Sumptuary Laws: How Ancient Civilizations Controlled Luxury and Excess

Luxury goods have become so ordinary in our society. Just take a scroll through any social media platform, and you’ll see designer bag after designer bag, luxury vehicle after luxury vehicle, and excess in all its forms. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely don’t believe this is normal. And I also don’t think it’s smart, especially from a financial standpoint. However, it does show how accessible it has become to live a certain lifestyle. If you have the funds, no one will stop you from walking into a Prada store and getting yourself a bag. But it wasn’t always like this. In the past, civilizations were controlled by sumptuary laws, which regulated not only what people could wear but also what they could eat and how much they could spend. So, let’s take a closer look at what that actually meant.

Ancient Rome

It’s no secret that the Romans were masters of organization and control. So unsurprisingly, their approach to luxury was no different. Let’s rewind to 215 BCE, during the tense days of the Second Punic War. Rome is under pressure, and the government needs to ensure resources are conserved. What’s their answer to this? The Lex Oppia, a law aimed specifically to tone down the lifestyles of Roman women. Under this law, women were prohibited from owning more than half an ounce of gold, wearing multi-colored clothing, or riding in carriages within the city unless it was for a public religious festival.

The motivations behind the Lex Oppia were both practical and ideological. On one hand, it was about conserving resources for the war effort. On the other, it was about reinforcing traditional Roman values. The Romans highly valued modesty, especially for women. They believed that excessive displays of wealth weren’t only wasteful, but also morally damaging.

Fast forward to 18 BCE, and we see Emperor Augustus, the great reformer, introducing the Lex Julia. Augustus was deeply concerned with what he saw as the moral decline of Rome. He believed that luxury and excess were damaging the traditional values that had made Rome great. The main purpose of Lex Julia was to restrict on public banquets, clothing, and even funerary expenses. So, Romans could no longer flaunt their wealth.

Medieval Europe

Now, let’s hop over to medieval Europe, where sumptuary laws took on a whole new dimension. These regulations had nothing to do with modesty and discipline. Instead, their goal was to completely control the locals — including what they could buy, wear, and even eat. In 1363, the English government laid down a comprehensive set of sumptuary laws. At first, these laws dictated, in excruciating detail, what different classes of people could wear.

For instance, only the nobility could wear certain luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet. Colors were also a marker of status—royal purple was reserved for the highest rank of society. What was the goal of all of this? Controlling the economy. They restricted access to expensive imports, in the hope of minimizing wasteful spending and ensuring that resources were used wisely.

But it wasn’t just about clothes. Medieval sumptuary laws extended to food and festivities. For example, if you were just a humble merchant, you weren’t allowed to throw a lavish party, even if you had the funds to do so. If you got caught, you could face hefty fines or worse. Such extravagance was only allowed for the nobility.

Feudal Japan

Half a world away, in feudal Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate had its own take on sumptuary laws. Remember our article where we talked about samurai? Well, they were an important part of these sumptuary laws.

The samurai, also known as the warrior class, had distinct privileges. These, of course, included the right to wear certain styles of clothing and carry swords. These markers were essential in maintaining their status and authority. Sumptuary laws dictated not only what samurai could wear but also how commoners could dress. The goal here was to ensure that the lines between classes remained clear and unblurred.

In the urban centers, the shogunate also imposed regulations on entertainment and luxury goods. Kabuki actors, courtesans, and even wealthy merchants were subject to strict codes controlled their clothing and even behavior. This wasn’t just about maintaining order; it was about preventing moral decay. Why? Because the shogunate believed that unchecked luxury could lead to social unrest and moral corruption.

The Tang Dynasty

Let’s now journey to ancient China during the Tang Dynasty, a period renowned for its cultural brilliance and cosmopolitanism. However, in the 8th century, Emperor Xuanzong introduced sumptuary laws aimed at curbing the extravagance of the court and the elite.

These laws were comprehensive, to say the least. They covered everything from the materials and colors of clothing to the extravagance of household goods and even the type of carriages one could use. For instance, ordinary people weren’t allowed to wear anything that was made from silk. And the use of gold and silver in everyday items was also restricted.

The Tang sumptuary laws were not just about preserving class distinctions but also about promoting a sense of moral propriety. By regulating luxury, the emperor hoped to foster a society where modesty and humility were valued over wealth and excess. Similarly to Ancient Rome, their goal was to promote moral behavior and social stability.


Colonial America

Finally, let’s take a look at Colonial America. The early settlers, particularly the Puritans, brought with them a deep-seated belief in modesty. They absolutely despised any type of excess and ostentation, fearing it could lead to moral decay and social instability.

So, it wouldn’t take too long until they implemented sumptuary laws designed to maintain social order and uphold their strict moral code. These laws restricted the wearing of fine clothes and jewelry, especially for those not of high social standing. People of lower status were prohibited from wearing lace, gold or silver thread, or costly ribbons.

These laws were not just about economics; they were deeply intertwined with the Puritan belief system. They aimed to ensure that everyone lived a life of modesty and piety, reflecting the community’s collective values. By regulating luxury, the Puritans hoped to prevent envy and maintain a sense of equality and moral integrity.

Kanita is a wanderlust-fueled traveler with an inclination for unraveling the mysteries of history, the paranormal, and the bizarre world of medicine. As a true crime buff, Kanita's nights are often spent delving into the depths of chilling mysteries. Yet, it's not just the paranormal that captivates her—her background in medicine fuels a fascination with the weird and wonderful world of medical oddities, from twisted historical practices to the myths and legends that shroud the field. From exploring haunted locales to uncovering the strange and morbid tales of medical history, Kanita is your guide to the unconventional, the unexplained, and the downright eerie.

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