Elizabeth Ist coat of arms

Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws

Queen Elizabeth Ist

"Queen Elizabeth Ist"

Definition of Sumptuary
The word sumptuary comes from the Latin word which means expenditure. Sumptuary Laws were imposed by rulers to curb the expenditure of the people. Such laws might apply to food, beverages, furniture, jewelry and clothing. These Laws were used to control behaviour and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained. Sumptuary Laws dated back to the Romans.

English Sumptuary Laws
English Sumptuary Laws were well known by all of the English people. The penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of property, title and even life. The Medieval period had been dominated by the Feudal system - everyone knew their place. Clothing provided an immediate way of distinguishing 'Who was Who'. Medieval clothing and fashion like everything else was dictated by the Pyramid of Power which was the Feudal System. However, the old Feudal system broke down and the ravages of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) significantly reduced the population - even the peasants were paid. During the reign of King Henry VIII a new and wealthy Merchant Class arose. These wealthy men were looking above their station. They needed to be kept separate from the Upper Classes of the Nobility. Henry VIII drafted a new series of laws concerning dress and personal adornment - he updated the existing "Sumptuary Laws". His eldest daughter Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) followed suit. The English Sumptuary Laws were excellent tools for maintaining control over the populace.

Clothes, Fashion and the Sumptuary Laws
Medieval clothes provided information about the status of the person wearing them. This was not just dictated by the wealth of the person, it also reflected their social standing. Only Royalty were permitted to wear clothes trimmed with ermine. Lesser Nobles were allowed to wear clothing trimmed with fox and otter and so on and so forth.

Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws
Queen Elizabeth I continued to use the Sumptuary Laws, just as her father and sister had done before her. Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws dictated what color and type of clothing individuals were allowed to own and wear,  an easy and immediate way to identify rank and privilege.

Enforcing Statutes of Apparel
In Greenwich on 15 June 1574 Queen Elizabeth I enforced some new Sumptuary Laws called the 'Statutes of Apparel'. The reasons were to limit the expenditure of people on clothes - and of course to maintain the social structure of the Elizabethan Class system. Her reasons and proclamation for Enforcing the Statutes of Apparel can be read by clicking the following link: Enforcing Statutes of Apparel

The words Queen Elizabeth uses in the Sumptuary Laws proclamation include excess, superfluity, unnecessary foreign wares, extremity, manifest decay, vain devices, wasting, allured, unlawful acts, abuses, decay of the wealth of the realm, the rigor of her laws, reform, offenses, commandeth, punishment, orders and Justices of Assizes. Queen Elizabeth I did not 'mince her words'. By the early 1500's France, Holland and Germany had begun the cultivation of dye plants as an industry - contributing to the 'unnecessary foreign wares' being imported to England and a reason for the Sumptuary Law of Queen Elizabeth 1.

Clothing and the Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws
Elizabeth makes her proclamation  and Elizabethan Clothing is governed by the Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws. The materials and choice of colour was therefore, in part, dependant upon status, but in the main by the Sumptuary Laws.

Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws - Clothing for Women
Read the Sumptuary Laws relating to women's clothes and find out some interesting facts and information about the Elizabethan Clothing for women

Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws - Clothing for Men
Read the Sumptuary Laws relating to men's clothes and find out some interesting facts and information about the Elizabethan Clothing for men

Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws - The 'Get Out' Clause.
Even in the Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws there was a 'Get Out' clause.

"Note also that the meaning of this order is not to prohibit a servant from wearing any cognizance of his master, or henchmen, heralds, pursuivants at arms; runners at jousts, tourneys, or such martial feats, and such as wear apparel given them by the Queen, and such as shall have license from the Queen for the same."

The above clause ensures that upper class traditions and entertainment could continue. Royal servants could wear specific colors and styles normally prohibited. Contenders and heralds at jousts and tournaments were able to continue relevant armor and colors. And anyone with a license from the Queen was also exempt - the Elizabethan Acting Troupes and Actors.

Elizabethan Clothing Law for Women
Elizabethan Clothing allowed for Women
Elizabethan Clothing Law for Men
Elizabethan Clothing allowed for Men
Elizabethan Clothing
Elizabethan Era Index

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