This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: sumptuary laws.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la lah, la la la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la lah, la la la la!
Dress we all in gay aparrel - 

The language of clothes is ancient, but still of tremendous importance (you wouldn't believe how much fuss has been caused in Britain recently by the Prime Minister's leather - and expensive - trousers. If you want to read more about it, Google Trousergate).

Anyway, just think of how you know who's who in a Nativity play: Mary wears blue (the colour of nature, royalty, and peace), the shepherds wear tea towels (the genuine Arab head-covering is called a ghutra or keffiyeh, and the pattern can identify the wearer rather as Scottish tartan does), and the three kings, most oddly, wear pointy metal hats.

Clothes shout messages all over the place. Think of how you recognise the forces of the law; think of how you know who's in charge at a religious ceremony; consider how you might know that someone might be celebrating Christmas, or Diwali, or Hanukkah.

The history of the language of clothes could fill whole encyclopedias (and probably does), but here are a few random examples of those laws, called sumptuary laws, to stop people wearing whatever gay aparrel they like.

A husband in Ancient Greece could only wear a Milesian cloak if he was intent on cheating on his wife.

In Ancient Rome only the emperor was allowed to have a purple cloak trimmed with gold thread.

In Elizabethan England all men over the age of six (unless you were very important) had to wear a woollen cap on holidays. The idea was to stimulate the wool trade - and, presumably, to show who was very important.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony you couldn't wear gold buttons unless you were worth two hundred pounds.

In Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 the wearing of traditional highland dress was banned. On the other hand in Bhutan, currently, the wearing of traditional dress when visiting government offices is compulsory: not only that, but your scarf or kabney must be saffron if you're the king or chief abbot, but white if you're a commoner but not a government official.

I'm not exactly sure where I stand on sumptuary laws - I mean, I'm all for freedom of expression - but, oh, our right to exercise free choice at this time of parties must generate enough anxious electrical impulses in our poor little brains to light up every Christmas tree in Christendom.

File:Chéruit robe de garden party-sept1913.jpg
Illustration by Pierre Brissaud. (Plainly the wrong dress - and, by the look of it, the wrong time and place, as well.)

Word To Use Today: sumptuary. This word comes from the Latin sumptus, expense, from sūmere, to spend. A sumptuary law deals with consumption, so it might not be anything to do with clothes, but eating, say, swans.

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