Looking Too Stylish Used to Be Illegal
Throughout history, lawmakers have occupied themselves with making it easier to identify people by class. It was such a concern that there’s actually a specific name for these kinds of laws: sumptuary laws, which were made for the purpose keeping peasants from dressing, dining, or traveling more luxuriously than the upper classes.
The laws may sound horrifying today, but they were partly used to deter people from going into debt by eating and dressing beyond their means. It used to be easy enough to convince the world you were rich and powerful just by looking the part, and as a result, some people would blow their funds on fine clothes and extravagant feasts that they couldn’t afford. One Elizabethan law from 1574 speaks of:
“… the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen … who, allured by the vain show of things, do not only consume themselves, their goods, and lands which their parents left onto them, but also run into such debts and shifts as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting unlawful acts.”
That’s not to say that these laws weren’t also ridiculous. One English law dictated that a cardinal was permitted to eat up to nine dishes at a meal while the rest of the nobility all the way up to the duke could only eat seven. This law was, not surprisingly, written by an English cardinal.
Then there’s the ancient Greek law stating that no free woman was allowed to be accompanied by more than one maid servant when walking down the street. But graciously enough, this law only applied if the woman was sober.
The sumptuary laws limiting clothing options got oddly specific. In England, prostitutes were required to wear their dresses inside-out and servants were forbidden from wearing pointed shoes and puffed and slashed sleeves. Only royals were allowed to wear clothing trimmed with ermine fur, while nobles could wear clothes trimmed with fox and otter. The color purple was something that also belonged exclusively to the royal family.
Sumptuary laws eventually withered away along with the traditional concepts of the noble and peasant classes. Though they existed for a brief period in Colonial America, there are no laws in place today that would stop you from buying Beyoncé's latest award show outfit.