Chapter One: Encoding Status Chapter One Encoding Status Concerning the Excessive Display of Trunk Hose, Crowns, Ruffled Collars, Velvet, and Crimson Silk
IN 1565, THE HAPLESS RICHARD Walweyn, servant of Rowland Bangham, Esq., was arrested for wearing “a very monsterous and outraygeous greate payre of hose.”
For his crime of fashion, Walweyn was detained “untyll such a tyme as he had bought or otherwyse provided himself of hoose of a decent & lawfull facyon [fashion] & sorte… and also shewed himself in same new hose this afternoone” to the Lord Mayor of London. The court ordered that the offending garment be confiscated and exhibited “in some open place in the nether hall where they maye be aptly seen and consideryd of the people as an example of extreme folye.”
Historian Victoria Buckley describes trunk hose as a “large pair of inflated shorts… ballooning out from the waist and tapering in around the upper thigh.”
could often be… ludicrous, with enormous amounts of padding and stiffening and even… panels sewn into the hose, in gaudy silks, which the wearer could pull through the outer fabric and puff up before strutting off.…” If trunk hose were the parachute pants of their day, Richard Walweyn was a Renaissance-era MC Hammer. And according to the authorities, trunk hose had become a public menace in Elizabethan England.
A royal proclamation in 1551 lamented “the use of monstrous and outrageous greatness of hosen… crept a late into the Realme, to the great slaunder thereof, & the undoyng of a number usyng the same, beyng dryven for maynetenaunce thereof, to seeke suche unlawful wayes… as… have brought them to destruction.”
Trunk hose were fashionable menswear during the Elizabethan era.
Accordingly, the law imposed severe penalties on those wearing such contraband clothing. Richard Walweyn’s punishment was lenient in comparison to that suffered by Thomas Bradshaw, a merchant tailor, who, in the same year, was arrested for wearing overstuffed trunk hose “contrary to good order.”
The court that heard his case ordered “that all the stuffing & lyninges of his hose shalbe cut and pulled out… and he be put into his doublett [a fitted jacket] and hose, and so lead home through the streates into his… house, and there the lyninge and stuffing of th’other to be likewise cutt and pulled out.” If crimes of fashion were thought to stem from the sin of vanity, perhaps it seemed fitting that the punishment should be public shaming.
But breaches of good taste were not typically punished with criminal sanctions, even under the reign of the fashion-conscious Queen Elizabeth I. However tacky or unsightly overstuffed trunk hose may have been, and however vain those who wore them had shown themselves to be, why did the government expend limited resources enforcing such a dress code? Richard Walweyn and Thomas Bradshaw did more than violate the canons of sartorial refinement—they disrupted the political order of a society that treated outward appearances a marker of rank and privilege. Their conspicuous dress was seen as a kind of counterfeit, which threatened to undermine an economy of aristocratic and noble prerogative by cheapening its sartorial currency. From the late Middle Ages until the Age of Enlightenment, both law and custom required that clothing announce the social class, caste, occupation, religion, and, of course, gender of the wearer. These dress codes made clothing into status symbols, establishing a sartorial language that remains with us to this day.
In one sense, the Tudor era laws banning outrageous trunk hose carried on an ancient tradition. The Spartans earned their reputation for austerity with one of the earliest known laws against opulent attire, and their erstwhile rivals, the Athenians, passed regulations limiting sumptuous clothing as early as the sixth century B.C.
The Romans—who first used the term “sumptuary” to describe such legislation—passed numerous laws restricting luxurious clothing, as well as indulgent meals, opulent furniture, and the exchange of lavish gifts.
The earliest medieval European law prohibiting excessive luxury was passed in Genoa in 1157 and by the late Middle Ages, sumptuary dress codes were widespread throughout Europe. These early dress codes served to promote the virtue of austerity and to prevent waste generally. They restricted not only sumptuous attire but also lavish expenditures on feasts and festivities such as weddings and funerals.
Beginning in the 1300s, sumptuary laws were increasingly concerned with clothing. Moralists condemned sumptuous clothing as, at best, a distraction from the more important matters of spiritual purity and religious piety; at worst, a corrupting pleasure of the flesh. For religious authorities, clothing itself was a consequence of the fall from grace, and bodily adornment was among the many lures wanton women used to tempt men into vice and profligacy. Queen Elizabeth herself cited more prosaic motivations in a proclamation of June 15, 1574, defending the regulation of attire as a matter of national security and insisting that expensive foreign imports of textiles, furs, and finished garments upset the balance of trade: “[T]he money and treasure of the realm is and must be yearly conveyed out of the same to answer the said excess.” Sartorial competition also undermined law and order, as the cost of luxurious clothing threatened to bankrupt those of modest means, driving them to crime:
[A] great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable, and others seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, who, allured by the vain show of those things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left unto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts.
These were the standard justifications for sumptuary legislation, but it’s more likely that the main objective underlying the flurry of new dress codes was to reserve status symbols for the elite. The most urgent problem sumptuary laws addressed was not that “the meaner sort,” as one Elizabethan proclamation put it, were tempted to buy clothing they could not afford; it was that a growing number of the meaner sort could
afford to compete with the elite in their attire. Indeed, the preamble to a 1533 act restricting apparel declared:
The sumptuous and costly array and apparel customarily worn in this realm, wherof hath ensued and daily do chance such sundry high and notable inconveniences as to be to the great, manifest and notorious detriment of the common weal, the subversion of good and politic order in knowledge and distinction of people according to their estates, pre-eminences, dignities and degrees.
Many sumptuary laws during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance explicitly referred to social rank and status. For instance, in 1229 King Louis VIII of France imposed limits on the attire of the nobility in an effort to bring feudal lords under centralized control, and in 1279 King Philippe le Hardi III restricted the luxuriousness of attire on a sliding scale according to the amount of land owned.
The English “Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel” of 1363 tied the luxuriousness of clothing directly to wealth: urban dwellers and landed gentry with comparable disposable incomes were subject to the same sumptuary restrictions.
Milan’s sumptuary law of 1396 exempted the wives of knights, lawyers, and judges from restrictions on clothing and jewelry, while the preamble to a subsequent Milanese law of 1498 frankly explained that it was a response to the complaints of nobles and elites about the erosion of their privileges and, accordingly, its proscriptions did not apply to senators, barons, counts, marquises, friars, nuns, physicians, and, in applicable cases, their wives.
As legislators struggled to keep up with social mobility and new fashion trends, the rules took on a frenzied character: almost every aspect of attire was a potential target for legal strictures.
Genoa banned the use of sable trims in 1157. In 1249 Siena restricted the length of trains on women’s dresses. In 1258 Alfonso X of Castile reserved scarlet cloaks for the king and silk for the nobility.
The papal legate of the Romagna, in 1279, required all women in the region to wear veils; by contrast, Lucca in 1337 outlawed veils, hoods, and cloaks for all women other than nuns. A Florentine law of 1322 forbade women other than widows from wearing black.
In 1375 in Aquila, only male relatives of the recently deceased were allowed to go unshaven and grow beards, and then only for a period of ten days.
Crowns were of particular concern.
In late-thirteenth-century France, Philippe le Bel IV restricted the wearing of crowns to the upper echelons of society; his wife, Jeanne of Navarre, had, on at least one occasion, remarked caustically on the prevalence of opulent attire: “I believed myself to be the only queen and here I am seen with hundreds!” she complained.
Outrage over the misuse of crowns was widespread: in 1439, an anonymous critic in Brescia complained that “builders, blacksmiths, pork-butchers, shoemakers and weavers dressed their wives in crimson velvet, in silk, in damask and finest scarlet; their sleeves, resembling widest banners, were lined with satin… fitting only for kings, on their heads pearls and the richest crowns glittered, crammed with gems.…”
One can make a gentleman with two yards of red cloth,” remarked Cosimo de’ Medici, the powerful Florentine banker and effective ruler of Florence during the early fifteenth century, according to Niccolò Machiavelli. As the upper classes sought to maintain the status quo in the face of these disruptive innovations, the number of sumptuary laws increased dramatically, reaching a peak in the prosperous Renaissance era beginning in the fourteenth century.
In cities up and down the Italian peninsula, republics and despots alike imposed new restrictions on the conspicuous display of luxury—especially clothing. European governments passed new dress codes in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of new fashions and new money. For example, according to historian Alan Hunt, the number of sumptuary laws in Florence increased from two in the thirteenth century to over twenty in the seventeenth, while Venice had one sumptuary law in the thirteenth century and twenty-eight by the seventeenth. England had no sumptuary laws in the thirteenth century but had put twenty in place by the sixteenth.
Spain had only two sumptuary laws as late as the fifteenth century, but by the sixteenth century it had sixteen. France had one such law in the twelfth century and twenty in the seventeenth, by which time enforcement had been incorporated into both criminal law and the regulation of the economy:
a 1656 law empowered the police to stop and search people on the streets of Paris for goods that violated the sumptuary codes, and merchants selling banned goods faced fines and could even lose the maitrise—the legal privilege to practice their trade—for repeated offenses.
The sumptuary laws of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras were attempts to define the social meaning of attire. These laws were a response to new social mobility and instability that came with economic prosperity. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, new technologies, new trade opportunities, increased migration, and population growth destabilized the older social order. The scope and magnitude of the changes in the late Middle Ages rivaled those of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century or of today’s era of high technology and globalization. The twelfth century saw the development of manufactured paper, the invention of the magnetic compass, and the construction of the first known windmill. The Hanseatic League of cities, at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, included outposts as far east as Russia and as far west as London and controlled trade in the Baltic and North Seas, bringing expanded trade, new wealth, and new ideas. The Silk Road trade route was dramatically expanded in the thirteenth century, bringing to Europe the technologies and goods of the East, most significantly China, then the greatest manufacturing power in human history. The first European universities were established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and scholars in Italy, England, France, Spain, and Portugal began to translate Greek and Arabic texts, introducing both lost ancient and newly innovated mathematic, scientific, and philosophical ideas to Europe. This explosion of technology and trade allowed merchants, tradespeople, bankers, and other members of the petite bourgeoisie to indulge in conspicuous luxury previously exclusive to the landed aristocracy.
Meanwhile, a thriving market in used—sometimes stolen—clothing threatened to further dilute the prestige, and confuse the social meaning, of attire.
Then, in the fourteenth century,
the global pandemic of the plague devastated Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, killing hundreds of millions of people: historians estimate that 45 to 65 percent of the European population died between 1347 and 1351; tax records suggest that 80 percent of Florentines died in just four months in 1348.
As the plague subsided, the resulting labor shortage allowed working people to demand higher compensation, better working conditions, and more respect, making social mobility more pronounced than ever.
Clothing was an indispensable status symbol of the established elite and the newly well-to-do alike. Clothing is an ideal means of displaying wealth and power: it is ubiquitous, personal, and portable. And any vestimentary embellishment that is not strictly functional demonstrates that the wearer can afford to squander resources; hence, luxurious attire is a wearable advertisement of success. As the sociologist Thorstein Veblen puts it in his famous Theory of the Leisure Class:
The basis on which good repute… rests is pecuniary strength… [demonstrated by] leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods.… [E]xpenditure on dress has this advantage… our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance.…”
If sumptuous attire was a way of asserting social dominance, sumptuary law was a way of keeping presumptuous upstarts in their place.
Fashion presented a distinctive opportunity because it alone could transform the body itself into a form of political persuasion.
Most Europeans during the late Middle Ages were illiterate, and literacy spread only slowly during the Renaissance: for example, historians estimate that more than 90 percent of the English population was illiterate in 1500 and the majority remained so until the nineteenth century. As a consequence, these societies relied on verbal communication and images to convey messages that later societies conveyed through the written word. The church spread the Gospel through icons, paintings, ritual, and spectacle; the state addressed its citizens and the emissaries of foreign powers with magnificent celebrations, grand palaces, parades, and awe-inspiring monuments—visual arguments for deference and respect. Clothing was an integral part of these image-based polemics; a monarch could show
other people she was extraordinary and destined to rule; a priest could suggest by his very physical presence the splendor of heaven and the glory of God. New developments in fashion amplified this type of visual persuasion: the tailor’s art, which became widespread in the fourteenth century, allowed clothing to communicate not only through sumptuous fabrics, vibrant colors, and surface adornments but also through form and shape. Rather than simply draping a body in finery, tailored clothing could transform it into something otherworldly, superhuman. But because fashion offered almost infinite possibilities for sartorial expressiveness, it invited novel—and potentially unsettling—visual arguments. If the queen could suggest majesty in an elaborate gown, enhanced with padded shoulders and ending dramatically in large, structured skirts, then a lowly merchant tailor could make a bold play for his own importance in an especially imposing pair of trunk hose.
The Tudors were especially aware of the power of personal image, and jealously guarded their prerogatives with respect to sartorial spectacle.
In 1510 the first Parliament of Henry VIII passed “An Act Agaynst Wearing of Costly Apparrell.” It was misleadingly named as it did not actually outlaw expensive attire; instead it restricted clothing of prestigious colors, refined quality, and exotic place of manufacture to people of high status. For instance, the act forbade men under the degree of a lord to wear “any cloth of gold or silver, sables or woollen cloth made of out[side] of England, Wales, Ireland or Calais.” Crimson or blue velvet was off-limits to anyone under the degree of Knight of the Garter. Similarly, velvet, silk, or damask was forbidden to anyone under the rank of knight, with the exception of “sons of lords, judges, those of the king’s council and the mayor of London.”
Even the common people were sorted according to status; the act provided that “no serving man is to use above 2 ½ yeards [of cloth] in a short gown or 3 in a long one; servants of husbandry, shepherds, and labourers, not having goods above 10 pounds in value, are forbidden to wear clothing exceeding 2s [shillings] the yard or hose exceeding 10d [pennies] the yard, under pain of three days’ confinement in the stocks.” Subsequent Acts of Apparel were passed in 1515, 1533, and 1554.
Queen Elizabeth I used the spectacle of clothing more effectively than any monarch before her. She turned the disadvantages of her gender in the man’s world of Renaissance England to her advantage, expressing through her attire an imposing otherworldliness that combined the sumptuous luxury of royalty and a severe, untouchable feminine virtue (Insert, Image #2
). She understood the power of fashion and she was even more zealous than her infamous father, Henry VIII, in regulating the attire of others.
Historian Wilfrid Hooper, writing in the early twentieth century, remarked that “the reign of Elizabeth marks an era of unprecedented activity in the history of restraints on apparel.” Numerous new proclamations regulated the quantity and quality of fabric used in hose and stockings, always reserving more luxurious fabrics such as velvet and satin for the upper classes.
Such laws were hard to enforce and often flouted: after all, if a nobleman was to be distinguished from a commoner by his attire,
how else could one tell whether a person dressed in red silk and ermine was entitled to wear it? But the laws were taken seriously. Elizabeth personally admonished the lord mayor of London to ensure the sumptuary laws were obeyed, and,
to reinforce the point, the Privy Council summoned the lord mayor and the aldermen of the city to the Star Chamber to make the same demand. She enacted an elaborate scheme of surveillance, enlisting the nobility, local magistrates, and the common people to enforce these laws. Methods of enforcement included a kind of bounty hunting.
Elizabethan sumptuary laws, for instance, in addition to imposing fines, authorized the private individual “to seize any apparel worn contrary to the statute… and keep it for his own use.”
In November 1559, a letter sent from the Privy Council to the corporation of the city of London ordered two watchers appointed in each parish, armed with a list of everyone entitled to wear silk and the authority to detain anyone else caught wearing it.
A proclamation of May 6, 1562, directed the mayor and Court of Aldermen of London to appoint in every ward four “substanciall & well meanying men” to apprehend sartorial scofflaws. In 1566, at the urging of the crown, the city appointed four “sadde and discrete personages” to stand watch at each of the entrance gates to the city beginning at seven in the morning:
Ther conynually to remayn and watche until XI of the clock, and from I of the clock in the afternoone of the same daye until VI of the clock at night, havinge a diligent eye duringe all the said tyme to all and everye such personne & persons as they shall see there to enter into the Cytte of London… using or wearinge annye greate and monstrous hosen, silk, velvet or weapons restreyned and prohibited.
Subsequent royal proclamations against excessive apparel followed in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, each an attempt to address the powerful and varied seductions of fashion.
For instance, a proclamation of 1580 added rules prohibiting “ruffes of excessive length and depth”—a reaction to the development of starch and wire frames to stiffen the folds of fabric and allow the fashioning of unusually large ruffled collars.
Those who aided and abetted vestimentary villains faced legal sanctions as well. According to the terms of a proclamation of 1561, tailors and hosiers were forbidden to provide garments to those unauthorized to wear them and were required to post a bond of 40 pounds to guarantee compliance; in addition, their premises were to be searched once every eight days for contraband garments.
Under the provisions of the Act of Apparel of 1554, masters harboring servants who had violated the act faced the astonishing fine of 100 pounds.
While the Tudors and their aristocratic contemporaries throughout Europe enacted sumptuary codes that reinforced traditional privilege, more radical thinkers imagined a world in which the symbolism of attire would be turned upside down.
Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, wrote of a fictional utopia in which all clothing would be “of one and the same pattern… down the centuries.…” and “of one color… the natural color.…” More’s Utopia
described an egalitarian society where the problem of promiscuous luxury was solved, not by banning sumptuous attire or reserving it for the elite but instead by deliberately degrading it. In Utopia
gold and silver were used for chamber pots and to forge the chains of slaves, and criminals were forced to wear gold medals around their necks and gold crowns as punishment for their offenses, so that precious metals would become “a mark of ill fame.”
The Utopians gave gems to small children as playthings, so that “when they have grown somewhat older and perceived that only children use such toys, they lay them aside, not by any order of their parents, but through their own feeling of shame, just as our own children, when they grow up, throw away their marbles, rattles and dolls.”
In More’s imagining, the change in symbolism was so effective that when foreign ambassadors visited, adorned in conspicuous finery, the Utopians mistook them for clowns or slaves.
More’s utopian inversion of the social meaning of luxury was a sharp critique of the ethos of Tudor England, where dress codes made luxury the sign and privilege of high status. But Utopia
also reflects an anxiety about the rapid pace of change in fashion, shared by the Tudor elite generally. In Utopia, clothing would be of one type down the centuries
: for More, the good society was free not only of class distinctions but also of the vagaries of fashion. The elites of More’s day attempted to confront changes in fashion with dress codes that defined clothing as a status symbol. Fashion was the enemy of both the spiritually inspired radical egalitarian and the aristocrat jealously guarding his privilege. The rapid increase in sumptuary dress codes between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries reflects the speed with which new fashions—and new, disruptive ideas about social status—were being created. As new fashions proliferated, lawmakers responded with new dress codes to keep up with, control, and define the latest styles. A story written by the late-fourteenth-century Italian writer Franco Sacchetti dramatized this problem. In it, a group of women flouted the sumptuary law of their city through a devious sartorial innovation:
when ordered to remove sumptuous buttons proscribed by local law, they replied that the articles in question were not, in fact, buttons at all because the garments to which they were attached had no corresponding buttonholes. Fashion was always one step ahead of the law, so each new fashion required a new dress code.
In reaction to these contrast changes, the Venetian Senate, in 1551, bluntly proclaimed, “[A]ll new fashions are banned.”
At the beginning of the Renaissance, in the era of trunk hose and fitted doublets, dress codes were, above all else, attempts to make sense of and control the meaning of attire. Upwardly mobile merchants, financiers, minor aristocrats, and successful tradespeople were transforming dress from a predictable and relatively stable marker of social position to a much more expressively rich and varied medium of self-expression. This happened because innovations in technique—especially the development of form-fitting tailored garments—coincided with changes in the economy that created new wealth and new mobility. As people flooded into cities in search of new opportunities, hierarchies based on established social relationships broke down. In a small village, everyone knew their place—and the place of their neighbors. In a big city full of strangers, the butcher’s wife could pass as an aristocrat and one could make a gentleman with two yards of red cloth. Because the economy was also booming and creating new opportunities for wealth, that butcher might earn enough to buy a crown for his wife and two yards of expensive red silk for his own tailored doublet—or monstrously extravagant pair of trunk hose. For these social upstarts, fashion was a way of asserting status—not simply by passing as aristocrats, but, more dangerously, by insisting that they
were a new kind of aristocracy: an aristocracy based not on inherited titles but on wealth, talent, and the force of individual personality. These changes threatened a social order based on status and on spectacle, where political authority was intertwined with the ability to look the part, and statecraft was an elaborate theater of rituals. Renaissance-era dress codes tried to control fashion and force it into the service of the older social hierarchies. Fashion, in turn, exploited such older associations between attire and status in the service of something new: the modern, expressive individual.