Medieval Monday—What Not to Wear

I’m having one of those days where I can’t decide what I want to wear. I had on a dress but wasn’t 100% feeling it, so I threw on a pair of jeans only to discover I shouldn’t have that piece of carrot cake last night because the jeans felt uncomfortably tight, so now I’m sitting here in a pair of Victoria’s Secret yoga pants. They’re a placeholder until I actually have to leave the house, at which point I’ll dive back into my closet for round 2.

I do have a point, and it’s that I’m lucky I don’t live in the 14th Century because I wouldn’t have nearly as many options thanks to a wonderful little thing called Sumptuary Laws. These laws were rigid in dictating what you could or could not wear based on your income.
Money talks today, but money really talked in the Middle Ages. If you were rich, you could wear whatever the heck you wanted. If you didn’t have the good fortune to tumble forth from the uterus of a noblewoman, your options were a bit more limited. If you were lucky, you might be a knight with profitable land because then you could wear what the nobles wore but no ermine fur and no precious gems sewn into your clothing. Less-profitable knights weren’t allowed to wear gold cloth or to line their clothing with miniver.
For those classes below the knight, the laws regulated how much you could spend on your fabric. Are you a wealthy merchant? Well then, you can spend up to 3 pounds, 6 shillings on your cloth. Average merchant? You’re limited to 3 pounds, and you’re not allowed to have any embroidery on your clothing either. Yeomen are limited to 2 pounds but are forbidden from buying silk, while servants can spend just over a pound.
And then there’s the very bottom of the totem pole—the working class. If you’re a laborer, a shepherd, a plowman, a dairymaid, etc., you wear a russet sack and a rope belt. Period.
Could you imagine trying to enforce sumptuary laws today? You save money from your paycheck for an entire year to buy yourself a Louis Vuitton bag, only to have the cops come snatch it and fine you because you make less than $250,000 a year so you’re forbidden from carrying it. Or you walk into a fabric store and have to show a W-2 before you’re allowed to shop. Kinda harsh, huh?
BONUS: In exciting contest news, Susan is doing an amazing giveaway over on her blog all week long. All you have to do to enter is be a follower and leave a comment, it’s as easy as that. Today’s winner gets to choose from a selection of fantasy books. Sweet, right? So go on over and enter!
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3 Responses

  1. Marieke says:

    Handy tho, at least you never have to think about it! 😉

  2. Susan says:

    Oooooh, russet sack. Sexy.

    Really interesting post. I've heard some of this before — clothing laws, I mean. But I didn't know it had to do with income.

    So were working class people really not allowed to wear anything other than a russet sack?? What about in the winter….?

    (P.S. Thanks for the awesome shout out!!!)

  3. Meredith says:

    Very true, Marieke. It would really come in handy on days like today. :)

    I'm happy to give you the shout out, Susan! And yep, you could make yourself a winter cloak, but you could only use two kinds of very cheap fabric. I'm guessing it was itchy. :)

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