“From Ermine to Armani” – Sumtuariae leges past and present


I found this excerpt from The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves [Dan Ariely, Harper, ISBN: 978-0062183590, 2012] quite thought-provoking. I think we still have sumptuary laws—my neighbours live in a shack in a slum but drive their kids to school in a Benz!


“Going back a way, ancient Roman law included a set of regulations called sumptuary laws, which filtered down through the centuries into the laws of nearly all European nations. Among other things, the laws dictated who could wear what, according to their station and class. For example, in Renaissance England, only the nobility could wear certain kinds of fur, fabrics, laces, decorative beading per square foot, and so on, while those in the gentry could wear decisively less appealing clothing. (The poorest were generally excluded from the law, as there was little point in regulating musty burlap, wool, and hair shirts.) People who “dressed above their station” were silently, but directly, lying to those around them. And those who broke the law were often hit with fines and other punishments.

“What may seem to be an absurd degree of obsessive compulsion on the part of the upper crust was in reality an effort to ensure that people were what they signaled themselves to be; the system was designed to eliminate disorder and confusion. Although our current sartorial class system is not as rigid as it was in the past, the desire to signal success and individuality is as strong today as ever.”

For further study
An excellent overview of sumturiae leges in many countries through many ages may be found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumptuary_law. It is a fascinating proposition that prohibition of alcohol and drugs is also sumptuary law in modern practice. It finds “[T]he term sumptuary law has been used as a pejorative term to describe any governmental control of consumption, whether based on moralreligioushealth, or public safety concerns.”
George Long, a fellow of Trinity College, extensively describes Roman sumptuary law for William Smith’s 1875  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. A more modern treatment is the 2010 paper “Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws” by the University of Amsterdam’s Giuseppe Dari-Mattiacci and Anna E. Plisecka. Noah Mencow assesses the failings of Roman sumptuary laws in “The Origin and Failure of Roman Sumptuary Laws” (2008) in the online Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History.
Don’t dress above your station. If you don’t get mugged first, envy will poison your relationships, you’ll be condemned from the pulpit and the morals police will get you.

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