Sumptuary Laws

I just received a copy of the book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, by RIchard Thompson Ford. It’s now in my ‘to read’ list, but it might be a while before I get to it… I found a reference to this book during one of those rabbit holes that are easy to fall into when I was researching 18th century sumptuary laws. These were laws enacted to limit access or restrict use of certain materials or styles to specific people, usually with an eye to keeping everyone within their class and not dressing like their social betters.

One such law I came across recently in an article about Swedish lace making refers to two acts. In 1767 Sweden, His Majesty’s Directive against Luxuriance and Superfluity was enacted to minimize commoners from wearing luxurious materials and accessories, as well as limit ostentation amongst aristocratic ladies when not at court: “For the prevention of a harmful luxuriance in Ladies’ costumes, all trains on Ladies’ costumes of whatever kind are forbidden as from the 1 January 1767…” As well, this edict also limited silk and wide lace trims to court wear only. Three years later, a 1770 sumptuary law extended restrictions to men’s clothing: “All Male Persons in general are forbidden at a Penalty of one Hundred Silver Riksdalers…to wear Silk Velvet, and Silk fabrics in Clothing, Lining, by which is meant Coats, Frock-coats, so-called Surcoats, Jackets and Waistcoats; Likewise forbidden at the same Fine are all Galloons and Embroidery in Gold, Silver, Silk or any other kind, except for what officers and the parading Burghers of the town have the right to wear on their Hats and Caps; Also forbidden for Male Persons at the same Fine are Lace and Mountings on Canvas for Cuffs…”

Bill Cunningham – Fashion Climbing

I just found my must read for this fall – it turns out Bill Cunningham, the beloved New York street fashion photographer, left behind a memoir about his life in the fashion industry. Cunningham was notoriously shy about his own past when he was alive, but it seems he wanted the last word!

In a preview of the book in today’s New York Times, a quote from the first chapter touches upon Cunningham’s childhood and his stern Catholic mother: “There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress. Women’s clothes were always much more stimulating to my imagination. That summer day, in 1933, as my back was pinned to the dining room wall, my eyes spattering tears all over the pink organdy full-skirted dress, my mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.”

The balance of the book is more about his personal story of working through the fashion industry from stockroom boy, to milliner, to photographer of New York’s most fashion-conscious elite. Although a few characters don’t come off too well, like columnist Eugenia Sheppard, the book is less a tell-all tale than a personal memoir.

Penguin Press is publishing the book this year for a September release.

Erata – 1950s American Fashion

1950s-usa-fashionPlease note that in my book 1950s American Fashion I made a stupid mistake – probably caused by my brain, eyes and fingers not listening to each other. A friend of the family of designer Helga Oppenheimer wrote to tell me that Helga was married to Walter Oppenheimer, not Robert – who was, of course, the father of the atomic bomb…  Walter was not just Helga’s husband, he was also her business partner and fabric importer.

My apologies.


Great resource site – Antique Pattern Library

The Antique Pattern Library has a great resource of copyright free digital PDF reprints of various needlecraft books like these beading books from the 1920s:

Book Review – Charles James

In 1988 when I was making $16,000 a year, Rizzoli came out with a series of fabulous coffee table books on the works of Poiret, Dior, Balenciaga (and I think there was one on Chanel too, but I didn’t buy it.) They were $125.00 each – $90.00 on sale if you wanted to take the chance on waiting for them to be marked down. I missed out on the Poiret and only got a copy of it a couple of years ago as a Christmas gift from Kenn who found it online from a used book seller. These were incredibly valuable books to me because I knew I probably would never handle such amazing examples in real life. I still have the books, and although the binding has become unglued on the Dior, they are still precious additions to my library.

Fortunately, the quality of these books has been revived in the most recent publication by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Charles James. Printed to accompany their current exhibition on James, I now know I have to make it down to New York this summer to see the exhibition. My book arrived today and it is in a word – stunning. The photography is clear so you can see details of construction, there are plenty of images, intelligent, pertinent information, and bonus material in the form of an article about the conservation of the dresses as well as a thorough year by year biography of James’ career. This is a go-to, keep-forever book – the sort of thing anyone who is serious about fashion must have in their library.

I have but one complaint – why did it only cost $34.00, inclusive of tax and shipping from Amazon? Twenty-five years ago the Rizzoli books on Dior, Balenciaga and Poiret were published at more than three times the price when I could barely afford rent. This book is worth easily as much as those books and I haven’t even finished reading it yet!

Fashion Police

I have blogged about this topic before because I am fascinated by the interaction of fashion and the law.  We may think we are living in a world where fashion has few rules, but although nobody cares anymore whether white shoes are worn after Labour day, there still are rules, or should I say laws.

Right now, the province of Quebec is debating a ‘Charter of Values’ bill, following France’s lead to ban religious garb in government offices and schools – this would place the turban, yarmulke, hijab and crucifix, among other religious symbols and garb, on the banned list. I personally believe in the separation of church and state, which is why I also believe gay marriage is a legal, not a religious matter, but I am getting off topic…

In the history of fashion law, there is a long list of what has and hasn’t been controlled and allowed and a recent article by Brian Wheeler of the BBC News uncovers some of that history through his review of a new book on the topic that is definitely going on my ‘to-read’ pile:

9780521140041“…Of all the freedoms enjoyed by Westerners, the ability to wear what we like, without government interference, is probably the one we take for granted more than any other… “We do like to feel that when we get up in the morning and get dressed we are only limited by our closet,” says Ruthann Robson, a professor at City University New York. But, argues Robson in her new book Dressing Consitutionally: Heirarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes, there are far more restrictions than we might think. It all dates back to so-called sumptuary laws, used from the Middle Ages onwards to keep the lower orders in their place – or strengthen national identity – by dictating the style and quality of clothing citizens of every rank could wear.

An Englishman caught wearing a kilt during the Scottish uprisings could find themselves arrested and thrown on to the next boat to America… The 1732 Hat Act, banning American-made headgear, rendered colonists of the New World worse off than slaves… Things were infinitely worse for actual slaves, of course, who were banned from wearing good quality fabrics or accepting “hand-me-downs” from their masters.

Such was the obsession with clothing styles that a national dress code was almost included in the US Constitution. “People thought that would be good for the morals of the nation,” says Robson…

“It really harkens back to Tudor sumptuary laws… In 1463, for example, the English Parliament passed a law prohibiting men from wearing short coats and gowns that did not cover “privy members and buttocks”. In July 2013, Wildwood, a seaside resort in New Jersey, banned the wearing of trousers or swimming trunks that sink three inches below the hips, exposing bare skin or underwear… The by-law also prohibits bare feet and going shirtless after 8pm…

In 16th Century Ireland, Queen Elizabeth I passed laws banning native Irish dress requiring people to dress in the English style. In 1297, Englishmen in Ireland were banned from adopting Irish hairstyles. Now the state is more likely to enforce clothing regulations that encourage assimilation, as with attempts around the world to ban the Muslim full-face veil…”

I don’t like the Muslim full-face veil (niqab) because it’s anti-social, but I will defend the right of the religion that deems it to be a part of their garb because its none of my business to tell them otherwise, and Quebec is wrong in trying to force government fashion sanctions onto religious doctrines and traditions.

Sixties Fashion reviews


I found this nice review by Vivian McInerny of Red Room of my latest book, Sixties Fashion: From ‘Less is More’ to Youthquake. Another favourable review appeared in Brilliant magazine, although I don’t recall putting that much emphasis on Jean Louis Scherrer. Retro To Go had a positive mention for the book as well, and there was even a boost in the WWD booklist. And all the way from New Zealand, the Auckland library had some flattering words for the book as well.