When Your Outfit Is Made Illegal

When fabulous clothes are outlawed, only outlaws will be fabulous.


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.

NEXT: An Autopsy of Sidney Powell's 'Kraken' Reveals Suspiciously Similar Affidavits

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  1. “When fabulous clothes are outlawed, only outlaws will be fabulous.”

    Our current (butt, thank Government Almighty, soon-to-be “ex-“) emperor has no clothes! His Nakedness is very fabulous, either, it’s more like udderly FLABulous!

    His Nakedness is the kind of outfit that needs to be OUTLAWED, dammit!

    1. Trump is flabby, whereas Joe is a lean, mean dementia machine.
      I liked this article because it reminded me that their have always been people (Leftists) who want to tell you what to do or wear, no matter how inane, and then harm you financially for the privilege of doing it: MASK MANDATES. Don’t work, don’t stop COVID, and may actually increase the chance of getting it. But who cares? Gavin Newsom feels like a king and Cuomo has one TWO awards already.

      1. Wow, it took some contortions, but you twisted the topic around to what you really wanted to gripe about.

        1. The thread police are here.

          White Knight’s gonna white knight.

          1. And you are going to police me. It’s thread policing all the way down.

            1. Fuck off sarcasmic

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        2. Just to be clear, Squirrel started the Trump bashing. Libs get mad when you say people are fat, except Trump. You can call him fat.

          1. He did start it. You have a point there.

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      2. The Samurai class versus the merchants and tradesmen in the Edo period, really were like the progressive upper-middle class verses the lower-middle class and blue-collar workers today.

        1. Speaking of progressive upper-middle class, I wear my shtreimel with pride. No goy ruined my Chanukah this year!

      3. Sorry, not “Leftists” at all. The clothing rules were adopted to maintain existing social orders. In other words, the motive was conservatism, generally associated with the “right”.

        1. Interesting, and on a superficial level I see why you think that. But in reality, taxing people who are just able to afford something keeps them down, whereas no tax in the world harms the ruling class. Thus, arbitrary and incremental taxes keep the paycheck class from getting too close to the ruling class, and taking the paycheck class’s money and redistributing it makes sure that everyone wallows around at about the same level except for the oligarchs who have six houses and are Democrats because they want to “help” people.

          1. I wasn’t talking about taxes, I was talking about laws that restrict peoples’ choice of clothing, which was the subject of this article.

            1. The article mentions taxes six times and fines four times, in the context of telling people what they can do and wear.

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            2. Wear a MAGA hat in Portland or the Village, or a sombrero or a Hawaiian shirt at Harvard and then tell me again about how sumptuary laws are conservative.

              1. BINGO. Best not get that sombrero out, even on Cinco de Mayo, unless you want a liberal elite lecture. And steer clear of the braids on the beach too. Your Insta will blow up with enlightened comments about who can wear braids and who can’t. Somehow lederhosen are ok though. And wooden shoes. And berets. I guess the liberal elites only feel sorry for people from Mexico and Caribbean islands. PS I bought a sombrero in Mexico, unaware that the man selling it to me was forcing me to pay to appropriate his culture. I am a victim of subversive forced cultural appropriation.

    2. Your daily reminder that sarcasmic fucked up and outed himself as SQRLSY

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    1. It’s from her new book, and the whole book is full of fascinating surprises like these. She describes a thread-spinning factory in Italy some time in the 1400s which I would have expected only possible in the 1800s. Lots of little weird surprises.
      Has two drawbacks, to my taste:
      * Uses “enslaved worker” and other politically correct wokeness. I was surprised a libertarian would fall for that nonsense, but there it is.
      * Could use a lot more pictures of the technology she describes; trying to understand varieties of looms and other devices from words alone is pretty clumsy. Best to just tsk tsk and use google to find videos and such.
      On the upside, she really is a good writer, it flows smoothly and is full of fascinating details I would never have thought were possible.

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  3. We will come to depend on the SleepyJoe regime for fashion dictates.

  4. If you can wear it at WalMart it’s legal.

    1. If it’s worn at WalDeMorts, it isn’t stylish any more! Wear Prada proudly, bitches!

      1. sarcasmic did you forget you outed yourself?

  5. Ah, humanity: petty, foolish, jealous, pretentious, controlling, rebelling, status-seeking (and rejecting), subversive, know-it-all, and don’t-give-a-fuck.

    As we always have been, and (if lucky) we always will be.

    1. No, the SleepyJoe regime will guide you into proper thoughts and behaviors.

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      2. And Dr. Jill. She knows what time it is.
        She wrote this final sentence of her excellent dissertation and gets to be called Dr. for it: “A student retention plan requires diligence and effort — but most of all, leadership.”
        Thus letting the world know that student retention at community colleges is built on the triad of 1. Diligence 2. Effort 3. LEADERSHIP.

        1. Adding to the knowledge of the human race!

        2. A naysayer might suggest that the promise of a living wage after pissing away 2 years of your youth would be an alternative strategy. But retention by itself is the overriding goal. Gotta make sure everybody gets paid. Except the people paying the tuition.

      3. I for one appreciate your optimism. Sleepy came into office with some real Joementum with only one mandate. To unite the nation in our common goal of endless lockdowns and endless war. The future looks bright indeed.

  6. The goal, the emperor declared, was “to make the honored and the mean distinct and to make status and authority explicit.”

    We just use lockdowns for that now.

    1. And titles like “doctor”.

  7. The part I found most interesting was the medieval crony capitalism. Create a law and empower a regulatory body to enforce that law and those who can afford to pay will have loopholes created on their behalf.

    1. They should just post rates for legislative or executive intervention. Kinda like Catholic Church indulgences back in the day.

    2. Mercantilism did not die, it just went covert.

    3. That was way back then. No way that would be tolerated in a liberal democracy.

  8. Forgive me, but this part of the article particularly caught my attention:

    “…funerals included actors, musicians, and prostitutes as entertainment”

    Ooh, so many possible jokes using the term “stiff.”

    1. There were all at the same social status. It was a mistake making actors an upper class profession.

  9. In 1967 when I was a high school freshman we had rules concerning guys’ hair length (very short), pants material (no jeans), dress length (not greater than one inch above knee), shirt style, and many others.

    In 1971, by my senior year, these had all been swept away by the changing culture. There literally was no more dress code. We had kids with full facial beards, hair half-way down the back, blue jean cut-offs, and girls with either short-shorts or mini-skirts about the size of a normal belt. And following them up the three flights of stairs to classes each day was a real challenge for us guys.

    1. Yeah. Nowadays we have women wearing yoga pants to work, in professional offices! I vote for sainthood for whatever (probably gay) man convinced women to walk around basically naked. What a great time to be alive.

      1. At the same time the SJWs are complaining about female superhero costumes, saying no real woman would wear something that revealing in normal life.

        1. An objection which is wrong on its own terms, since superheroes aren’t about normal life anyway.

        2. I’ll give Olivia Munn credit, she pushed for her Psylocke costume in that X-Men movie a few years ago to be much closer to the revealing outfit the character wore in the comics instead of the much more mundane one they had originally come up with for her.

    2. I was expelled from high school in 1974 because my hair was long enough to pose a threat to the social order. Where did you go to high school? Haight Ashbury?

      1. A conservative town across the river from St. Louis — Belleville, Illinois. Mostly German heritage. About 60,000 pop at that point.

  10. Would have appreciated descriptions of present-day clothing restrictions, but this is a very well written and researched piece more than befitting of this platform. Good work.

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    1. Does it float?

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