Select Page

A topic that crops up now and again in Ren faire and reenactment circles is the idea of sumptuary laws. I think most people know that “purple is for royals”. But, is that true? When did that start? What kind of purple? But, more to the point, was it just about purple? 

It is tempting to think of sumptuary laws as something that came into being in Renaissance Europe, but they have been around a long time and in many places. Leviticus 19:19 prevented Jews from wearing cloth woven of two materials. The Japanese Shogunate instituted strict clothing rules to prevent the wealth-gaining merchants from showing up the Samurai. Throughout largely Christian medieval Europe Jews were required to wear a yellow belt, badge, ring, and/or a pointed hat, and Muslims often had to wear a crescent shaped badge.

Just in case you thought that yellow badge thing was something new. Nope.

These are just a few in what could be a very, very long list. The point is that throughout human history people have utilized clothing rules as a marker for social divisions, typically to ensure class distinctions, but sometimes to mark certain groups as “other”. Other reasons for these regulations had to do with trade. To encourage the use of native fibers, imports of certain fibers might be banned or limited. Wool, for instance, was a highly lucrative market, and various rules and tariffs were used by countries in an attempt to get the best profits.

Fun fact! In the 13th century you could be heavily fined for not washing your sheep. And that’s not a euphemism.

Purple gets mentioned a lot, though. Throughout the Bible the color is mentioned (often in conjunction with scarlet and or gold) as a signifier of wealth; the Greek word porphura specifically occurring in the New Testament. Roman law prevented enslaved people and certain citizens from wearing purple, regarding it as for the wealthiest citizens. In 1363, Edward III released a law which restricted diet and clothing of various classes. Purple, silk, and fur were singled out specifically. Silk and fur were for the noble classes and purple for the royal family. Under Elizabethan law the sumptuary requirements of England became perhaps the most restrictive.

Only the Augustus could wear a purple paludamentum.

But, purple is pretty easy to come by as far as dying is concerned. Simply mixing blue-producing with red-producing ingredients would get the job done. So, why are folks’ presumably purple panties in a knot?

The purple in question was not just any purple, but a purple referred to as Tyrian Purple, Royal Purple, Tyrian Red, Phoenician Purple, or Imperial Purple which is produced from sea snails. In ancient cultures it was Murex brandaris and later Hexaplex trunculus was also used. (These little guys got seriously used up basically because they have pretty blood) Depending on the snail (or mixture of snails) and mordant and cloth type the color produced was a vibrant, rich purple with often a bit of red or a bit of blue tint. The process of achieving this particular purple was labor and materials intensive. This made it very expensive. VERY expensive.

In a world where purple doesn’t always mean what you think it means…it’s ISH.

Because it was expensive, most people could not afford it anyway, but as a wealthy member of society you might also get your nose twisted over people mimicking the color. But, we do see evidence of lavenders, indigos, and purplish shades on various people in manuscript images. Because, and let’s be honest here, purple is hella pretty who doesn’t want to look hella pretty?

So wealth. So conspicuous.

Equally reserved to the noble and royal were ermine fur (which sounds so much sexier than stoat stubble) and cloth of gold. A 1520 summit between Henry VIII and Francis I was attended by so many people wearing cloth of gold that the event became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Cloth of gold can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire and it is made from very thin thread of gold or thread wrapped in a thin spiral casing of gold.

MOAR wealth. MOAR conspicuous.

As mentioned above these laws don’t just have to be about clothes, because people seem to be fond of telling people what they can and can’t have generally speaking. Some laws dictate what foods certain people can and can’t eat. Most famously there are the religious regulations which forbid eating shellfish, or pork, or combining dairy with beef, or not eating cow all together. There is a veritable soup of anthropological and historical reasons for how these came to be, but that they are important to their cultures is certainly not debatable.

Edward III’s 1363 “Statutes Concerning Diet and Apparel”  tells the lower classes they cannot have “flesh or fish” more than once a day. Why was Eddy 3 in a tizzy about what people were wearing and eating? After the Black Death there were fewer English, fewer Europeans for that matter…far, far fewer. And that meant that there was more wealth to go around, so folks who had not previously been able to afford such luxuries as pheasant and silk were able to do so. A sort of upward mobility fueled by parasite. But, this angered those people who felt their stations were in jeopardy of being confused with those of lower people. So, the crown stepped in to set everyone straight, you know, so every knew who they were at a glance and were not inclined to forget it.

Errybody so fancy even the brick layers are wearing fur…and crowns.

Subscribe to Renaissance Magazine!