Sumptuary Law
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Basic Information

Sumptuary Laws are those laws which restrict the wearing of specific types of clothing or the possession of various other luxury goods. These laws are either designed to cement a hierarchical social structure or, more generally, as an expression of puritanism or austerity to restrict public displays of excess. Thus a given law may apply to all of society with given exceptions (such as the ancient Greek and Roman laws) or may be strictly codified by rank and status, such as many medieval codes which specified into minute detail what furs, gemstones and other forms of jewelry might be worn by each level of society. Foods of various kinds may also be restricted to specific castes.

These may also be conflated with laws that mandate the wearing of specific clothing by specific groups (such as the Islamic regulations requiring dhimmi to wear specific forms of clothing or forbidding any man from wearing silk) and/or a scheme of taxation which makes certain "luxury" items disproportionately expensive. Weapons restrictions may also be rolled into a sumptuary code (such as distinguishing between "chivalric" and "common" weapons and forbidding unfree men from bearing arms at all). These could go into alarming detail - Roman laws meddled into how much precious metal could be used by way of tableware and what courses could be served at feasts.

Other, related laws may restrict what professions may be followed by those of a given status - and this can work in both directions, from low status individuals being forbidden better jobs to the nobility being forbidden to do most things that might be defined as working for a living. Again, these laws may be codified or may be more a matter of custom1.

Besides weapons control, sumptuary laws have increasingly faded, but the attitude still remains in some cultures - at least partly in the form of revulsion against ostentatious displays of wealth2. One of the more famous manifestations may be the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots", which broke out in response to the wearing of extravagently cut suits during a period of wartime rationing.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Good for upsetting players and separating PCs from their loot when they discover that they have just entered an area where they do not have the social status to wear their normal outfits and/or must pay an import tax or permit fee on it.
    • Or you can create a money sink by specifying the code and watching them run out and spend money on a whole new wardrobe every time they gain status.
  • Wearing or possessing goods forbidden by sumptuary laws may well invite arrest, fines and/or confiscation (probably both) and possibly some form of public degradation such as a term in the pillory. Where such things are enforced by custom rather than law, offenders may instead by subject to social isolation, public abuse or violence and may not have any viable recourse to law against such things. Especially amusing for foreigners who are unaware of what taboo they may have broken (although anyone obviously foreign and relatively new might well be tolerated to some degree but still receive a cooler reception than they might otherwise have had … and/or be pointed at in the street and followed by crowds of children wherever they go).
  • Arguably dressing below your rank in a sumptuary culture may invite ridicule - or be performed for effect to cultivate a reputation as an ascetic (whether honestly like Diogenes and Cato the Younger or dishonestly like Antisthenes).
  • Universal restrictions are good flavour for a society that wants to cultivate a reputation for austerity … although there are likely to be well known work-arounds for those who wish to do so.
  • Likewise, the restrictions on what a character of high status may nor do, or wear or whatever - probably quite surprising for many players.
  • Note that these laws were increasingly prevalent in the late medieval ages, following the social disruption caused by the Black Death - the greater the risk of social change, the heavier the laws brought in to prevent it.
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