Sumptuary Legislation was very widespread in the 16th century and in fact for many was carried over into the 17th century. The process was orchestrated by governments mainly to keep people in their place. So in England you had to wear a woolly hat if you were an apprentice and if you did not do so you could be arrested. If you were not at the level of Knight or Baron, then you could be arrested if you dared to wear purple. The whole idea was to keep a ‘moral line’ so you could quickly tell a milkmaid from a countess (if you did not then the whole of society would unravel).
Greenwich, 15 June 1574, 16 Elizabeth I
Wherefore her majesty willeth and straightly commandeth all manner of persons in all places within 12 days after the publication of this present proclamation to reform their apparel according to the tenor of certain articles and clauses taken out of the said statutes and with some moderations annexed to this proclamation, upon pain of her highness's indignation, and punishment for their contempts, and such other pains as in the said several statutes be expressed.
None shall wear any cloth of gold, tissue, nor fur of sables: except duchesses, marquises, and countesses in their gowns, kirtles, partlets, and sleeves; cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver or pearl, saving silk mixed with gold or silver in linings of cowls, partlets, and sleeves: except all degrees above viscountesses, and viscountesses, baronesses, and other personages of like degrees in their kirtles and sleeves.
Velvet (crimson, carnation); furs (black genets, lucerns); embroidery or passment lace of gold or silver: except all degrees above mentioned the wives of knights of the Garter and of the Privy Council, the ladies and gentlewomen of the privy chamber and bedchamber, and maids of honour.
None shall wear any velvet in gowns, furs of leopards, embroidery of silk: except the degrees and persons above mentioned the wives of barons' sons, or of knights.
Cowls, sleeves, partlets, and linings, trimmed with spangles or pearls of gold, silver, or pearl; cowls of gold or silver, or of silk mixed with gold or silver: except the degrees and persons above mentioned; and trimmed with pearl, none under the degree of baroness or like degrees.
Enameled chains, buttons, aglets, and borders: except the degrees before mentioned.
Satin, damask, or tufted taffeta in gowns, kirtles, or velvet in kirtles; fur whereof the kind groweth not within the Queen's dominions, except foins, grey genets, bodge, and wolf: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, or the wives of those that may dispend £100 by the year and so valued in the subsidy book.
affeta, or kirtles of satin or damask: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, and the wives of the sons and heirs of knights, and the daughters of knights, and of such as may dispend 300 marks by the year so valued ut supra, and the wives of those that may dispend £40 by the year. Gowns of silk grosgrain, doubled sarcenet, camlet, or t
And so on and so on...
So what France has tried to do with legislation on Burkini’s (and other countries are trying to do in terms of legislating for dress, particularly woman’s dress) is really nothing new.
It’s all about control, but let’s be upfront and know that this kind of legislation, power, and instructions do not just come from the hands of government – religions also use their power to try and control dress (again I say particularly woman’s dress). It’s about power, control and I think male chauvinism. I did read also that the Burkini had been condemned by religious authority too as you could distinguish the outline of the female form – oh help!
Such laws that control our dress are facile and actually should be resisted, but let us not think as has been widely published that the woman are free to chose how they dress (that too is a facile view). Also do not think that it is just Islam or the French government that tries to control such things. My wife comes from a particular Christian group that also tried to list such laws as to what to wear and particularly what goes on your head – what is it with female heads, maybe it’s me but I just don’t get the problem?
Anyway (coming from a background of working in the fashion industry), when I met my wife and supplied clothes; my wife's family definitely labelled me as the horror that had turned their daughter into Jezebel (for those who know that meaning). There’s that moral prerogative again got to keep those morals right and its woman’s apparel that will do it isn’t it.
So back to that simplistic statement that the women who want to wear the Burkini should be free to do so. What does that ‘free’ mean? Now I do meet Muslim woman who tell me that they wear it out of religious choice. Some maybe are doing so, but I really don’t think the majority are.
I have travelled to the Middle East many times and watched groups of giggling young woman on my flight and just before landing going to the toilets and coming back to their seat in a full Burka (western clothes disappearing).
I watched the same procession in the airport facility too; a lot of young ladies just disappear and out comes women in black. Are they free or what?
When I was in Kenya working with some churches, a young 16 year old helped me with translation and came around with me. After working with me for a week he turned to me one day and said, "Adrian, are you telling me I can be a Christian without wearing a suit?"
I was surprised saying I haven’t mentioned clothing but although I had not mentioned it I had noticed he was always dressed in a suit and tie while I was my scruffy self. I then asked him, "did your church tell you that you had to wear a suit?", he thought for a bit and then said "no". I then said "let me come with you to your church", I did and as I expected I was the only one without suit and tie. Freedom to wear what you would like, I am not sure that I would call that freedom.
Of course in many Islamic countries they would go one step further and you would be at the mercy of the clothing police (who enforce Islamic dress-codes).
I once went to visit a house, a young Muslim lady was there having her hair cut and as I walked in she grabbed her head covering quickly covering her head. I asked in a long conversation what was the idea of being so covered in the presence of a male, her answer was well men need protection as they cannot control themselves. I am sorry but I am insulted and I think the majority of men would be too (or should be).
So is it true that the males have no control? Which if that’s what is believed to be true then of course males have no responsibility regarding controlling one’s self. It can’t be done!
Again if that is the belief I am more insulted. What this kind of thinking does is it transfers all responsibility to the woman and actually that means those deciding on the women’s covering are the ones allowing men to shirk the responsibility of controlling their desires and behaviours. I do not for one minute believe that men cannot control themselves but I do believe that allowing both men and women to believe that men are not capable of controlling themselves then the responsibility for sexual propriety lies solely with the women, making men innocent of any sexual crime; which is why I guess raped woman in some countries are then imprisoned for allowing themselves to be raped. Are we free yet?
So freedom, most of the time I think not, rather even if only symbolic the male chauvinism is the controlling power, and I think that control needs to be undermined if it’s coming from the national government of a country or the religious power house, it’s wrong.
Not the freedom that I call freedom.
NB.A great book on Fashion if you can get it is: Fashion and Style By Mike Starkey
Edited by Gena Areola