Guest Author - Laura A Zennie
The Reasoning Behind Sumptuary Clothing Laws of the Renaissance
Sumptuary clothing laws were laws that restricted what someone could wear. It was mainly aimed at keeping the different classes of the populace in their place. A sumptuary law is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc."
Most of these laws were made to distinguish the social classes. They claimed they wanted to prevent people from bankrupting themselves to display their wealth for others to see. With the increased trade in the Renaissance, they also wanted to distinguish between the titled rich from the newly rich merchants. These newly rich merchants were the beginning of the middle class. Before this, you only had the clergy, nobility, and peasants. Those were all easy to separate, as the peasants could not afford to dress like the nobility. There did not appear to be any sumptuary laws concerning prostitutes or courtesans in Paris, Florence or Venice, where they thrived. I believe this was because there was not much chance of mistaking a courtesan for a noblewoman.
During the Renaissance, especially in Italy, where the textile industry was flourishing, people chose to flaunt their wealth in their clothing. The more elaborate the clothes, the wealthier you were. The types of fabrics one wore were an indication of wealth, with silk and velvet being at the top end of the scale and linen and wool lower down. Then there was the number of different fabrics worn at once.
In Florence in 1439, a sumptuary law was passed limiting embroidery and trim to only be on the sleeves of an outfit. Most women wore a camicia, or chemise, made of simple linen, then a gamurra, or dress, over that. The gamurra sometimes had sleeves and sometimes it did not. Sometimes it had detachable sleeves so a woman could change the whole outfit’s look with just changing the sleeves. Over the gamurra, she would then wear one of a number of outer garments. All of these outer garments allowed the sleeves of the gamurra to be seen. She could choose a mantle, which was just a length of fabric wrapped around her like a cloak, as seen on many religious figures in art; she could choose a chiopa, or an overdress, that usually had long, slashed, non-functional sleeves that her arms hung through displaying the sleeves on her underdress; or she could choose a giornia, or sleeveless cape-like garment.
If fined, the fine was paid for by the male responsible for the woman being fined. The woman was ultimately responsible, as the money could be deducted from her dowry, or if already married, out of the money received back when her husband died. At one point, not only was the person wearing the offending garment fined, but the tailor that created the garment was fined by an amount double that. This was to discourage people completely ignoring the law. If a tailor took on a commission that he knew was a violation, then he risked being fined a hefty amount.