Counterfeit coral, regulated umbrellas & broken blades

Sumptuary Laws

I'm still working on the article about social signaling via appearance that I mentioned a couple weeks back in the Dentition issue of this newsletter. All the pop articles focus on Elizabethan sumptuary laws, but it's a global phenomenon with interesting implications for society and class.

Quick Facts

  • Nobles in pre-colonial Benin (in West Africa) were required to wear a string of coral around their necks as a marker of their status. Counterfeiting coral was punishable by death.
  • 18th century Dahoney (also in West Africa) had very strict sumptuary laws. Only lineage heads (patriarchs, basically) were allowed to wear fancy hats, and umbrellas were closely regulated.
  • For a time, Athenian women were forbidden from owning more than three traveling dresses. Meanwhile a book I saw today described Athens as "the greatest civilization that ever existed" on its cover. 🙄
  • The top officials of the Mesoamerican Quiché kingdom (this link is awesome!) were allowed to wear between one and four "canopies" as part of their regalia, depending on their rank.
  • Sumptuary laws are often created in times of economic change as a result of the "nouveau riche" phenomenon.

Doubling Dyes

During the Second Punic War (around 214 BCE), the Romans passed a law forbidding women from wearing dresses with more than one color of dye. The policy was put in place to try and curb excess, but it was repealed 20 years later, partly because of how much trouble it was to enforce and partly because women protested the law in the streets.

Swords by Rank

Elizabethan sumptuary laws forbade men below the rank of baron to wear velvet, satin, or taffeta in his hose. Hose was forbidden to involve more than a yard and 3/4ths of a yard of fabric. Young men who came to London had their swords investigated and, if they had "over a yard and half a quarter of blade" they would be seized or broken. Smiths who created such swords, or daggers longer than 12", could be fined, imprisoned, and forced to give up their profession.

Filial Frills

During the Chosun Dynasty in Korea, colors and symbols were used to denote a woman's specific relationship to the ruler. The color gold was reserved for royalty. For example, an empress' hem might be decorated with a dragon while queens had phoenixes on their hems. Princesses and royal concubines, by contrast, would wear floral patterns.

Codified Cloaks

The Aztecs had strict sumptuary laws. Commoners were not allowed to wear cotton clothing and they couldn't have cloaks longer than knee-length. Nobles and priests were allowed to wear their cloaks tied under their chins instead of over their shoulder. Even shoes were restricted to the upper classes.


Don't forget to check out this week's flash fiction piece, The Laundress & the Fungal Growth. The accompanying analysis featuring my adventures in cloth diapering.

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