Sumptuary Laws Then and Now, There and Here

by Hector of the Black Height

Sumptuary laws are laws, by-laws and customs dictating dress. These say what colours or styles of clothing and what accessories you can or cannot wear, usually based on the wearer's social station. During the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws were passed in several countries and at various times. On occasion these laws were enforced. These were a way of stratifying society (for sumptuary laws often provided the ambitious or trendy with lists of what they should really want to wear, even if the King says no. Forbidden fruits often are the sweetest). These also were a way of generating revenue for the Crown; violators were fined, but in my (albeit limited) research the offending garments were seldom if ever confiscated. That way wearers could continue to be trendy and daring and could be fined again!

Closer to home, there really are two types of sumptuary laws within the Society. One type is the sumptuary law or laws practiced in the time and place your persona hails from. So if you are from the late Roman Empire, you'll probably avoid wearing purple unless you're the emperor or our equivalent, the King or Prince. These laws are up to you to research and, frankly, we're such a diverse group that you can break every one of your persona culture's sumptuary laws and almost nobody else will notice.

The other type of sumptuary law is the Society's own set of standards with regard to dress and accoutrement. First and foremost among these is the requirement that all participants at an SCA event wear some attempt at pre-17th century attire. This is one of the SCA's by-laws. There is no such thing as a spectator at an SCA event; if you attend, you are dressed up and will play with the rest of us. Most SCA chapters have an officer called a Chatelaine or Chatelain (a male Chatelaine) who'll help newcomers make suitable clothing. The group may also have an officer called the Gold Key, who holds a small collection of clothing to be loaned to newcomers for their first event or two.

If it meets the by-law requirement and looks pre-17th century, people can wear just about any clothing they wish, so long as it meets local (civic) requirements for decency. The SCA's big sumptuary concerns are accoutrements. Several types of accoutrements mean specific things within the Society, whether locally or as a whole.

Crowns, Coronets and Circlets

First of all, what you wear on your head may be a sign of rank earned or granted within the Society. Crowns and coronets are the marks of present or past royalty. The details of a crown's colour, shape and size may differ from place to place. Here's what we wear in Ealdormere (the province of Ontario).

A richly embellished gold or silver crown probably means the person wearing it is a King or Queen or a Prince or Princess. A -- relatively -- plain gold crown with an embattled upper edge (square cut bumps, like the crenels or embattlements atop a castle) marks a Count or Countess (someone who's been King or Queen once). The same gold coronet, embellished additionally with strawberry leaves, marks a Duke or Duchess (someone who's been King or Queen at least twice). The same style of coronet as a Count's, only in silver, marks a Viscount or Viscountess (someone who's been Territorial Prince or Princess over a Principality at least once). All these people have provided special service to the Society as its rulers. These coronets and crowns are badges of office or marks of honour.

There are also coronets in gold and silver which display six pearls or spheroids. These mark Barons and Baronesses. If the coronet is golden, it indicates the wearer is Baron or Baroness over a Barony, and thus is providing leadership to a wide area of the Society, within the Kingdom as a whole. Again, these coronets indicate an office or honourable status.

If you have received an Award of Arms from the Crown of the Middle, you may wear a plain metal circlet with a single rise or bump at the front. Until you receive that Award from the Crown or Coronet (in lieu of the Crown), you may wear a plain metal circlet, less than one inch wide and uniform in width all the way around.

Belts, Chains and Spurs

The next most significant sumptuary law observed within the Society pertains to belts. Only a Knight -- someone Knighted by the Crown and not just any heavy weapons fighter -- may wear a plain white belt around his or her waist. If that same white belt is worn over the shoulder and down to the opposite hip, it's called a baldric. A plain white baldric marks a Master- or Mistress-at-Arms. Like a Knight, a Master-at-Arms is a master of martial arts as practiced within the Society. A Master does not have to be in fealty to the Crown; a Knight must be in fealty. That is the only difference between the two.

As well as a white belt, a Knight wears a plain gold chain around his or her neck, and may wear gilt spurs. A Master- or Mistress-at-Arms may wear silver spurs. As the chain represents the weight of fealty, a Mistress-at-Arms wears no chain.

That is the extent of sumptuary laws within the Middle Kingdom and the Principality of Ealdormere. There are also some customs that are observed here and elsewhere.

The dependant of a Knight or a Mistress-at-Arms is a squire. Squires wear plain red belts, unadorned silver chains around their necks and may wear silver spurs. This custom is honoured throughout the Society. Spurs aren't that much of an issue; most spurs are silver coloured (that includes stainless steel ones, which are low-maintenance and so are commonly seen), so if your persona would wear spurs, wear what you can find that looks appropriate to your period of interest. Unless you are a Knight, avoid gold spurs, though! It's not illegal to wear a red belt, but people may look at you and wonder which Knight has taken you under his or her wing…

Assorted Bits and Pieces

Masters and Mistresses of the Laurel sometimes wear chaplets of laurel leaves, either natural or I gold metal. Please don't wear such a chaplet unless you're a Companion of the Laurel.

The dependant of a Master or Mistress of the Laurel is an apprentice. Apprentices wear a plain green belt. This custom is honoured throughout the Society, but it's not illegal or wrong to wear such a belt if it matches your clothes nicely.

The dependant of a Master or Mistress of the Pelican is a protégé or protégée. Protégés wear a plain yellow belt. This custom is not honoured throughout the Society, but it is accepted (based on what I have seen and have been told) from the eastern seaboard of the USA and the Maritime provinces through to the prairies. Again, it's not illegal or wrong to wear a yellow belt, but if you're wearing a yellow belt don't be surprised if people walk up to you and ask who your Pelican is.

At events, many merchants offer medallions and brooches for sale. Some of these are the insignia of an award made by the Crown or the Coronet. Examples of such award insignia can be found at These represent awards given for personal accomplishment within the Society. If you haven't earned recognition, please don't wear insignia that represents that recognition.

Having said all this, 

Newcomers should relax about the details of what you wear. Don't wear a crown or circlet of any description at your first event or two. Don't wear gold spurs, a plain gold or silver chain (by all means wear a gold or silver chain; just hang something from it, like a cross or a medallion or whatever suits you) or a plain white belt. Beyond that, wear as much gold trim, purple cloth, as many pearls and as many silver buttons as you'd like! Playing dress-up is part of the fun of participating in the SCA. If you're not sure if you should wear something -- or if you wonder why someone is wearing something in particular -- ask your local Chatelaine or Gold Key or somebody else you know. We all were newcomers once; if you don't know the answer, it's not a silly question!

Copyright 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.