Sumptuary laws: building an unfamiliar world

Here’s a post by Marie Brennen at Book View Cafe about an element of worldbuilding we seldom see authors use: sumptuary laws.

You know what those are, right? Laws about what kinds of clothes commoners can wear and made of what materials and in what colors, vs well-born gentlemen, vs the nobility. Stuff like that. Such a peculiar idea compared to modern sensibilities. But quite common historically, of course.

Historically speaking, lots of cultures have treated class as a matter of birth or achievement, and have frowned heavily on people trying to use money to buy their way into the upper strata.

Those cultures tend to have something called sumptuary laws. You mostly hear about these in the context of clothing, but they apply to any form of consumption: food, furniture, the size of your entourage, even the way you build your house. Such laws reserve certain types of luxury only for the “right” kind of people, and impose fines or other punishments for individuals who overstep their bounds.

Let’s start with clothing, since the examples there are so abundant. Sumptuary laws may govern the use of certain fabrics (no silk for the hoi polloi!), dyes (Tyrian purple was hugely significant in ancient Rome), garments (Heian Japan restricted hat types by bureaucratic rank), cuts (restriction of necklines or sleeve lengths or just about anything else), embroidery (limiting both quantity and subject matter), jewelry (Islamic sumptuary laws discourage men from wearing gold), and so forth. What’s interesting here is that the purpose of the law may be to maintain the power of the elite . . . but it may also be to keep the non-elite down. Banning native dress in a subjugated population, or requiring disfavored groups like prostitutes or members of religious minorities to wear markers of their status, also helps to maintain the structure of the society.

Brennen’s phrasing there seems to imply that it’s somehow a secondary feature of these laws that they effectively keep down the commoners. I doubt it. I think that was probably the main driver of sumptuary laws in most or all cases. There are other ways of recognizing the people that matter — details of etiquette spring to mind — but heaven forbid you should have any of the hoi polloi be able to pass as well-bred just by learning to ape a gentleman’s manners, right? So forbid them to wear anything but brown or something, with criminal penalties if they do, and there you go.

Guy Gavriel Kay includes this kind of detail in some of his books, not surprising because he pours such deep worldbuilding into each novel.

I’ve done it only once — remember? In House of Shadows, there are rigid laws about who can wear what, and foreigners like Taudde have to be careful not to put a foot wrong because breaking the sumptuary laws would indeed carry consequences.

I’ll have to keep in mind that stratified societies where wealth is not considered an adequate entry into the upper strata of society are pretty likely to have sumptuary laws. It’s a nice detail that says clearly to the reader: This Is A Secondary World And The Culture Is Not Modern American.

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2 thoughts on “Sumptuary laws: building an unfamiliar world”

  1. This reminds me of window taxes. in France (where we saw it) lots of centuries old dwellings had rectilinear blocks in the walls where windows had been, but had been taken out because windows were taxed. So having lots of actual windows was a sign of wealth.

  2. I didn’t know that! Not quite the same as forbidding the merchant class to have windows, but an interesting example of presumably unintended consequences.

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