Sumptuary LawsIn a society as rigidly structured as Medieval Europe, sumptuary laws were probably inevitable. As cities and trade developed, more untitled individuals became rich from trade and the nobility noticed a disturbing development -- mere merchants could now afford to clothe themselves in expensive material! This was unacceptable, of course. If the common rabble could afford silks and scarlets, then it was going to become increasingly difficult to tell who was who. As a result, laws sprang up all over Europe dictating who could wear what. Certain colors, materials, styles, and even decorative patterns were forbidden to anyone without a good pedigree. The laws varied from place to place, and included such eccentric details as how tall a lady's hennin could be (it was proportional to her rank), what classes of people could wear pointy shoes (no one at or below the level of "artisan"), and that peasants should never wear more than one color at once except, perhaps, a differently colored hood for special occasions.
There were other, less obvious reasons for instituting sumptuary laws, however. In some places, it was the clergy who pressed for the laws, fearing that fashion (and hence, vanity) was getting way out of hand. The clergy generally targeted fashions that were too revealing or ostentatious, e.g. men's short hemlines and women's trains. Sometimes the purpose of regulation was to keep young noblemen from bankrupting themselves in an attempt to keep up with the latest fashions at court. Being titled did not automatically mean you were rich, and young men in particular were prone to ruining their family fortunes. Finally, some places instituted sumptuary laws as a means of protecting local industry or stimulating trade. In England during the fourteenth century, for example, laws prohibited the purchase of any non-English fabric, protecting their wool industry against the threat of cheap foreign imports.
Social MarkersClothing has meaning beyond its beauty or utility. I have already outlined how sumptuary laws helped reinforce social strata by relegating certain fashions and materials to specific segments of society. Clothing also served to send more specific messages. Just as we can identify police officers, medical workers, and even store clerks today by their uniforms, clothing differentiated certain groups in Medieval society. The wealthy were responsible for clothing their servants -- what better way to advertise one's power than to dress them all alike, in a livery based upon the colors of one's coat of arms? Some nobles even dressed their children in livery. The coat of arms itself is another example of a clothing signifier. While it never really caught on for everyday wear, coats of arms or their devices did appear occasionally on formal clothing, and were specific enough that one could immediately identify the wearer's parentage.
Members of guilds often dressed in specific colors, and were therefore readily identifiable as tailors, tanners, etc. Members of religious orders dressed in distinctive habits, which earned them nicknames -- the Franciscans, for example, were sometimes called "Cordeliers" after their distinctive belts of knotted cord (and I am amused to note that, as I write this, my spell-check not only recognizes the word "Cordeliers," but capitalizes it for me, suggesting that the name is still in use). Doctors, especially during times of plague, wore a sack-like bird mask over their heads, and the protruding beak was filled with various herbs to keep harmful vapors at bay. Pilgrims carried a distinctive staff and a bag for bread. Sometimes they wore emblems and souvenirs from the sites they visited, such as the scallop shell of Santiago de Compostela. It was important for them to be identifiable: because of their holy mission, it was a gross offense, both legally and spiritually, to harm them. Potential cutthroats were, I'm sure, grateful for the warning that killing the traveler with the staff would earn them an extra hot place in hell.
Medieval people had a horror of leprosy. Some communities tried to force lepers to wear distinctive clothing, and for a while, in the south of France, sufferers had to wear a patch in the shape of a duck's foot. Imposing standards of dress on lepers, however, proved difficult since no one wanted to get close enough to do it. Instead, lepers used a rattle or clapper to warn others of their approach, and this had one advantage over clothing -- you could tell when one was coming up behind you.
Local laws required Jews, "Saracens," and sometimes even Christian deviants to wear distinctive clothing, or markers on their clothing, so they could be readily identified. Again, the details varied from community to community. For Jews, the markers most often consisted of a round patch, usually yellow, about the size of a human palm, to be displayed prominently upon the front of the garment. They could sometimes get out of wearing it -- for a fee, of course. Muslims were marked with a yellow crescent. In fact, visible religious identification may have begun in Islamic countries as a means of identifying those who were exempt from heeding the call to prayer. In Christian Europe, however, lawmakers were more interested in segregation, in preventing intermarriage, and in increasing the revenues brought in by tolls and taxes levied exclusively on non-Christians.
The clothing worn by prostitutes was also heavily regulated. Their required markers were sometimes extremely visible: striped hoods or cloaks, black and white pointed hats, and yellow dresses are just a few variations. These later evolved into armbands of a certain color, or a hood cut in a distinctive shape. Fur, jewelry, and even embroidery were generally forbidden to prostitutes, although the reasons for this are ambiguous. It may have been because such finery was only considered appropriate for respectable women, but it may also have been for the protection of the prostitutes themselves. Such visible wealth could have made them targets for robbery, and with no male guardians, they wouldn't have had much legal recourse.