Sumptuary Legislation and the Fabric Construction of National Identity
Early Modern England: Constructing the Past: Vol. 8: Iss. 1 (2007)
As England transitioned from a medieval mode of government and society to an early modern nation, the state and its citizens confronted challenges to traditional culture. The old feudal system’s hold over society was lessening to a certain degree, allowing for greater mobility within the social hierarchy. Members of the gentry aspired to higher status, or at the very least, the appearance of such status. This emulation was fueled by the emergence of a middle class of wealthy, but untitled, people attempting to better their own social position. David Kuchta writes, “With the rise of a new gentry, the dissolution of medieval estates and monasteries, the continued growth of enclosures and rural industries, and the increasing wealth of an urban merchant class, new elites created great confusion and general disorder by threatening the cultural superiority of an older aristocracy.” Thus a train of imitation was formed, placing pressure on each subsequent class to distinguish themselves from upstarts.
One of the most important means through which rising classes displayed their claims to higher status was outward appearance, especially clothing. Expensive and luxurious apparel signified social position, visibly declaring both the reality and the aspiration of rank. The threat of changes to the prevailing social hierarchy prompted responses from the nobility and the monarchy in the attempt to regulate displays of false status.