AskDefine | Define sumptuary

Dictionary Definition

sumptuary adj : regulating or controlling expenditure or personal behavior; "sumptuary laws discouraging construction of large houses on small plots"; "sumptuary laws forbidding gambling"

User Contributed Dictionary



sumptuarius, from sumptus expense, cost, from sumere, sumptum, "to take", "use", "spend"; sub "under" + emere "to take", "buy": compare with French somptuaire


  1. Relating to expense; regulating expense or expenditure.
  2. Relating to a law; sumptuary laws or regulations, are those intended to restrain or limit the expenditure of citizens in apparel, food, furniture, etc.; laws which regulate the prices of commodities and the wages of labor; laws which forbid or restrict the use of certain articles, as of luxurious apparel.


relating to expense
relating to a law

Extensive Definition

Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumptuariae leges) are laws which attempt to regulate habits of consumption. Black's Law Dictionary defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.". Traditionally, they were laws which regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. In most times and places they were ineffectual.
Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and often were used for social discrimination. This frequently meant preventing commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats, and sometimes also to stigmatize disfavored groups. In the Late Middle Ages sumptuary laws were instated as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie of medieval cities, and they continued to be used for these purposes well into the seventeenth century.

Ancient Rome

The Sumptuariae Leges of ancient Rome were various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumptus) in banquets and dress, such as the use of expensive Tyrian purple dye. Individual garments were also regulated: ordinary male citizens were allowed to wear the toga virilis only upon reaching the age of political majority. In the early years of the Empire, men were forbidden to wear silk, and details of clothing including the number of stripes on the tunic were regulated according to social rank. and such restrictions are found in laws attributed to the kings of Rome and in the Twelve Tables. The Roman censors, who were entrusted with the disciplina or cura morum, published the nota censoria. In it was listed the names of everyone found guilty of a luxurious mode of living; a great many instances of this kind are recorded. As the Roman Republic wore on, further such laws were passed; however, towards the end of the Republic they were virtually repealed. Near the end of the Empire, the Emperor Honorius (d. 423) issued a decree prohibiting men from wearing "barbarian" trousers in Rome.


Japan under the Shoguns

According to Britannica Online, "In feudal Japan sumptuary laws were passed with a frequency and minuteness of scope that had no parallel in the history of the Western world". During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) in Japan, people of every class were subject to strict sumptuary laws, which extended even to the types of umbrellas different people could use. In the second half of that period (the 18th-19th centuries), the merchant class (chōnin) had grown far wealthier than the aristocratic samurai, and these laws sought to maintain class divisions despite the ability of the merchants to wear far more luxurious clothing and to own far more luxurious items. The shogunate eventually gave in, and allowed for certain concessions, including the allowance of merchants of a certain prestige to wear one sword at their belt; samurai always wore two swords.

The Islamic world

Religious sumptuary laws

Medieval Islamic sumptuary laws were based upon teachings found in the Koran and Hadiths. Regulations on the wearing of silk, and the prohibition of depictions of human and animal figures on clothing, formed the basis for Islamic sumptuary laws.

Dress regulations for minorities

Circa seventh- and eighth-century Syria and Iraq, neck sealing were used by non-Muslims in the administration of a poll tax. Tattooing and branding of slaves and captives were widespread in the ancient world whereas lead or copper seals were used to mark non-Muslims and slaves in the Islamic world.
Likewise, non-Muslims were not allowed to wear colors associated with Islam, particularly green. The practice of physically branding Jews and Christians appears to have been begun in early medieval Baghdad and was considered highly degrading. In many Islamic states, Christians and Jews were required to wear special emblems on their clothes. The yellow badge was first introduced by a caliph in Baghdad in the ninth century, and spread to the West in medieval times. In public baths, non-Muslims wore medallions suspended from cords around their necks so no one would mistake them for Muslims. Belts, headgear, shoes, armbands and/or cloth patches were also used. In 1005 the Jews of Fatimid Egypt were ordered to wear bells on their garments.

Medieval and Renaissance Europe

The earliest sumptuary regulations in Christian Europe were church regulations of clergy, distinguishing what ranks could wear which items of vestments or (to a lesser extent) normal clothes on particular occasions; these were already very detailed by 1200. Next followed regulations, again flowing from the church (by far the largest bureaucracy in Medieval Europe) attempting to enforce the wearing of distinctive clothing or badges so that members of various groups could be readily identified, as branded criminals already could be. The groups covered included Jews, Muslims, heretics such as Cathars (repentant ones were made to wear the Cathar yellow cross), lepers and sufferers from some other medical conditions, and prostitutes. The enactment and effectiveness of such measures was highly variable - efforts to make lepers wear long whiteish robes were apparently not successful, as they are usually shown in pictures wearing normal clothes, but carrying a horn or rattle to warn others of their approach. The efforts to make Jews and Muslims dress distinctively date from 1215 or shortly before (see below); sumptuary laws aimed at keeping the main population dressed according to their "station" do not begin until well after this.

Non-Christians' clothing

One aspect of medieval sumptuary laws was attempts to make the Jewish and other non-Christian populations identifiable by the wearing of special yellow badges or the conical Jewish hat, the latter having being initially a voluntary form of distinctive dress imported from the Islamic world. Canon 68 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear distinctive clothing; avoiding sexual contact between the populations was the reason given. The Jews of Castile, the largest population in Europe, were exempted by the Pope four years later, but elsewhere local laws were introduced to bring the canon into effect. In much of Europe Jews were supposed to wear the Judenhut or a yellow badge in the form of a wheel or ring (the "rota"), or in England a shape representing the Tablets of the Law. Muslims usually were supposed to wear a crescent-shaped patch, or Eastern dress. Enforcement of these laws seems gradually to have dwindled, and the hat is not often seen in pictures after the fifteenth century, although the ring continues after that.
The yellow badge that was compulsory in the Middle Ages was revived in the 20th century by the Nazi regime in Germany, as part of a campaign of harassment of Jews that would later culminate in the Holocaust.


Special forms of dress for prostitutes and courtesans were first introduced in Ancient Rome in the form of a flame-colored toga, and re-introduced in the 13th century: in Marseilles a striped cloak, in England a striped hood, and so on. Over time these tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. Later restrictions specified various forms of finery that were forbidden, although there was also sometimes a recognition that finery represented working equipment (and capital) for a prostitute, and they could actually be exempted from laws applying to other non-noble women. By the 15th century no compulsory clothing seems to have been imposed on prostitutes in Florence, Venice (the European capital of courtesans) or Paris.


In England, which in this respect was typical of Europe, from the reign of Edward III in the Middle Ages until well into the 17th century,)}} An extremely long list of items, specifying colour, materials, and sometimes place of manufacture (imported goods being much more tightly restricted) followed for each sex, with equally specific exceptions by rank of nobility or position held. For the most part, these laws were poorly enforced and often ignored, though the Parliament of England made repeated amendments to the laws and several monarchs (most notably the Tudors) continually called for stricter enforcement "to the intent there may be a difference of estates known by their apparel after the commendable custom in times past."


Many sumptuary laws regulating specific items of dress were issued throughout Italy in the Renaissance. Low necklines were prohibited in Genoa, Milan, and Rome in the early 16th century,, and laws restricting zibellini (sable furs carried as fashion accessories) with heads and feet of precious metals and jewels were issued in Bologna in 1545 and Milan in 1565.


Montaigne's brief essay On sumptuary laws criticized sixteenth century French laws, beginning "The way by which our laws attempt to regulate idle and vain expenses in meat and clothes, seems to be quite contrary to the end designed... For to enact that none but princes shall eat turbot, shall wear velvet or gold lace, and interdict these things to the people, what is it but to bring them into a greater esteem, and to set every one more agog to eat and wear them?" He also cites Plato and Zaleucus.

Early Modern era

In the Early Modern period, sumptuary laws continued to be used to support native textile industries in the face of imports. Prohibitions continued to be tied to rank and income and continued to be widely ignored.


In 1629 and 1633, Louis XIII of France issued edicts regulating "Superfluity of Dress" that prohibited anyone but princes and the nobility from wearing gold embroidery or caps, shirts, collars and cuffs embroidered with metallic threads or lace, and puffs, slashes, and bunches of ribbon were severely restricted. As with other such laws, these were widely disregarded and laxly enforced. A series of popular engravings by Abraham Bosse depicts the supposed effects of this law.

Colonial America

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only people with a personal fortune of at least two hundred pounds could wear lace, silver or gold thread or buttons, cutwork, embroidery, hatbands, belts, ruffles, capes, and other articles. After a few decades, the law was widely defied — one woman wore into court the dress she was charged with owning — and it became a dead letter.

Proscription or requirement of native dress

Sumptuary laws have also been used to control populations by prohibiting the wearing of native dress and hairstyles, along with the proscription of other cultural customs. Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I, banned the wearing of traditional woollen mantles, "open smocks" with "great sleeves", and native headdresses, requiring the people to dress in "civil garments" in the English style.
In a similar manner, the Dress Act of 1746, part of the Act of Proscription issued under George II of the United Kingdom following the Jacobite Risings, made wearing Scottish Highland Dress including tartans and kilts illegal in Scotland for anyone not in the British military. The Act was repealed in 1782, having been largely successful, and a few decades later "romantic" Highland Dress was enthusiastically adopted by George IV on a Walter Scott-inspired visit to Scotland in 1822.
In Bhutan, the wearing of traditional dress (which also has an ethnic connotation) in certain places, such as when visiting government offices, was made compulsory in 1989.

Pejorative uses of the term "sumptuary law"

The term "sumptuary law" has been used as a pejorative term to describe any governmental control of consumption, whether based on moral, religious, health, or public safety concerns. Judge Thomas M. Cooley generally described their modern form as laws which "substitute the legislative judgment for that of the proprietor, regarding the manner in which he should use and employ his property." Policies to which the term has been critically applied include alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition, smoking bans., and restrictions on dogfighting.

Alcohol prohibition

As early as 1860, Anthony Trollope, writing about his experiences in Maine under the state's prohibition law, stated, "This law (prohibition), like all sumptuary laws, must fail." In 1918, William Howard Taft decried prohibition in the United States as a bad sumptuary law, stating that one of his reasons for opposing prohibition was his belief that "sumptuary laws are matters for parochial adjustment." Taft later repeated this concern. The Supreme Court of Indiana also discussed alcohol prohibition as a sumptuary law in its 1855 decision Herman v. State. During state conventions on the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, numerous delegates throughout the United States decried prohibition as having been an improper sumptuary law which never should have been included in the Constitution of the United States.
In 1971, a United States federal study stated that federal laws on alcohol include "sumptuary laws which are directed at the purchaser," including "Sales are not permitted to minors or intoxicated persons. Credit is often prohibited on liquor sales as well. Criminal penalties may be imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as for drunken behavior."

Drug prohibition

When the U.S. State of Washington considered cannabis decriminalization in two initiatives, 229 and 248, the initiatives' language stated that "Cannabis prohibition is a sumptuary law of a nature repugnant to our Constitution's framers."
sumptuary in French: Lois somptuaires
sumptuary in Swedish: Överflödsförordning
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