As in just about any other period of history, clothing in the Middle Ages was worn for necessity, comfort, and display. The dress of Europeans during the years from the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE to about 1340 was slow to change and was largely standardised over a wide area. Fabrics were very expensive for lower social classes.
In 1322 Florence forbade the wearing of silk and scarlet cloth by its citizens outside their houses. In 1366 Perugia banned the wearing of velvet, silk, and satin within its boundaries. The impact of such legislation can be seen in the wardrobe of Francesco di Marco Datini, a merchant of Prato. Despite the fact that he had business houses from Avignon to Spain as well as in Italy and was the equivalent of a modern millionaire, his finest gowns in 1397 were made of woolen cloth, their only hint of luxury provided by a taffeta lining. The law did not permit the commercial classes to own garments made of velvet, brocade, silk, or other rich fabrics.
Whereas Roman sumptuary law had applied equally to all women and all men, in western Europe the laws were more discriminatory, restricting the richest fabrics, furs, and jewels to the aristocracy. Thus, in England in 1337 Edward III ruled that no one below the rank of knight could wear fur. The same law also decreed that only English-made cloth could be worn in England. This dual role of ensuring class distinctions and banning imported goods was common in sumptuary law. In 1362 Edward III issued another edict aimed at preventing people from dressing above their station. Merchants could wear the same clothes as an esquire or knight, but only if they were five times wealthier. Yeomen/ freeholder and below could not wear silk, cloth of silver, chains, jewellery, or buttons (which were then made of expensive materials or gems). They were not to wear the short coats or tunics worn by noblemen. Carters, plowmen, shepherds, oxherds, cowherds, swineherds, dairymen, and farm labourers were to wear only russet cloth at a shilling a yard and undyied blanket cloth. Thus, farming folk were restricted to natural wool tone and russet, and they continued wearing such colours into the 20th century. Only lords might wear cloth of gold and sable furs. Esquires and gentlemen were not allowed velvet, satin, ermines, or satin damask unless they were sergeants of the royal household. Women could not wear gold or silver girdles, nor foreign silk head covers.
Similar laws explicitly stipulating (demand or specify a requirement) the fabrics, styles, and colours to be worn by men and women of particular social or economic standing were issued in Spain and France. Furthermore, in France and England it was often claimed that such laws were issued for moral or religious reasons. For example, in 1583 Henry III of France decreed that in order to regularise and reform clothing, which was dissolute and superfluous, the wearing of precious stones and pearls on garments was restricted to princes. The richest fabrics allowed were velvet, satin, damask, and taffeta, all without any enrichment beyond silk linings. Bands of embroidery in gold and silver were banned. Henry III stressed that God was angry because he could not recognise a person’s quality from his clothes. A similar excuse had been given in England in 1463 when Edward IV issued a sumptuary law on the grounds that God was displeased by excessive and inordinate apparel.
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