When we go to the theatre we expect the costumes to be appropriate to the period in which the play is set, and the different characters will wear costumes that express their individual status of class, nationality and so on. But in Shakespeare’s time there were certain difficulties regarding theatrical costumes that we don’t encounter today.

The Globe theatre had a collection of costumes that were highly prized because of the enormous cost of clothes, particularly the garments that had to be worn by actors playing kings, queens and noblemen. The costumes weren’t always the clothes of the period that the play depicted and the actors generally wore the dress of their time. The theatre sometimes saved money because rich patrons would donate their used clothes.

However, Elizabethans couldn’t just wear what they liked, as we can today. There were strict rules about who could wear what. Certain textures and colours could only be worn by noblemen, and that was reinforced by the Sumptuary Laws to ensure that a peasant or merchant couldn’t be mistaken for someone of the upper class. Those laws were rigorously enforced and the penalty for breaking them was harsh. There were even cases of the death penalty being imposed for wearing clothing that only the upper class was allowed to wear.

There was an exception in the statute though: the Queen could grant licenses to aristocrats that enabled their servants to wear aristocratic clothes, like liveries, on their behalf. The Globe’s patrons were licensed and so the actors, their servants, could wear appropriate costumes on the stage without fear of prosecution. And so audiences could enjoy the fashion parade, with actors dressed in silk, fox, velvet and lace, as the characters acted out their roles in the performance.

It’s interesting to reflect on why societies make laws and how the laws they make reflect the values of the time.

The English have always loved making laws and the concept of a body of laws that protects individuals’ rights as well as providing a framework for punishing transgressors is one of the things the English transplanted in all the places they colonised in the new world.

In recent years laws have been made in civilized and sophisticated societies to eliminate privilege but there was a time when laws were enacted to protect the privileges of the rich and powerful or to cope with the needs of the less fortunate without too much inconvenience to the rich. Shakespeare would have been very familiar with that.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime many such laws were passed and two, in particular, stand out:  the Poor Law that set an example to governments who, even until this day, want to push responsibility for the poor on to local communities; and the Sumptuary Laws, that legislated for what people were allowed to own and particularly the types of clothing they were allowed to wear.

The Poor Laws placed the burden of providing for the poor squarely on the shoulders of the local communities. The local authorities then developed the system of workhouses funded by charities. In the twenty-first century in Britain the main political parties compete with each other in their promises to eliminate poverty. However, they still make the local communities responsible for providing for the poor.

The Sumptuary laws are something alien to the twenty-first century mind.  They applied to food, drink, furniture, jewellery and clothes and who was allowed to own what. They were used to control the population and ensure that everyone stayed in his and her place. There was no interest in the social mobility that modern governments promote. Laws that regulated what you wore ensured that wherever you went your social class could be instantly recognised. Royalty, nobility, wealth, stood out wherever it appeared and if you tried to get above yourself by stepping out of your regulatory types of clothing you could be fined or imprisoned.

Only royalty could wear clothes trimmed with ermine fur. If you were nobility that wasn’t royal you could wear only fox or otter fur trimming, and so it went on down the line. It was very detailed and complicated. For example you could wear purple clothes or silk garments only if you were a member of the royal family. You could wear velvet and satin only if you were a top government minister. The different ranks were allowed to decorate their horses, but at different levels of metal -silver gold, etc. Only knights and baron’s sons could wear gold or silver coated spurs, swords, rapiers, daggers, or buckles, and the lower ranks’ swords would have to be shorter than those of the higher ranks.

It was all very complicated but it meant that no-one could break ranks without breaking the law.


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