Sumptuary legislation in Early Modern Rome – An exceptional case?


Evento ibrido
Istituto Svedese di Studi Classici a Roma
Via Omero, 14

Data evento
13 Ottobre 2022

In early modern Rome, social identity was regarded as much more important than the individual, and clothing has therefore often been seen as a manifestation of the social order. Accordingly, what one wore should mark prescribed identities – of gender, age, marital status, rank, and nationality – as well as signal one’s profession and political allegiances. However, as this paper will explore in greater depth, it could be argued that in terms of the ‘rigid’ rules regarding dress, Rome offered a kind of middle ground – neither too strict nor too lenient. There can be no doubt that Rome was extremely hierarchical, but the notion – well-established in dress historical research – that one was supposed to dress solely according to one’s social station does not always seem to have been applicable to Roman society.
This paper examines social hierarchies of appearance in early modern Rome by focusing on sumptuary legislation. Since few actual pieces of clothing from the period are preserved, this type of legislation is an important source for studies on early modern clothing, and especially its function as a marker of social identity. Sumptuary laws were often an expression of the desire to draw a visible distinction between people of different status and are therefore particularly valuable for studies that focus on groups from the lower echelons of society. The various restrictions on what the lower and middle classes could and could not wear resulted in a wide and varied documentation regarding the clothing of ordinary Italians. Yet, throughout the whole era of sumptuary legislation, Rome seems to have enacted relatively few laws, and those that were issued seem not to have been particularly strict. By highlighting some of the ways in which Rome differed from other Italian cities both politically and socially, this paper seeks to elucidate whether early modern Rome presents an exceptional case in the history of sumptuary legislation.