By Tomas Creus
In a famous verse of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a character stuck in Purgatory complains to Dante about the “sfacciate donne fiorentine” (shameless Florentine women) who would walk around with cleavage that showed their breasts.
The preoccupation with the way women dressed was constant in Florence during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so much so that in almost every decade some new legislation would appear trying to respond to the new fashions that were becoming popular in the Italian city.
The first sumptuary laws enacted in Florence with the official purpose of restraining excessive luxury date from 1281. While the laws affected both men and women, they were mostly concerned with women’s clothes, as most of the laws were related to what women could wear. In fact, the officials charged with prosecuting offenders were informally known as the Ufficiali delle Donne, or “Officials of Women”.
Sumptuary laws affected all women, either married or maidens, and applied to what they could use, not only outside, but also inside their homes. They could be extremely detailed regarding what could or could not be worn. Common restrictions applied to certain colors, such as golden or silver dresses, to certain types of fabric or animal fur, even up to the number of rings that a woman was allowed to wear in each hand. Buttons were also severely limited in type and in number. For instance, the text of the sumptuary laws published in 1356 declares:
No woman, or female or girl, should dare to use in the city of Florence, at home or outside the home, any type of button, enameled or glazed, to any garment, on which there is any decoration with pearls or precious stones. – Legge suntuaria fatta dal comune di Firenze l’anno 1355 e volgarizzata nel 1356, da Ser Andrea Lancia.
Buttons were a relatively recent invention, having become popular in Europe only in the twelfth century, but by that time, they had become an important status symbol in Florence, especially if made of gold or silver, or decorated with pearls and precious stones. To have a dress with a large number of expensive buttons was certainly a way to call attention to one’s wealth or social position.
But sumptuary laws were not always obeyed, and it was not easy to make women comply, as they would use the occasional vague wording of the laws to find loopholes that would allow them to wear what they wanted. In Novella CXXXVII, a satirical novel by the contemporary Florentine writer Franco Sacchetti (1335–1400), the author mentions how women were able to avoid the penalties of sumptuary laws by shrewdly discussing with the officials. For instance, an official approaches a woman wearing an excessive number of buttons on her dress, but is rebuked by the lady:
‘Ye cannot wear those buttons,’ and she answereth, ‘Yes, Messere, I can, for these are not buttons, they are beads, and if ye do not believe me, look at them; they have no hanks, neither have they any button-holes.’
In another episode in the same novel, a lady is cited for wearing what appears to be ermine, but she replies that it is not ermine but “lattizzi”, an imaginary animal, which of course was not covered by the law as it did not exist. Such discussions explain why the laws had to be constantly updated with further details.
Prostitutes and the Poor: Social and Economic Control
Besides their official intent to reduce luxury and extravagance, which were at the time naturally associated with vanity and therefore a sin, and of course with the idea of promoting Christian modesty among women, sumptuary laws had other, more prosaic objectives. One of them was economic, to limit the use of expensive items that would only enrich foreign merchants. But also to clearly mark social distinctions.
Laws could be more severe towards maids or servants, who would be more limited in what they could wear. In the aforementioned laws of 1356, servant women were not allowed to wear most types of hats, high heeled shoes, or any button beyond the elbow. If they disobeyed the law, and could not pay the hefty fines, they would be publicly flogged naked through town. Interestingly enough, the same laws make an exception to that rule for “public prostitutes who grant their body to luxury for pecuniary purposes”.
In many Italian cities during that time, prostitutes were forbidden to wear jewels or bright colors. In other cities, however, they were allowed to use them, the intention perhaps being to associate jewels and excessive decoration with whores so that honest women would keep away from them. While prostitution was not exactly well-regarded, in practice, it was tolerated as being a necessary evil that could prevent worse sins such as sodomy.
In Florence, the attempt to entirely ban prostitutes from the city failed, so eventually they were allowed in, but only on certain days of the week. Sumptuary laws also affected them, and, in 1384, they started to be forced to wear bells on their hats, gloves and high-heeled shoes so that they could be immediately recognized by the public.
Eventually, sumptuary laws became a bit more lax and it was even possible for certain women of higher social standing to avoid their limitations entirely by paying what could be called a “frivolity tax”, which would allow them to wear what they wanted. It was, in a way, a win-win situation for all parties: rich women could flaunt their status with beautiful and expensive clothes, and the city government could increase its revenue from such contributions.
Tomás Creus is a writer and filmmaker, as well as a PhD in Comparative Literature, interested in several themes related to history and art.
Alighieri, Dante. “Divine Comedy”, Purgatory, Canto XXIII, 101-102.
Brackett, John K. “The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 273-300.
Guimbard, Catherine. “Appunti sulla legislazione suntuaria a Firenze dal 1281 al 1384,”
Archivio Storico Italiano, Vol. 150, No. 1 (1992), pp. 57-81.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Detail from Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, c. 1485