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Sumptuary laws and ‘excesse of apparel’

This Royal Proclamation is dated 15 June 1574 and is on the subject of ‘excesse of apparel’. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, specific laws were in place relating to dress codes, which dictated the colours and fabrics that people were permitted to wear based on their social rank and wealth. These were called sumptuary laws and aimed to regulate personal spending on luxuries such as clothing. Restrictions were placed on a range of fabrics including cloth of gold, velvet, silks, furs and damask and even on buttons and swords. Historically, clothing had been a clear indicator of ones place in the social hierarchy, but that was challenged during the reign of Henry VIII by the rise of the wealthy merchant classes who started imitating the nobility in dress.

During her reign, Elizabeth I passed the Statutes of Apparel and issued no less than eight proclamations on the theme of ‘excesse of apparel’. These proclamations were intended to enforce the statutes and to justify these laws by emphasising: fear of the rise in extravagant spending on clothes and its impact on the nation’s wealth; concern for young gentlemen who were running themselves into debt with excessive spending; concern that these men would turn to crime to fund their habit; condemnation of pride; and dislike of the subversion of order represented by people flouting existing laws. The chief reason seems to be the dislike and fear of people – particularly ‘the inferior sort’ – dressing above their station, which Elizabeth complained was causing ‘disorder and confusion of the degrees of all states’. Other laws, such as the compulsory wearing of woollen caps on certain days, were passed to bolster the country’s textile industries. The upper classes were exempt from this law.

Clothing and social hierarchy in King Lear, Macbeth and Twelfth Night

Shakespeare explores the relationship between clothing and hierarchy in a number of his plays. In King Lear, when Kent fights with Oswald (Goneril’s servant who has ideas above his station) he uses insults based on servants’ clothing in an effort to lock Oswald into his lowly status: ‘three-suited, … filthy worsted-stocking knave’ (2.2.16–17). His anxiety about Oswald’s social mobility is felt in his criticism, ‘a tailor made thee’ (2.2.54). Lear highlights the hypocrisy of the rich and the inconsistency of justice when applied to rich and poor: ‘Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furr’d gowns hide all’ (4.6.164–65).

In Macbeth, Angus criticises Macbeth’s rule, describing the title of king as hanging loose on him ‘like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief’ (5.2.21–22).

In Twelfth Night, Malvolio holds a relatively senior position as Olivia’s steward, but is still a member of household staff. This is a particular source of irritation for Sir Toby Belch, who, when the puritanical Malvolio tries to restrain him and his friends in their carousing, rebukes him: ‘Art any more than a steward?’ (2.3.114). In their plot to get revenge by ‘gulling’ Malvolio, Maria forges a letter from Olivia to convince Malvolio that his mistress has fallen in love with him, despite their differences of background, and that she is willing to lift him above the others by marriage. When Malvolio fantasises about being married to Olivia, he imagines his clothes and his new position in the hierarchy, picturing himself ordering staff around in a ‘branch’d velvet gown’ (2.5.47–48), i.e. a gown ornamentally embroidered with branches.

Elizabeth’s proclamations

This item is from a rare book containing Royal Proclamations from the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1618, the book collector Humfrey Dyson (1582–1633) collected and had bound together several sets of the original broadsheets that had been issued between 1558 and 1603, printing duplicates of any that were missing to make these sets as complete as possible.

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