What is a Sumptuary Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 29 May 2020
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A sumptuary law is an act of legislation to limit personal spending with the goal of curbing extravagance and luxury. Governments in numerous cultures throughout history passed sumptuary laws to control expenditures by citizens for a variety of reasons. Often, such laws reinforce social structures, making it easy to identify someone's place in a social hierarchy. They may also promote specific attitudes, such as solidarity with other citizens. A government may pass such a law to preserve resources by discouraging profligate spending.

Ancient Greece, China, Rome, and Japan all had sumptuary laws, and historians have access to detailed records describing these laws and their effects. Sumptuary laws may limit ownership of certain objects to people in specific classes, with restrictions on things like the type and color of fabric people can wear, ornaments, and other belongings like horses. The higher someone's social class and position, the more is allowed under a sumptuary law; for example, in Rome, ownership of purple clothing was limited because the dyes used to create purple were very costly.

In addition to identifying people by economic class, a sumptuary law may also divide people by profession and religion. Courtesans in many cultures were obliged to wear certain colors to make them identifiable to members of the public, and similar laws were also passed to force religious minorities to carry or wear identifying markers. Colonizing nations sometimes used such laws to limit native dress, to force indigenous people to assimilate. In this case, sumptuary laws may not specifically restrict luxury, but still control personal spending habits.

The sumptuary law started to go out of fashion in the 1700s in most regions of the world, as increasing numbers of governments began to recognize the importance of personal freedoms. A push towards free trade also helped promote the abolition of restrictions on what people could buy, as merchants wanted more opportunities for sales. Such laws do still exist in some regions, including restrictions requiring people to wear modest clothing or traditional dress in some nations.

Some opponents of prohibitions on purchases of drugs, alcohol, and other substances may argue that these amount to sumptuary laws, and they should be struck down on these grounds. Proponents of legalization believe such laws inhibit personal freedoms by dictating what people can spend money on and how they can spend their time. Supporters of such laws point out that restrictions on dangerous objects are generally accepted, and point to health and safety issues associated with drugs and alcohol to support maintaining these laws.

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Post 1

I find this article very interesting.

According to the English Sumptuary Law of 1363, only women from royalty families were allowed to wear gold or purple silk clothing. The penalties from breaking these types of laws were fines, property loss, and even death.

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