by David Isle

Once upon a time, the obstacles to buying a new velvet coat included not only the expense but, if you were not born into the right family, laws preventing you from wearing certain fabrics or colors.  Desiree Desierto of the University of Rochester and Mark Koyama of George Mason University have recently released a working paper on these laws, known as “sumptuary laws,” in pre-industrial Europe.  Along the way they find some delightful language from various medieval laws, such as the 1485 French law that restricted the use of gold, silver, and silk cloth to “nobles living nobly who are born and extracted of good and old nobility.” (My close reading of this law suggests to me that it has something to do with nobility; what’s your reading?)  

But the paper’s main argument is the relationship between sumptuary laws and income.  “The purpose of sumptuary laws,” claims a 1963 book by Postan et al., “was in part to prevent the rich from ruining themselves through fruitless competition.”  The idea is that luxurious clothes represent high status.  If everyone is allowed to buy them, you get into a rat race where the truly wealthy have to keep buying more and more lavish clothing in order to demonstrate that they are, in fact, wealthy.  It’s easier if everyone agrees that only certain people should buy certain things, which maintains the same hierarchy without the “fruitless” expense on ever more sumptuous raiment.  

Desierto and Koyama demonstrate an inverted-U relationship between income and sumptuary laws.  In their model, there are only two types of people, nobles and plebs.  When society is poor, there’s no need for sumptuary laws. Only the nobles can afford silk anyway, so there’s no need for laws preventing the plebs from buying it.  Poverty is doing the job just fine.  When society gets rich enough that even plebs can afford silk, then the nobles pass sumptuary laws to prevent status competition.  As society gets richer still, the cost of enforcing sumptuary laws gets high enough that the nobles finally give up and grant plebs entry into the wonderful world of lighting money on fire in order to win the admiration of their wastrel peers. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Won’t some great plague please come and relieve these people of their anxiety. Well, Desierto and Koyama have thought of that and it turns out that only makes it worse.  In a nice demonstration of the left side of the inverted-U—where an increase in income leads to an increase in sumptuary laws—they show that waves of sumptuary laws follow waves of plague deaths.  The idea is, the labor shortage following a plague outbreak raises wages, which allows plebs to afford more expensive clothing, which leads nobles to prevent them from buying it.  (Incidentally, even without the status competition, not a bad perk to be able to block some of your competition on the demand side; not a few times in the past I would have been happy to pass a law preventing others in my size from buying from my favorite stores.)

Today, of course, there are no sumptuary laws.  To paraphrase Anatole France, the law, in its majestic equality, allows the poor as well as the rich to buy, say, a $250 paperclip.  Has this, in fact, led to fruitless wardrobe competition? 

I hope not.  Surely clothing does still serve as a social signal, and for some consumers the most important thing about a clothing item is that it shows the rest of the sidewalk, the club, the Internet, or wherever else they are, how successful and cool they are.  But other consumers have achieved a more enlightened view of what they wear, and instead take joy not, or at least not only, in the status that their clothing signal, but in the wearing of it.  Under this view, not only does one’s own clothing offer intrinsic pleasure, but other people’s clothing can be a source of delight and inspiration rather than anxiety and jealousy.  That is truly living nobly.