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.”