Thursday, November 5, 2009

You are what you wear: A Brief Look at Ancient Sumptuary Laws on Fashion

Drawing of a Roman toga

Nowadays, especially in the Western world, we take for granted the fact that we are free to wear what we like. It comes as an addition to the highly prized freedom of expression since people do not merely communicate with words, but also through their lifestyles and their choice of clothing.

Uniforms these days are often used for the purpose of recognition or as a statement of belonging. An officer is easily recognized and his or her role becomes apparent and salient through their specialized uniforms. Similarly, employees of the new Canada Skytrain in Vancouver are quickly spotted because of their distinctive green clothing. As such, whether you are a government employee or an adherent of a private school, uniforms help us to avoid confusion and to create a sense of belonging.

Interestingly, particularly during ancient times, there used to be “sumptuary laws,” meaning specific laws or prescriptions for consumption of food and the wearing of clothes. The latter often became a status symbol, and people were consciously limited to their choice of garments. In ancient Greece, gold rings were to be avoided by most men, whereas silk was frowned upon during the Roman Empire. The Romans wanted to ensure that social hierarchy was kept in place, that luxury and extravagance was only meant for the nobility and higher classes. The rules were set out clearly, and any impostor or anyone feigning to be other by choosing clothes beyond their given status was clearly punished.

To us such laws may seem odd and limiting, too controlling for our tastes. We pride ourselves on wearing what we like. But are we really free to choose? Is not fashion a main factor in many people's clothing decision? Are there not certain items that are fashionable and “in” despite their awkwardness or their lack of comfort?

Certain styles seem to me rather torture, both to wear and to look at, but then again I am not a great follower of fashion or trends. For better or for worse, clothing for me is a necessity and not so much a statement. Yet still, I would not like to have those rights infringed upon or be told what to wear. I really hope that sumptuary laws strictly remain something of the past.

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