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