We tend to use the term “dress code” to refer to uniform policies in particular, but really the term is much broader than that—and throughout history, governments have tried formalizing dress codes and legislating them. Fortunately for us, they've had limited success. Of course, that didn't stop them from trying.
Dress codes effectively began as soon as humans learned to wear clothes, possibly as far back as 170,000 years ago. As soon as modesty became a cultural priority and society decided that nakedness was “bad,” for example, informal dress codes told people that they must wear clothing. Most every culture has some set of rules, be it formal or informal, with regard to what people wear, from the practice of some Middle Eastern women wearing the hijab to the tradition of British barristers wearing a white wig—known as a peruke—during formal proceedings, and these “cultural signifiers” reflect the beliefs, values, and traditions of their attendant culture.
These codes are often established by the dominant social class in the particular culture and frequently appear during times of “intense social change.” The sumptuary laws enacted during the late medieval period in Europe are a prime example of this. While the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) was raging between France and England, Europe was also hit by the bubonic plague, aka the Black Death, repeatedly from the 14th to 18th centuries. Estimates of the dead from the plague are between 75 and 200 million and the death toll from the war is approximated at 2.3-3.5 million. And as those of us old enough and aware enough during the Covid-19 pandemic know, that many deaths plays havoc with economies. Suddenly, there weren't enough workers, and prices skyrocketed. Suddenly, laborers had a say in where they worked and how much they could ask for wages—practices that upended societies based on serfdom and feudalism.
As time progressed, those with money who were not part of the aristocracy began spending money on the finer things in life, including clothing and accessories. And in a society in which clothing indicated identity, this was definitely a problem. So the government attempted to control these unruly peasants and tradesmen through new laws, and these sumptuary laws attempted to limit spending on foreign wares such as textiles and other luxury goods that previously only the wealthy could afford—and even, in some cases, what styles they were allowed to wear. According to the British Library:
During her reign, Elizabeth I passed the Statutes of Apparel and issued no less than eight proclamations on the theme of ‘excesse of apparel’. These proclamations were intended to enforce the statutes and to justify these laws by emphasising: fear of the rise in extravagant spending on clothes and its impact on the nation’s wealth; concern for young gentlemen who were running themselves into debt with excessive spending; concern that these men would turn to crime to fund their habit; condemnation of pride; and dislike of the subversion of order represented by people flouting existing laws. The chief reason seems to be the dislike and fear of people – particularly ‘the inferior sort’ – dressing above their station, which Elizabeth complained was causing ‘disorder and confusion of the degrees of all states’. Other laws, such as the compulsory wearing of woollen caps on certain days, were passed to bolster the country’s textile industries. The upper classes were exempt from this law.
These edicts sought to prevent non-nobles from dressing “above their station” under the guise that it was for the protection of the realm. Thankfully, the “fashion police” weren't a real thing, so these laws were a bit difficult to enforce.
Unfortunately for some, they did occasionally try. In January 1565, a servant, Richard Walweyn, was imprisoned in London for wearing “a very monsterous and outraygeous great payre of hose” and held until he could prove he had some other hose “of a decent & lawfull facyon[fashion].” The hose he was wearing were called trunk hose, which are basically a pair of shorts that balloon out from the waist and then taper in mid-thigh. As Richard Thompson Ford writes in his book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, “Trunk hose were the parachute pants of their day; Richard Walweyn, a Renaissance-era MC Hammer.” Later that same year, Thomas Bradshaw was made to do a walk of shame through the streets with his trunk hose deflated, the stuffing ripped out of them.
These laws weren't limited to Europe; they could be found in China, Japan, the Middle East, and more. In late 14th century China, when emperor Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the Mongol dynasty (1271-1368) and proclaimed the new Ming dynasty (1368-1644), he saw clothing as key to building a loyal subject and society and attempted to legislate out the Mongol style of dress in favor of that of a more traditional agrarian society. And as in Europe, he had limited success; archaeological studies of the tombs of Ming princes found evidence of the Mongol style of dress well into the 1500s.
During its Edo period (1603-1868), Japan prospered and merchants raked in money, but they were still commoners, considered to be of low social standing, while the samurai, Japan's warrior class, were basically aristocrats. And since they had all this money, the merchants—as we saw in Europe—began spending lavishly on luxury goods. The Shogunate (the Japanese government), too, tried regulating dress, prohibiting expensive fabrics, colors, embroidery, etc. And once again, they had little success. In response, merchants got creative. For example, while their exterior robes were made of simple cotton, they were lined with lavish silks in bold colors, showing off their wealth. Similarly, their houses were built with humble exteriors and extravagant interiors. Occasionally, the Shogunate did crack down, but again, total success eluded them. One instance of the Shogunate cracking down occurred in 1861. Wealthy Edo merchant Ishikawa Rokubei, his wife, and her servants all dressed in their finest garb to view the Shogun (Japan's supreme military leader) and the wife caught his attention. He assumed she was the wife of a daimyo (basically, a local lord) and was outraged to find she was just the wife of a merchant; he felt that the family had disrespected their “betters” by dressing above their station. He had them summoned before him, at which point he stripped Rokubei of all his property and banished the family from Edo. Shortly thereafter even more sumptuary edicts were handed down by the Shogun. Eventually, however, the Shogunate accepted that they could not ban luxury goods, so they pivoted to just attempting to control them. And in 1868, the Shogun lost his power and the emperor was restored to the position of top dog. Thus began the Meiji period, during which Japan's samurai lost their standing and the country went through great changes, militarily, economically, and socially. Trade with the West flourished, and Western clothing (as well as Western culture in general, and American culture and ideas specifically) started to infiltrate Japanese culture.
Dress codes, however, weren't just used historically to limit social mobility, keeping the peasants in their place, as it were; they were also used to force assimilation—conformity to majority values—on minority cultures. In the case of Native Americans, for example, the U.S. government established more than 400 boarding schools into which Native American children were placed—in some cases, forcibly—and where they weren't allowed to display their native culture. Among the first things done when a child arrived at the school, usually set somewhere far from their home reservations to prevent them from running home, was to replace their native clothing with American uniforms (in some cases, military uniforms) and cut their hair, removing anything that would identify their native identity. They were also given anglo names and allowed to speak only English. These schools used dress codes and other methods to rewrite these children's cultural identity. And while I'd like to say that this was done a long time ago, the practice of forcing Native American assimilation through these boarding schools didn't end until the late 1960s. Yes, these schools were still operating 60 years ago.
Thankfully, most modern societies have accepted that legislating dress in an attempt to control their populace is ineffective. Case in point, in the U.S., most laws related to dress are actually more about preserving freedom than restricting it—as in the Crown Act, which seeks to prevent discrimination on the basis of natural or “ethnic” hair. Humans being what they are, there are always groups out there who might want to use sumptuary laws on others as a form of control—like in Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale—but at this point in time in the U.S., they're in the minority. Now, those dress codes that we do see are usually handed down by private employers or organizations rather than the government. And while they're generally grounded in a desire for safety, group cohesion, or productivity, they're not popular with everyone and the effectiveness of them is in dispute. But that's a whole nother topic—and this is long enough as is.
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