You Can’t Wear That!


You probably regard what you wear as being entirely up to you. Despite this we all conform to dress codes at various times: school uniform, no jeans in the office, evening dress, smart casual in the pub. There are, however, no laws setting out what we can and can’t wear. The fourteenth century was, of course, completely different.

Status was everything.  What you wore, what you ate and the way you spoke showed with pinpoint accuracy exactly what your position was in society. People in the upper echelons were so obsessed with status that they were buried in clothes and with possessions reflecting their rank, so that everyone would know on the Day of Resurrection what their station was. When Alais’ mother dies in The Traitor’s Daughter having lost all her possessions, Hugh puts an amber bracelet into the grave to show that she was a noblewoman.

Whenever people are taken up with their own status, they’re generally worried about other people passing themselves off as being of the same status, which is just what people started to do in the fourteenth century.

In part this led to two sumptuary laws being passed in the fourteenth century. They had different causes, but the results were the same. In March 1337 a statute banned the export of English wool and the import of foreign cloth. Foreign cloth could not be worn by anyone. Furs could only be worn by those with an income of £100 per annum. Foreign weavers (mainly Flemish) were encouraged to move to England. The intention was to frighten the Flemings and to create a royal wool monopoly. It was a protectionist measure and it failed.  Wool was England’s most valuable product. Much of it went to weavers in Flanders where it was woven into cloth. Edward III used the export of wool to coerce the counts of Flanders into being his allies against France. It was not a particularly successful policy.

In the 1340s there was a big change in the way people dressed. Clothing became more ornate and fitted. Compare the loose-fitting clothes worn in the first half of the century in this picture with the gown from the end of the century at the top of the post.


After the Black Death (1348 – 1351) wages rose, despite the efforts of Edward III and his parliaments to prevent it. This meant that some people of lower status had more disposable income, and they used it to buy clothes or food. People who had not been able to afford them before began to buy richer fabrics and wore more fashionable clothes.

Parliament believed that inflation was caused by people wearing clothes and eating food beyond their station. In reality it had more to do with the shortage of labour leading to higher wages, although this was not the only reason. Bad harvests in the 1350s and 60s were also a factor. In 1363 Edward III passed another sumptuary law regulating what people could wear and eat.

Many people were afraid that the distinctions between gentility and peasants were becoming less marked. The legislation of 1363 allowed people with an income of £100 or more to eat and dress more luxuriously than everyone else. People were genuinely worried about not being able to tell what someone’s status was from their clothes.

Servants and artisans were not allowed to buy cloth costing more than 2 marks a length. A mark was worth 13 shillings and 4 pence which was two-thirds of a pound. No, I don’t know why either.

Ploughmen, agricultural workers and others with less than 40 shillings of goods could only wear blanket and russet wool cloth costing less than 1 shilling a length.

Regulations about what people could and could not wear were, of course, completely unenforceable and parliament asked for free trade to be reinstated in 1364. Attempts to restrict what people wore continued on and off for another hundred years.



England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

A Social History of England 1200-1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

36 responses to “You Can’t Wear That!

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Back in the good old days, we were undoubtedly ruled by what we wore, we had to have our socks pulled up ALWAYS, on the way to school. I suppose it was a form of instilling pride in us good Catholic kids 🙂 Interesting post as always April!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The fun was in trying to subvert the school uniform rules. I suspect those who owned less than 40 shillings in goods had other things of their minds!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lydiaschoch

    I had no idea that clothing and food were so strictly tied to social class in the fourteenth century.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sumptuary laws were attempted in colonial America as well. New England was founded by people of Calvinistic ideals; predominately of merchant & gentry classes. They were determined that fellow settlers knew they were dealing with people of quality and rank! Even by the 17th century clothing was seen as a tangible way to deduce one’s place in society.

    Rank was everything. With the King & Parliament an ocean away, the colonial elite assumed the trappings of leadership. It was critical that a colonial magistrate be given way, hats doffed, & curtsies dipped when he strolled through town. How would strangers know how important he was if everyone could dress as sumptuously as he?

    And Heaven forbid the lower sort forget the Calvinistic notion that God predestined a person’s place in life? One was expected to accept one’s station & execute it to the glory of God. The problem was that this idea directly contradicted the other treasured notion that prosperity was God’s way of rewarding honest, hard labor. A Puritan dichotomy!

    Again and again sumptuary laws were passed, but wealthy farm matrons and craftsmen’s wives were not going to accept that they could not wear silk when their husband’s pockets bulged with gold! Many times the tables turned, and elites became poorer than the servants & menials they brought with them! Explain again why God would not allow a wealthy goodwife to enjoy her velvets, trimmed with miniver, just because her husband was liveryman to an elite when all hopped off the Mayflower?

    As far as the strange coinage. I have a theory that it might be due to trying to create coinage equivalent to that of other countries. In an age when there were a great many more monetary systems, the coins of certain countries became standards for international trade. Perhaps at one time a mark was supposed to ease the differences between, say, a florin, sou, guilder, or other common trade money. Just an idea. Never really explored it.

    Love it! I had always heard about the sumptuary laws, but assumed it was a
    way to regulate colonials. That Edward III thought it necessary is an angle I hadn’t considered. I wondered about the moving of the Staple, and why it upset the merchants so much. This helps! Bless you, Ms. Munday! You really open my world!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Always learn something new here!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Amazing how people try to legislate even the slightest behaviors of others (while making exceptions for themselves, of course)! I’ve always gotten a chuckle from the unenforceability of the sumptuary laws… Thanks for another great post, April! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Timi. It is amazing that they bothered trying to do it. By 1363, though, they had had two lots of Black Death, so the future was looking very uncertain and this might have been them trying to hold on to the past.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Besides work dress codes, I remember being in public elementary school and girls having to only wear dresses. How stupid that in the middle of winter we’d have to wear a dress or while playing kickball. When I got into 5th grade, the dress code changed and girls could wear pants and I embraced it. I cannot imagine being told that I can’t wear a certain clothing item even if I had the money for it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I would like to say that this is shocking, but having grown up in a community that fought to prevent a prominent black man from buying a house in a wealthy neighborhood, I’d say – things haven’t changed very much.

    Liked by 3 people

    • No, they haven’t. People use other ways to show their status these days and they still want to protect it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Neighborhood’s loss. I hope that man & his loved ones were welcomed in a kinder & more open neighborhood. Mine is comprised of at least four ethnicities and all are great people!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The man was Mohammad Ali, the famous boxer. I’m sure he was welcomed somewhere. I was embarrassed to be part of that community, and I focus on the other places I lived in that general area.

        Liked by 3 people

        • priscillaking

          Color is not the only reason why people might have had mixed feelings about Ali as a neighbor. He was the world champion of “controversial,” a hate magnet whose rule for public life seemed to be “Always say things that infuriate people who are physically intimidated by me.”

          I get to say this because I rented rooms in multiracial houses where my Black housemates said it too. At least one of them added “I wouldn’t shake his hand.”

          Well, I *would* have shaken Ali’s hand…I raised money for Nelson Mandela’s visit to Washington, too.

          But (back to the topic), whether it’s because of color, religion, politics, hate-magnetism, or lawn decor…I’m not happy about the increasing trend for control over what neighbors do and look like to displace owning enough land not to have to see neighbors, as a status indicator in the United States.

          I’ve only ever found good things to say about the Obamas’ looks and manners; if anything they’re too polite (as in bowing to foreigners), but, because of the security issues, I definitely would not want them as neighbors. But if I don’t own (and maintain) enough land to be the one selling any property any new neighbors may buy, what right do I have to an opinion about who become my new neighbors?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Actually, it’s not a growing trend, it’s a continuing one. Perhaps you never encountered prominent signs saying “whites only” or “colored people use back entrance”, etc. They were all over America in my youth. The difference today is in finding ways to hide the obvious racism, but maintaining the desired separation.

            I can understand not wanting to live near a celebrity, and fully understand their desires for gated communities. It’s for their safety as well as their neighbors.

            The only difference I have found in my mixed neighborhood is a greater friendliness than the all-white I resided in about 20 years ago. Maybe it’s the cultural attitudes my non-white neighbors brought with them, but I enjoy it! I had not seen people walk up & down the street, visiting, kids playing, and friendly waving, since I was a small child.

            We all want the same things; opportunity, safety, friendship. Eighteen years of it has been wonderful! Just hope they like me as much as I like them!


  10. Pingback: Signs of Status – #1LinerWeds – No Facilities

  11. Pingback: What’s It Worth? | A Writer's Perspective

  12. Dawn

    The Tudors, especially Elizabeth and I believe Henry VIII, also passed sumptuary laws. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Puritans under Cromwell had sartorial restrictions as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. A very interesting post April. While we have a choice about what we wear now, I think it’s still an identity and status consideration. Funny, the more holes in one’s jeans the more fashionable one apparently is.

    Liked by 2 people

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s