We tend to focus so much of our historical spotlight on the Kings, Queens and nobles of the Tudor period – that we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Tudor costume was defined by the ladies and gentlemen who populated the Tudor Court.
But this is to miss the wide range of clothing styles and colours worn by the rest of the population. But, you ask, could they not wear similar clothes, or whatever they wanted? The answer is that they couldn’t – and this was governed not by social customs, but by the law!
And it was not just the clothes they wore, but also the food they ate, their jewellery and the furniture in their houses that were legally controlled.
The legislation was collectively called the Sumptuary Laws and it was designed to govern the amount people were allowed to spend on such things (the name derives from ‘sumptus’ – the latin for ‘expenditure’). But in truth, it actually enforced the strict stratification of society, keeping the ‘lower orders’ firmly in their place by ensuring they could be visually marked out by their clothing and food.
So, for example, nobody under the rank of Baron could line his hose with velvet or satin; nobody below a Knight wear a double ruff, carry a gilded sword or dagger. The penalty for breaking this law? At very least the confiscation of the offending item, but more likely a fine or imprisonment.
Most of these laws seemed to relate mainly to the very highest echelons of society – for example, Elizabeth’s Statute of Apparel in 1574 states that only a King, Queen and close Royal family could wear purple silk, cloth of gold and sable (although some Dukes, Marquises and Earls could use these as detailing on their outfits). Many other items of clothing and colours were also specified, together with the rank that could wear them.
So what did this mean for the common people? For the worker in the field it was largely irrelevant; they could not have afforded such fineries anyway. No, the people it really impacted were the aspiring Merchant class, becoming rich from trade, able to afford fine materials, but kept from wearing them through these rigid laws.
So ultimately, these were laws designed to keep the new middle class firmly in their place – and this they continued to do, with varying degrees of compliance, until English Civil War in the 1640s created a new kind of social order.