NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 28, 2005

Vanity is a way of life in America, with the very rich and merely affluent buying everything from silk underwear to diamond dog collars. But if we lived in the 18th or 19th century, a reaction to America's conspicuous consumption might have been sumptuary laws, says the Wall Street Journal's Cynthia Crossen.

These laws, which were enacted in Europe and Asia from ancient times through the 18th century, prohibited common people from wearing flashing status symbols -- jewels, silk or pointy-toed shoes -- and from spending too much on other extravagances.

Sumptuary laws had some laudable purposes, adds Crossen.

  • They reduced the disparity of wealth between haves and have-nots.
  • They discouraged farmers and laborers from throwing away their rent money on trivial items.
  • Additionally, they attempted to promote selflessness.

On the other hand, sumptuary laws didn't apply to royalty or the clergy, and thus reinforced class distinctions by telling people what they could or could not wear based on their station in life.

Furthermore, the clergy promoted sumptuary laws for their own self-interest. They believed that the money their subjects spent on clothing would be better spent on the church. This thought trickled down to 1787 America during the drafting of the Constitution. A Virginia delegate, George Mason, urged Congress to enact the laws, arguing that a democracy could guide its constituents toward appropriate conduct.

Alas, Mason's proposal was unpopular. Delegates across the United States claimed that taxes and tariffs would control spending more efficiently. In the end, sumptuary laws could not defeat the forces of human creativity, says Crossen: people always find a way to have what they want, no matter what the law. In the words of French historian Etienne Giraudias: Vanity will always invent more ways of distinguishing itself than laws are able to forbid.

Source: Cynthia Crossen, "Why Sumptuary Laws, Despite a Rich History, Never Lasted Very Long," Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2005.

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