Toward the end of the middle ages, a booming economy and new developments in tailoring helped usher in new, highly expressive fashions. It didn’t take long for all those who could afford it — and quite a few who couldn’t — to use fashion to express themselves and either assert or transcend social order. Governments from Tudor England to the city-states of the Italian peninsula responded with sumptuary laws to make sure that only elites could wear luxurious clothing: these dress codes made a well-established hierarchy tangible and visible.
Authorities in Elizabethan London deemed one hapless commoner’s showy attire “contrary to good order” and ordered the linings ripped out of his pants before he was marched through the streets of the city as a cautionary example for all to see. In Siena, Italy, religious authorities insisted that jewelry, makeup and other “vanities” were a “sign of the whore” and threatened that women wearing them should expect men to demand sex just as a thirsty traveler would “demand wine from a taverner.”
Centuries later, similar laws reinforced America’s racial and gender inequality: South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740 prohibited enslaved people from dressing “above their condition,” among numerous other restrictions. In the 1920s, workplace dress codes banned the bobbed hair and close-fitting skirts of the flappers and until the mid-20th century, women wearing trousers could face arrest for public indecency. In the 1940s, flamboyant zoot suits inspired riots in Los Angeles; in response, California lawmakers tried to outlaw them.