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Tudor Fashion Police – The Sumptuary Laws

Discussing Tudor Portsmouth with Head of Learning, Mary Kinoulty

Discussing Tudor Portsmouth with Head of Learning, Mary Kinoulty

 I’m Andrew McCarthy and I am a second year History and Politics student at the University of Portsmouth. I’ve been on a work experience placement with the Mary Rose Education Department to find out more about public engagement with historical research. I’ve been investigating contemporary sources to extend the topics they cover in workshops and events. I am particularly interested in what people wore in the Tudor period and how it was used to show status.  The project has also helped with my dissertation research. Dressing up is one of the most popular activities for children (and adults!) at the museum so my work will hopefully be really useful to museum staff and volunteers. I’ve watched some of the school workshops and the replica clothes really excite children and bring history to life for them

What were the sumptuary laws?

Clothes during the 16th century were a far more significant item than they are today, as what you wore was under the control of the government through the sumptuary laws – a sort of Tudor fashion police!


Sumptuary laws were a legal act that applied to all in society. These laws told you what you could wear according to your position, making clear class distinctions. Imagine, in the present day, that you were told by law that you could not wear the latest coat, shirt, dress or shoes, as your position was too low – it would cause uproar!


King Henry VIII’s reign was key to the development of sumptuary laws for different classes in society. He saw this as an important issue, as the Acts of Apparel (sumptuary laws) were changed four times – in 1509, 1514, 1515 and 1533. You might think it trivial in comparison to building up the navy and war with the French and Scots, but it was an important way of maintaining what Henry saw as the natural hierarchy of society. He also wanted to boost England’s economy which is why the lower classes could not wear imported wool from other countries in Europe, thereby protecting the English wool trade.


According to the 1509 Act against Wearing of Costly Apparel:

  • Only the king and his close family could wear cloth of purple silk or gold
  • Dukes and Marquises could only use cloth of gold woven into their coats and doublets
  • A Lord or a Knight of the Garter was allowed to wear imported wool
  • Knights of the Garter or above were allowed to wear crimson or blue
  • Englishmen under the rank of Knight of the Garter were not allowed to wear crimson or red velvet in their gowns, coats or any other part of their apparel
  • Anyone lower in standing than government servants were not allowed to wear velvet, satin or damask unless you had lands yielding an income of £20 a year
  • Lower classes, such as shepherds and labourers who did not have goods above £10, were not allowed to wear cloth that cost over 2s


Green and white livery

Green and white livery
Detail from Henry VIII and Francis I of France, manuscript, from http://www.marileecody.com

Colour was very important in the court of Henry VIII. One colour which held potent meaning was red. Red was a masculine colour, symbolic of authority and power, and therefore much used. Red also had religious connotations – red and purple were worn by the king on significant religious feast days. Red was worn at Candlemas while purple was worn at Easter and on Christmas Day. Red was an expensive colour and the person wearing it stood out. It was a bold and powerful statement, as can be seen in the portrait of Charles Brandon, Master of the Horse in 1545, who incidentally was with the king in Portsmouth when the Mary Rose sank.


Green and white was another set of colours used at Henry VIII’s court. This parti-coloured livery, which was issued to servants, soldiers and sailors, was intentionally used by Henry as it was different. It had not been used by his predecessors, suggesting he used these colours to signify a powerful change. This pattern of issuing a white and green livery can be traced throughout the whole of Henry’s military campaigns. The Anthony Roll painting of the Mary Rose clearly shows green and white streamers.

The Mary Rose, from the Anthony Roll
Image courtesy of the Magdalene College Library, Cambridge


Interestingly, the colours changed for one campaign – the invasion of France in 1544. In Boulogne 1544, the royal household and the army wore red and yellow livery. Rank within the army and the household was distinguished by the type of cloth used (either wool or silk), the weave and the colour combinations. Decorative piping and slashing were further methods of defining status and masculinity. The choice of red and yellow was unusual and meant to convey meaning to the king’s troops and to the French. Red and yellow was more expensive than green and white. This increased spending signalled the king’s confidence in himself, his troops and the validity of his campaign.


What would happen if the sumptuary laws were broken?

In theory, the offending piece of clothing would be confiscated and the ‘criminal’ would be fined for every day they had worn it. But how would it be possible to keep track of this? How could you tell how many days this ‘criminal’ was wearing the piece of clothing? How would you know what people did in their own homes? You couldn’t – this was the major flaw in these laws. Most people got away with wearing whatever they wanted as there was not enough man power to deal with these ‘crimes’.


As you can see, clothing in 16th century England and the way it was used was a highly politicised affair. Thank goodness sumptuary laws aren’t around today!


Further reading:

Maria Hayward, Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England.

Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII.

Maria Hayward, “Crimson, Scarlet, Murrey and Carnation: Red at the Court of Henry VIII,” Textile History 38, no. 2 (2007): 135-150.

Wilfrid Hooper, “The Tudor Sumptuary Laws,” The English Historical Review 30, no. 119 (1915): 433-449.



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