We may grieve over the power of big business or the over-reach of government because they curtail our discretion and freedoms, but in the sphere of fashion and clothing, we should have no cause for complaint. Unlike our forebears, we can wear what we like as long as we can afford it. It hasn’t always been so. A 15th-century English statute forbade young men from wearing certain items of silk and cloths of gold for fear that such superfluities would contribute to their moral decline.
Such sumptuary laws have appeared across time and cultures. They were present in the ancient world: Greece, Rome, China and in medieval Europe. The policy behind them varied. In England, for example, it was economic. The thinking was that expenditure on such items, which had to be imported, would result in a disastrous outflow of precious gold specie. An Edwardian statute stated as much but added its concern that the populace would fund its dressing up by turning to crime.
There is some suspicion that the true reason for these legal restrictions on who could wear what were meant only to maintain social distinctions. If a wealthy merchant could dress as well as an earl, how would one tell the difference between the two? The principle of those times was as Polonius put it to his son in Hamlet: ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’. Now, price may be the only barrier to social display. Or perhaps not! The markets in luxury goods have spawned myriads of knock-offs. So beware, all that glitters is not gold.