Social and Economic

Sumptuary Laws: Gowns must Cover Buttocks and Balls

April 1463 parliament introduced Sumptuary Laws that were to come into effect on the feast of the purification of our Lady – which would be February 2nd – possibly 1465 as Parliament was prorogued a few times. Lots included in the laws but there’s a juicy bit …

Gowns must cover private members and buttocks

And ferther to ordeyn and stablissh that noo knyght under thastate of a lorde, squier, gentilman nor other persone, use or were, from the fest of All Halowen next commyng, eny gowne, jaket or cloke, but it be of such lengh, as hit, he beyng upright, shall covere his pryve membres and buttokkes, uppon the peyn to forfeit to youre highnes, at every defaute, .xx. s.

From the Parliamentary Roll for April 1463

Sumptuary Law

Sumptuary Laws were introduced to regulate what could and could not be worn by different groups of people. This was done in part to maintain etiquette, and in part as a response to economic issues.

The laws covered apparel, diet, and procedures. Typically, the higher a persons income was, the more freedom they had in relation to what they could wear and eat.

For example, an earlier law marked the economic thresholds for different levels of freedom in relation to apparel and diet:

  • Lords with lands worth £1 000 annually and their families had no restrictions on what they could wear or eat.
  • Knights with land worth 400 marks. (£266 13s 4d) annually and their families were largely free to dress as they wished but were not permitted to wear weasel fur, ermine or clothing of precious stones other than the jewels in a women’s hair.
  • Knights with lands worth 200 marks. (£133 6s 8d) annually and their families: fabric worth no more than 6 marks (£4) for the whole cloth. They were not permitted cloth of gold, nor a cloak, mantle or gown lined with pure miniver, sleeves of ermine or any material embroidered with precious stones; women may not wear ermine or weasel-fur, or jewels except those worn in their hair.
  • Esquires with land worth £200 per year, and merchants with goods to the value of £1 000 and their families were limited to fabric worth no more than 5 marks. (£3 6s 8d) for the whole cloth.  They could wear cloth of silk and silver, or anything decorated with silver; women may wear miniver. Ermine and weasel-fur were prohibited as were jewels other than those worn in a woman’s hair.
  • Esquires, gentlemen with £100 per year, and merchants with goods to the value of £500 and their families had a fabric limit of 4 1/2 marks, (£3), for the whole cloth. They were prohibited from wearing cloth of gold, silk, or silver, were not permitted embroidery, nor could they wear precious stones or fur.

This continued down to labourers and carters who had very limited rights to cloth and were expected to use a rope for a belt.

Reasons for Sumptuary Laws

  • Economic. Items such as furs were imported, largely from northern Europe. There were regular strains on trade in these items. This made them scarce, resulting in the use of furs being restricted to the higher echelons of society. This ensured that the upper nobility could still access the goods and created an element of exclusivity around the use of these goods. Fines for non compliance were also a useful source of income for the crown.
  • Societal views. Some of the laws, such as those in the opening quote, are designed to ensure a certain level of decorum among the population. Note, however, that those laws did not apply to the upper nobility. Everyone else, however, was subject to an element of conservatism in relation to acceptable dress.
  • Regal Status. Some items were the preserve of the crown and use of some furs and colours was strictly limited in order to enable the ongoing regal appeal of the monarch and his closest family.

The April 1463 Sumptuary Laws were among the first pieces of legislation introduced by the Parliaments of Edward IV.

Leave a Reply