In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang ascended the throne as China's emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty. Born a peasant, Zhu had commanded an army fighting to overthrow the Mongol Yuan dynasty, eventually triumphing over both the old regime and his rival rebels. Once in power, he sought to restore what he viewed as traditional Han order after nearly a century of barbarian rule.
One of his first acts was to establish a dress code. It banned Mongol styles and dictated standards for each rank of government officials, distinguishing them from each other and from ordinary people. It also restricted what commoners could wear, reinforcing the neo-Confucian hierarchy: scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The code regulated clothing materials, colors, sleeve lengths, headgear, jewelry, and embroidery motifs. The goal, the emperor declared, was "to make the honored and the mean distinct and to make status and authority explicit." Just because you could afford certain clothes didn't give you the legal right to wear them.
Anyone who has been a teenager or dressed a 4-year-old knows that what we wear can be a source of intense conflict. Clothing is more than essential protection against the elements. It helps define who we are—to the world and to ourselves. And it is an everyday source of aesthetic pleasure. Clothing is a form of self-expression.
For most of human history, most people simply couldn't afford choice in clothing. Cloth was too expensive. But there were exceptions, particularly in the thriving commercial cities of Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages, much of whose prosperity was itself derived from the textile trade. Peasants might still have to stick to basics, but merchants and the artisans who served them could afford more. With commercial prosperity came choice, and with it an unsettling social dynamism that expressed itself in clothing.
In response, rulers adopted sumptuary codes that restricted what people could wear. The exact nature of those codes varied with the local culture—and so did the ways in which consumers resisted. Because they almost always did.
Take Ming China. Most of its rules governed who could use what types of textiles. Commoners were forbidden to wear silk, satin, or brocade. The stricture was relaxed for farmers in 1381, allowing them silk, gauze, and cotton. But if any member of the family engaged in commerce, no one could wear silk. Merchants, while useful, were to be kept in their place.
"The basic function of the Ming clothing system was to impose state control over the whole society," writes historian Yuan Zujie. "If the whole society was shaped exactly by the regulations and continued these regulations forever, it would be a model Confucian society, stable and stratified." That was the theory at least.
For the nearly three centuries of Ming rule, the regulations did remain largely unchanged. From time to time, penalties for violations were increased. The society did not, however, remain stable. The rituals central to Confucian order fell out of use or took on discordant elements, as when funerals included actors, musicians, and prostitutes as entertainment. Daoist and Buddhist practices seeped in. As commerce flourished, merchant families grew wealthy and prominent, sometimes assuming aristocratic status.
And people didn't follow the rules. "Archaeological evidence from the tombs of Ming princes shows that Mongol styles of dress persisted well into the sixteenth century," writes historian BuYun Chen, "thus revealing both the limits of Zhu Yuanzhang's sartorial code and suggesting, more seriously, the failure of his efforts to eradicate the legacy of the Mongol Yuan."
As time passed and commerce grew, violations increased. Wealthy commoners dressed in fabrics and styles supposedly reserved for nobler classes. They scorned plain silks and adopted forbidden brocades. They wore off-limits colors, including dark blue and scarlet. They sported gold embroidery. They bought hats and robes that were formally restricted to court officials. "Customs have changed from generation to generation," complained a Ming scholar, writing in the late 16th century. "All people tend to respect and admire wealth and luxury, competing for them without considering the bans of the government."
Nor were commoners the only offenders. Officials and their families dressed above their station. The sons of nobles, themselves in the lowly eighth rank, habitually donned the dress reserved for their high-ranking fathers. "They wear dark brown hats and robes patterned with qilin," a dragon-like creature with cloven hoofs, "tied with golden ribbons, even when they live at home or have been dismissed from official positions," complained another Ming writer. Emperors themselves undermined the rules too, he observed, bestowing robes on favorites without regard to whether their status merited the design.
Despite their contempt for the law, Ming consumers paradoxically reaffirmed the hierarchy it was meant to enforce. They didn't crave qilin robes because they were more beautiful or luxurious than similar garments with different motifs. They wanted them because of the association with high-ranking court officials. Sumptuary law defined what was desirable—and the most desirable goods were symbols of imperial status. As a result, argues Chen, "Imitation did not necessarily diminish court power. Conspicuous competition to put on the raiment of state-sanctioned power reaffirmed the emperor's place at the centre of the empire."
The contrast with Edo Japan (1603–1868) is telling. There, the Tokugawa shogunate established its own Confucian-inspired hierarchy, with sumptuary rules to match. Low-level samurai replaced scholars as the top commoners in the Japanese ranking.
The restrictions were so continually flouted and revised that people mocked them as "three days laws."
Instead of aping their supposed betters, however, the urban artisans and merchants classified as lowly chōnin, or townspeople, invented new ways of embellishing and wearing textiles that skirted the restrictions and defined sophisticated taste. When the law decreed tie-dyed shibori patterns off-limits, they developed methods of hand-painting silk. Forbidden to appear in bright colors, well-dressed urbanites kept the exteriors of their clothes plain and hid the luxury in the linings, developing a sense of style called iki in which subtlety was paramount.
"How better to sidestep the stiff samurai who forbids you to wear gold-embroidered figured silk," writes anthropologist Liza Dalby, "than to wear a dark-blue-striped kosode of homely wild silk—but line it in gorgeous yellow patterned crepe? Or commission the lining of your plain jacket to be painted by one of the foremost artists of the city? One got the satisfaction not only of complying with the law but also of one-upping its snobbish perpetrators. Relentless arbiters of style, the townspeople turned the fashion tables back in their favor by disdaining the gorgeous ostentation now denied them. Let the samurai and prostitutes cling to colorful brocades."
Here, sumptuary law didn't set the standards of fashion. Wealthy merchants and kabuki stars did.
In China, where high scores on exams could turn a peasant into a government official, ambition still focused on the court. The goal was to climb a static hierarchy, and clothing choices, however forbidden, reflected that ambition. In Japan, commoners didn't aspire to be samurai. They valued an urban life of art, pleasure, and fashionable innovation. But in both places, people used textiles to express who they wanted to be.
At the other end of what would someday be known as the Silk Roads, the merchant cities of Italy began adopting their own restrictions on textiles, clothing, and adornment. Genoa enacted the first in 1157, but the idea really caught on a couple of centuries later, growing along with the peninsula's prosperity. From 1300 to 1500, Italian city-states passed more than 300 different sumptuary laws, "a greater number than in all other areas of Europe combined," notes historian Catherine Kovesi.
Padova limited women, "whether married or not and of whatever status and condition," to two silk dresses. Bologna fined those who wore gilded silver fasteners. Venice forbade trains and "French fashions." Florence even specified that corpses could be buried only in plain wool, possibly lined with linen. The grave was no place for finery.
In city-states run by merchants, the rules were less concerned with maintaining social hierarchies than with curbing extravagance in general. Increasingly lavish displays might have offended the ascetic Christianity preached by Franciscan friars and the modesty and thrift valued by the traditional merchant class. But the paramount goal of sumptuary regulations had nothing to do with these traditions. It was financial self-discipline.
The laws sought to restrain the competitive pressure to spend ever greater sums on jewelry, textiles, and public celebrations. As worried about their household budgets as about the common good, ruling families hoped to slow the arms race of conspicuous consumption. Sumptuary laws gave them an excuse to say no, especially to their wives and daughters. (In Florence the rules were enforced by the tellingly titled Ufficiale delle donne, literally the "officials of women.")
Unlike the Ming, Italian city-states constantly revised the rules, trying without much success to get their citizens to comply. Analyzing Florentine sumptuary laws from the close of the 13th century until the end of the republic in 1532, historian Ronald Rainey found authorities repeatedly reiterating and revising the restrictions, to little avail. "Given the frequent enactment of sumptuary laws in the fourteenth century," he writes, "it is apparent that the commune's dress regulations were not being observed to the lawmakers' satisfaction."
Florentine laws adopted in the early 1320s forbade women from owning more than four outfits appropriate for wearing in public. Of these, only one could be made of either sciamito, a costly silk, or scarlatta, a wool dyed with kermes, an expensive red derived from scale insects. Then, in 1330, the city banned new sciamiti dresses altogether, requiring women who already owned them to register their garments with the city. In 1356, authorities outlawed even those exceptions, permitting only plain silk. Any woman wearing more elaborate textiles was subject to a stiff fine.
Laws changed to close loopholes and to adjust to fluctuating fashion. The 1320s law prohibited anyone, male or female, from wearing clothes decorated with images of "trees, flowers, animals, birds or any other figure, whether these figures were sewn on, cut into, or attached in any other way to the garment." A 1330 revision added painted figures to the list. It also banned sewing on stripes or criss-crossed materials to decorate women's dresses.
Italian sumptuary laws may have deterred some extravagance, but they certainly didn't squelch it altogether. Instead, they encouraged stealth and fashionable workarounds—new styles that skirted restrictions. Hence the need to revise the law to ban silk stripes or painted figures.
In one of his tales of Florentine life, the 14th century writer Franco Sacchetti, who served as a sumptuary-law official, captures the prevailing attitude. Hired to enforce the laws, a judge named Amerigo seems to be falling down on the job. Florence's women walk the streets in forbidden finery, yet he has charged no one with violations.
It isn't his fault, declares Amerigo. The women are simply too good at arguing the law. Stopped for wearing illegal embroidery on her hat, one alleged offender unpinned the decorative border and declared it a wreath. Another, questioned for wearing too many buttons, said the silver balls weren't buttons but beads. They had no matching buttonholes.
Stumped by such logic, Amerigo says, he can't arrest the women. His bosses agree: "All the officers advised Messer Amerigo to do the best he could and to leave the rest alone." Sacchetti ends his story with a popular saying: "What woman wants the Lord wants, and what the Lord wants comes to pass."
Someone breaking the sumptuary laws in Ming China risked corporal punishment, penal servitude, and confiscated goods. In Italy, the penalty was generally a fine. Dress restrictions served a fiscal purpose, filling city coffers.
Along with fines, the laws also generated fees. When new rules went into effect, a city usually offered citizens a way to keep their now-forbidden clothes: Report the offending garment, pay a fee, and get a seal marking it as permitted. After Bologna enacted a new statute in 1401, more than 200 garments were registered, generating at least a thousand lire. (By way of comparison, a clerk earned a salary of 60 lire a year.)
One woman bought permission to keep her green wool coat with forest imagery of deer, birds, and trees embroidered in gold. Another paid for five garments, including a coat of striped red wool and silver stars in a running wave pattern. A third registered a velvet dress adorned with gilded and scarlet leaves. "Fines and seal tagging became a sort of tax collection," observes historian Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, suggesting "that fiscal motivations were one of the most powerful drivers of the policies adopted to regulate luxuries and appearances."
Scrambling for revenue, Florence went a step further, turning its fines into de facto licenses. An annual fee, or gabella, could buy an exemption from an irritating restriction. Under the 1373 rules, 50 gold florins—enough for the commune to pay a crossbowman for 15 months—gave a woman the right to wear woolen dresses embellished with silk patterns. For 25 florins, a married woman could decorate her hemlines, a privilege otherwise restricted to the unmarried. Ten florins let a man wear pannos curtos (literally "short cloths"), the masculine equivalent of a miniskirt, revealing his legs above the middle of the thigh when standing. For the same price, a woman could sport silk-covered buttons.
The list of exemptions available for a price was nearly as long as the list of prohibitions. "So extensive were these purchasable exemptions, in fact," writes Rainey, "that few items forbidden by earlier regulations remained altogether prohibited to women who could afford to pay the required taxes." The predictable result, he observes, "was to foster indifference among the Florentines to the regulation of conspicuous consumption."
Despite occasional upwellings of ascetic zeal—most notably the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola's fiery sermons against luxury—the commercial cities of Italy lacked the conviction to seriously regulate finery or restrict it to a narrow few. In their hearts, their citizens believed that beautifully made things were good and brought honor to the wearer and the city. Even a gold-embroidered dress could point toward the divine.
Just as contemplating the "infinite works of nature" led some to perceive the greatness of God, wrote a Milanese defender of that city's traditional "freedom to dress," so others "contemplating the marvels of art, raise themselves in some way to a consideration of God's great wisdom, who infuses such knowledge into men, thereby comprehending in some way the great bounty of the self same God who, through His benignity, bestows ingenuity and industry on them; so they also glimpse the boundless and unintelligible Majesty of the self same God in Heaven upon seeing the majesty that rich garments and accessories confer upon earth."
As places of commerce and industry, Italian cities knew their greatness depended on craftsmanship and consumer pleasure. While trying to restrain their acquisitive impulses through regulation, their citizens found honor in the creation and display of artistry of all sorts, including luxurious textiles and apparel. What the consumer wants tends to come to pass.
This article is adapted from The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by permission of Basic Books.