Constructing the Past

Publication Date

Spring 2007


The sumptuary legislation is quite specific, outlining exactly which fabrics were permitted for each social class and in what types of clothing. For example, Elizabeth’s 1562 proclamation asserted, “None shall wear in his apparel any silk of the color purple, cloth of gold tissue, but only the King, Queen . . . except dukes and marquises who may wear in doublets and sleeveless coats cloth of gold of tissue not exceeding £5 the yard, and purple in mantles of the Garter.” The language of exclusion reflects the common conceptions of social hierarchy in early modern England. The most lavish accoutrements were reserved for the royal family, including the traditional imperial colors of purple and gold, although certain levels of nobility were allowed to sparingly use those colors. Expressing the desire to halt the use of apparel as a tool for untoward social imitation, writer William Prynne called for a law regulating apparel, not only in the playhouse, but also throughout society “which would well befit our Nation, our times, which Proteus-like are always changing shape and fashion, and like the Moone, appeare from day to day in different formes.”