The early Romans, who founded their first city in Rome in 753 B.C.E. , were a hard-working, serious people. They respected their elders and their family and were simple and frugal in their tastes, including their tastes in clothes. Over several hundred years they built a strong, well-ordered society. After 509 B.C.E. , their society, known as the Roman Republic, controlled much of present-day Italy and was a rising power in the Mediterranean. But with rising power came problems.
The republic was governed by a senate that consisted of elected members from a small group of established wealthy families. As the Roman Republic became more powerful, more and more Romans had access to money. They used this money to buy colorful clothes and gold jewelry, and to throw lavish parties. The ruling families of the republic did not like the way these people displayed their wealth. They felt that proper Romans should behave just as the ruling families and their ancestors had behaved. So, beginning in about 215 B.C.E. , Roman senators began to make laws to limit the ways people could dress and entertain themselves. These were called sumptuary laws because they related to personal expenditures.
This first Roman sumptuary law was called the Lex Appia. It declared that no woman could possess more than a half ounce of gold, wear a stola, or dress, of different colors, or ride in a carriage in any city unless for a public ceremony. Many other sumptuary laws followed. Laws were passed that listed how many different colors could be worn by members of different social classes: peasants could wear one color, soldiers in the army could wear two colors, army officers could wear three colors, and members of the royal family could wear seven colors. A law passed by Emperor Aurelian, who ruled from 270 to 275 C.E. , stated that men couldn't wear shoes that were red, yellow, green, or white, and that only the emperor and his sons could wear red or purple shoes. Under Aurelian, only ambassadors could wear gold rings and men were forbidden to wear silk. A variety of other laws limited how much people could spend on parties and how many people they could invite. Some of the laws seemed very silly.
Many people resented these sumptuary laws. They felt that the ruling class was trying to keep people from enjoying the benefits of their wealth. The ruling class, however, felt that open displays of wealth challenged their authority and upset the social order.
The Romans were not the first or the last to pass sumptuary laws. The ancient Greeks passed laws limiting how much gold a person could possess, as well as how people could entertain themselves. From the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 C.E. ) through the nineteenth century, European monarchs passed sumptuary laws, often to restrict members of their courts and mere commoners from dressing in clothing that was more lavish than that worn by the king or queen. And Puritans in colonial Massachusetts, among the first European settlers in the American colonies, passed laws to keep people from wearing fancy clothes. They did not want common people to be mistaken for wealthier gentlemen.
No matter when they existed, sumptuary laws were designed to keep the social order from changing and to keep certain people from dressing like or entertaining themselves like wealthier or more powerful members of the society. For the most part, sumptuary laws don't exist in modern democratic countries, though some, like school dress codes some might argue, continue to this day.