective, nor particularly enforced.
1574 Statutes from Greenwich state that the punishment for the violation of any
of the sumptuary laws they set out shall be ‘forfeiture of £10 for every day,
and imprisonment by three months.’ If the offending person didn’t have the
money to pay the fine, the statute states ‘commit the offender to prison till
he have paid the forfeiture.’ This sounds like fairly harsh punishment, and one
might expect that the enforcement of such laws would wreak havoc on a society
where sumptuous dressing was increasingly rife.
if we look for evidence of sumptuary laws being enforced in Elizabethan
England, we find very little. In 1565, Richard Walweyn was imprisoned for
wearing ‘a very monsterous and outraygous greate payre
of hose.’ It is likely he had been padding his calves to emulate the style of
the Elizabethan Nobility who favored shapely legs in men. As Walweyn was a
servant, sumptuary laws would not allow him to stuff his stockings with more
than a yard and three quarters of material.
record or Richard Walweyn is one of relatively few that exist of ordinary
people being detained for violating sumptuary laws. It seems that though the
laws were highly specific, they were also near impossible to enforce. Without a
garrison of fashion police, sumptuary laws relied on social norms and
regulation to keep the Elizabethan hierarchies of clothing based identity in
place. As we know from the stories of cross-dressing women like Mary Frith,
English people consistently broke the rules when it came to clothes.
brings us to the Globe theatre, where Shakespeare’s company probably broke just
about every sumptuary law there was. With a young man playing Juliet, and a
common player dressed King Richard II, Elizabethan theatre makers pushed
boundaries, and perhaps called into question the nature of identity in their
seems that by the time James VI of Scotland rose to the throne in England,
people had realized that sumptuary laws would never work. On his first day in
Parliament he got rid of them. Good riddance.
 Carlo Marco Belfanti (University of Brescia), ‘The Civilization of
Fashion: at the Origins of a Western Social Institution’ Journal of Social
History, vol. 43, no. 2, 2009, pp. 261–283, www.jstor.org/stable/20685387.
As You Like It photography by Tristram Kenton