The rise and fall of sumptuary laws: Rules for dressing in Shakespeare’s England

A court costume of the time of James I. Folger Shakespeare Library.
A court costume of the time of James I. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In Shakespeare’s England, those wearing clothes adjudged to be above their station were subject to fines or imprisonment under sumptuary laws, but enforcement was spotty at best and generally limited to the most egregious offenses.

In 1565, for example, a man named Richard Walweyn was detained for wearing ‘a very monsterous and outraygous greate payre of hose.’ While the arrest record does not reveal what the officers found ‘monsterous and outraygous’ about Walweyn’s hose, scholar Amanda Bailey suggests that he may have been guilty of padding his calves, in deference to an Elizabethan fad for shapely legs. As a member of ‘the meaner sort’ (e.g., a servant), Walweyn would, like apprentices and students, not be permitted to wear stockings that were stuffed with more than a yard and three quarters of material.

In 1576, a Fellow of King’s College was sent to prison when it was discovered (the record does not reveal how) that he was wearing ‘a cut taffeta doublet…and a great pair of galligastion [baggy, in the Greek style] hose’ under his gown. And several years later, an attorney named Kinge made the mistake of presenting himself before the Privy Council ‘in an apparel unfit for his calling, with a guilt rapier, extreame greate ruffes and lyke unseemelie apparel.’ The Council summarily dismissed him and recommended that he lose his job.

Balancing trade and restricting social mobility

Toning down flamboyant dress—or ‘flaunting,’ as Bailey calls it—was only one aim of the sumptuary laws. The Crown was also eager to keep its wealth in England and to sustain a favorable balance of trade, so limiting the consumption of foreign goods such as silk and furs ensured that its subjects would ‘buy local.’ There was a more paternalistic side to the economic argument as well; namely, that people should not over-indulge in finery but should live within their means. An admonishing proclamation from 1574 reveals Elizabeth’s views on the matter: ‘The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares…is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay not only of a great part of the wealth of the whole realm generally is like to follow…but also particularly the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen.’

Royal procession of Queen Elizabeth
Royal procession of Queen Elizabeth. Printed by and for J. Nichols and Son, London, 1823. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The sumptuary laws both reflected and tried to mend a growing rift in the fabric of social discourse. Since clothing defined people by rank and income—or in effect ‘made the man’—the laws’ primary targets were those who attempted to make themselves something other than what they were. During this time, as Bailey notes, “gentility was at once increasingly easier to achieve and more difficult to define.” The sumptuary laws sought to establish definitions but, since enforcement was lax, people with social aspirations risked little by flouting the laws—other than, perhaps, incurring the wrath of their ‘betters.’ Concern over false presentation even spilled over into the theater where, according to Vincent, anxieties about “the dangers of counterfeiting appearances by donning forbidden raiment” contributed to the 1642 closure of the playhouses.

As Bailey notes, “In an atmosphere in which a rising merchant class and expanding group of urban professionals competed with a declining aristocracy, it is far from ‘peculiar’ that elites would attempt to preserve exclusivity by monopolizing the trappings of luxury.” The Crown attempted to assuage their concerns—and its own—by passing more and more laws; where Henry issued five proclamations, Elizabeth issued a total of twelve edicts on dress, making her reign unprecedented in its active restraints on apparel. The sumptuary laws were an attempt not only to clarify who was who but, as one scholar has written, “to freeze into place the signs that established status and social identity.”

Clothing as memory

Ultimately, however, government attempts to regulate dress failed. In James I’s first meeting with Parliament in 1604, he effectively voided all Acts of Apparel instituted by his predecessors. Sporadic legislation in the early seventeenth century tried to resurrect prohibitions on certain sized hats for apprentices, for example, or shoes made of Spanish leather, but the laws sputtered and died.

To understand why the sumptuary laws were doomed to failure, we might look to scholars Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, who believe that to Elizabethans, clothing was cultural memory materialized, helping both the wearers and others to understand themselves and their place in society. They cite Hal’s reaction to his father’s death in Henry IV Part 2—“I will deeply put the fashion on / And wear it in my heart”—suggesting that “clothes permeate the wearer, fashioning him or her within… Clothes, like sorrow, inscribe themselves upon a person who comes into being through that inscription.” Pitted against such profound personal meaning, is it any wonder that mere royal proclamations didn’t stand a chance?


This blog post, adapted from an article published in the Fall 2011 issue of Folger Magazine, is the second in a two-part series on clothing and fashion in Shakespeare’s England. Read Part 1.

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