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Laws of Dress Codes

Now, let us trace the changes clothing under went from the medieval times, in Europe.
During that period there were a number of laws which governed the dress codes.

The laws were:
(i) Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy.
(ii) Clothing, Notions and Beauty.
(iii) New Times.

Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy :-

In Europe during the medieval times, people were forced to wear certain types of clothes. Until the French Revolution they were expected to follow strict rules called ‘sumptuary laws’. These laws tried to have a control on the behaviour of the people who were considered socially inferior. In France, a strict regulation concerning the purchase of material was regulated. The material to be used was also prescribed according to the classes of people.

Sumptuary laws, are laws which attempt to regulate habits of consumption. Black's Law Dictionary explains them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance. Traditionally, they were laws which regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures.

Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for different purposes. They were easy means to identify social rank and privilege, and were used for social discrimination.

The French Revolution brought an end to the forced distinction between the rich and the poor , in terms of clothing. The members of the Jacobin clubs called themselves the ‘sans culottes' (without knee breeches) to distinguish themselves from the aristocrats who wore the fashionable ‘knee breeches’. After the revolution the people, both men and women wore loose and comfortable clothing. The colours on the French flag – blue, white and red became more popular. Other political symbols also became a part of the dress. The idea of equality was expressed by this kind of clothing.

Clothing of ‘Sans Culottes', the Jacobins

Knee Breeches worn by the Aristocrats

Clothing, Notions and Beauty :-
Though the French Revolution had tried to bring in equality through dressing, not all the people in Europe could dress in a similar way. There were clear differences in the social strata. The different classes developed their own styles of dressing.

The clothing of the people emphasized the differences between men and women. Generally, women from childhood wore tightly laced up clothes so as to restrict the growth of their bodies, whereas men wore loose and comfortable clothes. Women with small waists were admired for their elegance and gracefulness. Since the Victorian women were groomed to be docile, submissive and obedient form childhood, dressing played a great role in it.

Many women had a lot of belief in these ideals. They did not react adversely to such rules, since they were born and brought up in an atmosphere where women had to undergo suffering in their day to day lives. According to them no woman was complete if she had not undergone the pain and torture. So, though their dressing inflicted body pain, they agreed to accept it.


Upper Class Society
Middle Class Clothes

But with the arrival of the 19th century, not many women accepted those views. Many women agitated to get their democratic rights. There were magazines which described how the tight dresses caused diseases and deformities among young girls. Many government officials were alarmed at the health implications due to the style of dressing.

Health risks from Wearing tight-laced corsets

  • Glénard's disease is the most common illness caused by prolonged corset use. It is characterized by lack of abdominal muscle tone and visceral displacement.
  • Wearing tight-laced corsets over a long period of time may cause the lower ribs to become deformed and pushed inwards. This can lead to organ failure, dehydration, or broken ribs.
  • Developing children are far more vulnerable to the potential health risks of corset use. As such, corsets should only be worn by fully-formed adults, never by growing children.”

‘The Corset’ in the 18th Century

A similar movement protesting against the dress code developed in America among the white settlers. There were a number of arguments made by them. They wanted changes in dresses. Since the long and voluminous dresses were not easy to manage, they insisted on short skirts. They also wanted to remove or abandon the corsets.

Though there was no immediate response to the reformers, by the end of the 19th century, the change was clear. Before that the women had to undergo a lot of ridicule and hostility. They had to face lamentation and attacks and due to these problems a few women changed back to traditional clothes. But with new times, women's values came up. People began to accept the ideas of the reformers, which they had earlier ridiculed.


In the 1830s the women started the ‘suffrage movement’. They protested openly against the tight clothing they were forced to wear. In the 1870s , the National Woman’s Suffrage Association’ was formed under the leadership of Mrs. Stanton.

“Simplify dress, shorten skirts, and abandon corsets” was the cry of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association’.


Executive Committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association


In 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed a new organisation called the National Woman Suffrage Association to fight for woman’s rights.


New times brought in new materials :-
Earlier, during the 17th century, many women in Britain used to wear clothes made of flax, and wool, which were difficult to clean. But as trade developed, they bought clothes at a cheap rate and also got clothes with good materials. Many changes came into Britain with the introduction of other materials and technologies.


New Materials 

Then during the Industrial Revolution, Britain began to manufacture and export cotton textiles. By the beginning of the 20th century, clothes made from other fibres also became very cheap.

Different Ways of Making Fabrics

  • Weaving is a textile production method which involves interlacing a set of longer threads which are called the warp, with a set of crossing threads, which are called the weft. This is done on a frame or machine known as a loom. There are different types of looms. Weaving is still done by hand in many countries, but the large majority is down by machines.
  • Knitting and crocheting is another method of making fabrics. It involves interlacing loops of yarn, which are formed either on a knitting needle or on a crochet hook, together in a line.
  • Braiding or plaiting involves twisting threads together into cloth. Knotting involves tying threads together and is used in making macrame.
  • Lace is made by interlocking threads together independently. It creates a fine fabric with open holes in the work. Lace can be made by either hand or machine.
  • Carpets, rugs, velvet, velour, and velveteen, are made by interlacing a secondary yarn through woven cloth, creating a tufted layer known as a nap or pile.
  • Clothes which were made during the 20th century were lighter, cheaper, shorter and simpler. The other changes in clothes were brought about by the two world wars and the working conditions for women.

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