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Fashion Police - A Short History of Clothing and the Law

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Laws have been enacted to regulate clothing for several often overlapping reasons. Throughout history, laws have pertained to modesty; to establish social position; to protect a local economy; and to protect people from wearing dangerous clothing.

Since ancient times, the elite feared the social ambitions of the newly wealthy. Those in high positions attempted to maintain status by wearing expensive garments made of costly materials. Even today, one can spot a person wearing finer clothing; they just look better than everyone else. In the past, a person of high social position could be identified by their manner of dress. Expensive clothing was often made with imported goods, so restrictions on materials such as silks, or certain dyes, furs, and metals ensured the use of locally produced goods - a way to protect the home economy.

Modesty was and is today, important in many cultures. Some countries with a predominant Muslim population have strict rules for apparel. Here in the United States, where anything goes, a person can still be arrested for indecent exposure.

In many countries, laws prohibit wearing certain garments in the workplace. Most of such regulations are for the protection of workers. Laws have been enacted to prevent the sale of garments made of highly flammable materials. And the 20th century saw the introduction of laws that prohibited trade in wild animal parts, especially pertaining to endangered species.

Clothing Law and the Bible

In the Bible, Leviticus 19:19 states, "neither shall a garment be mingled of linen and wool come upon thee."

Deuteronomy 22:5 forbids cross-dressing.

The Talmud (a book that sets out civil and ceremonial law) commands men to provide their wives with 50 zuzims worth of attire including a belt and three pairs of shoes.

Paul, in the New Testament, requires women to cover their heads in prayer while men should go without head covering in prayer.

Imperial Purple - The Emperor Justinian

Imperial Purple - The Emperor Justinian

Imperial Purple

The famous purple dye used to color cloaks and robes of the Roman emperor and others of the highest standing came from a gland of a sea snail called a Murex. The reddish purple was fade resistant and expensive to produce. The color often became brighter with age, changing to a more reddish hue. Only the emperor wore a Tyrian purple cloak trimmed with gold. Roman Senators were allowed to sport a Tyrian purple stripe on their togas.

In 423 CE, a Roman decree prohibited men from wearing trousers which were viewed as a barbarian type of garment.

In the third century CE, Emperor Aurelian instructed men to avoid wearing green, yellow, white, or red shoes.

Slashed Sleeves

Slashed Sleeves

Sumptuary Law - Clothing Restrictions in Medieval Europe

Sumptuary laws in Europe attempted to address consumption, behavior, modesty, and as a means of identifying certain people. Breaking a sumptuary law usually resulted in a warning or the payment of a fine.

As a merchant class rose to some wealth, governments wanted to enforce a kind of dress code based on position. Sumptuary laws in England and on the Continent regulated the wearing of furs, the use of gold or silver thread, and silk. Strict guidelines regulated necklaces and decorations, sleeves, footwear, belts, fasteners, and accessories.

The devastating population loss due to the Black Plague (1348 - 1350) led to a rise in wages and wealth and established a new class of people able to afford more luxurious items. During that time, wealth and position were shown in clothing; appearance was everything and flamboyant styles were restricted to royalty, high government officials, and the elite class.

By the 1500s, the threat of the socially ambitious encouraged Henry VIII to restrict the wearing of sable, the color purple, cloth woven with gold or silver, and velvet to the ruling class including royalty and the Privy Council.

Rules often applied directly to money and wealth. Many prohibitions were enacted to prevent the new rich from buying imported goods, an attempt to keep people in their place and to protect the local wool industry.

Oddly enough, sumptuary law sometimes created new fashions. Once a certain style was forbidden, people found a way around the law. In 1495 Venice, when the government banned belt pendants, savvy fashionistas attached gem stones directly onto the belt, creating a new style. When common people were not allowed to wear certain fabrics, canny folks wore the forbidden fabric under a tunic. They cleverly cut slits in the outer garment, allowing a peak at the under fabric. The under fabric was tugged through the slits to create little poufs along the sleeve in a practice called slashing. The style became so popular, that the elite began to mimic the practice as seen in the royal portrait on the above right.

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Many countries required Jews to wear yellow badges, a practice later enforced by Nazi Germany. Prostitutes were often made to wear striped hoods or other particular garments.

Mourning attire, the clothing worn during bereavement was strictly enforced by law. Later, mourning, as well as luxury styles, became regulated by social convention instead of law.

Annette Kellerman in Her Revealing Swimwear

Annette Kellerman in Her Revealing Swimwear

Swimwear and the Law

In Europe, as bathing became a fashionable health practice, women took to the sea. The term, "taking a dip," comes from the time when women literally went out into the water for a quick dunk. 19th century, women wore bathing costumes with weighted skirts so that their hems would not float up in an immodest manner. As women increasingly enjoyed swimming, bathing costumes became more revealing.

In 1907 Annette Kellerman, the woman who created synchronized swimming, was arrested on a Boston beach for indecent exposure. As a competitive swimmer, Kellerman understood that less restrictive clothing made swimming easier and safer. Showing skin was forbidden and the exposure of her arms and legs shocked, yet eventually led women to see that less fabric made for better swimming. Arrests for indecent exposure continued into the 1920s. Eventually, the concept of swimming safely and comfortably did away with the old cumbersome suits.

Shorter hemlines and cloth shoes

Shorter hemlines and cloth shoes

Clothing Rationed During World War II

World War II led to strict rationing of fabric and metal needed by the military for the war effort. Laws enacted by the War Production Board in 1942 set guidelines for the conservation of fabric and included rules for hem lengths, details, jacket length, dye colors, and materials used for fasteners.

Clothing restrictions in England and the United States was also regulated through he use of coupon books (see illustration below). People were issued ration coupons limiting them to the number of dresses, sweaters, blouses, aprons, jackets, and shoes that could be purchased in a specified year.

Even the film industry got on board using recycled costumes and materials.

The restrictions led to new, creative fashions. Lane Bryant introduced a line of shoes made of non-rationed materials using cork soles and footwear made of fabric instead of leather.

Women's clothing styles were never the same. Except for a brief post-war interlude with long, full skirts like Dior's New Look, hemlines never fell far below the knee again. For the rest of the century and on into the next, hemlines generally have remained far shorter than in the past.

Cartoon on Wool Rationing

Cartoon on Wool Rationing

World War II Ration Book


Snowy Egret in Breeding Plumage

Herons and egrets were killed to obtain the beautiful breeding plumage used in the decoration of hats.

Herons and egrets were killed to obtain the beautiful breeding plumage used in the decoration of hats.

Clothing Laws - Furs, Feathers, and Animal Parts

During the late 19th century, a new concern for the natural world crept into the American consciousness. In the 1880s, fashionable ladies' hats were festooned with bird feathers including whole wings, owl heads, and stuffed small birds. The slaughter of herons and egrets for breeding plumage decimated wild bird populations. In the 1890s, the fledgling Audubon Society emerged to fight the feather trade.

In 1896, Mrs. Augustus Hemenway introduced a series a tea parties to educate women on the loss of herons and egrets. Women were horrified to realize that such beautiful creatures fared annihilation in order to provide hat decorations.

The 1911 Audubon's Plumage Bill banned the sale of breeding plumage and ended the wild bird feather trade.

By the mid 20th century, moves made to protect marine mammals resulted in the Fur Seal Act of 1966, which outlawed trade in fur seals and sea otters. In 1972, polar bear fur was included in the ban.

The wearing of exotic furs and parts of endangered species, while once a statement of privilege, became illegal as well as unfashionable.

Fashion Police Today

The fashion police have little to do with what we wear today. However, countries with a high Muslim population do regulate apparel. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to show skin. Bhutan has established a dress code. In Sudan, women are not allowed to wear pants. Iran's Islamic Revolution led to modesty laws that demand that women wear a chador, a black garment that covers a woman from head to toe.

Conversly, in 2011 France introduced the Burqa Ban. Women who wear the niqab, a veil that cover the face are met with fines.

Modesty laws in the US prohibit indecent exposure. A few localities have attempted to outlaw droopy draws or pants worn by young men that fall well below the waistline. Delaware introduced a law to forbid the wearing of pajamas in public.

Changing laws regulating clothing production, factory regulations, and labor costs, while not directly affecting garments have led to a dramatic change in American fashion. US garment manufacturers felt that too many regulations cut into their profits. In order to avoid the cost of high wages and government regulations, clothing producers moved operations overseas. Cheaply made apparel grew in popularity, creating a new culture of disposable clothing, outfits worn only a few times and discarded, resulting in fast fashion, like fast food, garments so cheaply made they won't last a season.

Factory fires and the terrible factory collapse in Bangladesh have led many people to look for a new way to build a wardrobe. Recycled goods have increased in popularity and more and more people purchase clothing at thrift stores.

Recent moves have been made in Congress to create copyright laws for clothing designers. Unprotected designs can be quickly copied and cheaply produced, a threat, some feel, to fashion designers. (Though one can hardly compare a high end couture garment with a discount store knock-off.) Arguments ensue on both sides of the issue. Some feel that the lack of copyright leads to constant innovation. Others feel that the big fashion houses would use such a law to crush small competitors. Legal fees would be prohibitive for small scale designers. And in one ironic twist, Diane Von Furstenberg was caught duplicating a garment created by a small, independent Canadian designer.

There is a difference between copying a design and out right piracy. The duplication of a look on a garment that is made with different materials is not the same as offering an item that pretends to be what it is not. Attaching a brand name label to a knock-off product is piracy and is against the law.

The niqab has been outlawed in France.

The niqab has been outlawed in France.

When Modesty Becomes Provocative

In the summer of 2016, France created an international uproar by sending police to public beaches to harass and fine women wearing traditional Muslim clothing. French law forbids the wearing of garments that express religious views. Police were shown ordering women in traditional dress out of the water and in one case, demanding that one woman remove a tunic.

Recently, designers created a burqini, a garment that offers modest covering while allowing a woman to enjoy the water in comfort. The fabric is cool and dries easily. This swimwear has been called "provocative" by French authorities and has been included in the ban.



Work Consulted

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline; Penguin Group; USA; 2013

"The Law, Culture, and the Economics of Fashion," by C. Scott Hemphill, Standford Law Review, 1994

"Regulating Women's Fashion," by Diane Owen Hughes from A History of Women - Silences of the Middle Ages; Harvard University Press; USA; 1994

Article: "Impact of Wold War II on Women's Fashion in the United States and Britain," by Meghann Mason; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; 2011

Article: " Down to the Last Stitch: Sumptuary Law and Conspicuous Consupmtion in Renaissance Italy," by Amanda Facelle; Wesleyan University, CT; 2009

"Sumptuary Laws," by Reed Benhamon; from The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; Edited by Valerie Steele; Charles Scribner's Sons; 2005

© 2013 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on February 04, 2016:

Fashion History - guess you didn't really read the whole article. But you are certainly right about the concept of men's clothing being more conservative. In our more recent past, women could wear men's clothing and no one would even notice - ie jeans, suits, men's tailored suits, and footwear.

Fashion_History on February 02, 2016:

Why you tell only about the women fashion policy? In western society men not allow to wear skirt high heels.. etc. Men allways have more restricted dress-code than women

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