Traditional societies often have informal customs about what people (especially women) are allowed to wear. But some go further and actually pass laws about it. This is what happened in many parts of pre-industrial Europe. German states, for example, passed at least 1,350 laws regulating clothing between 1244 and 1816.
You might think such laws were unenforceable. But in early modern Germany they were enforced. In 1662, for instance, a Württemberg community court reprimanded an unmarried weaver’s son “on account of his very wide trousers, a fashion that it is unfitting for him to wear”, fined him about two weeks’ wages, and warned him that “if he should again put on trousers of this fashion, they shall, by virtue of the Princely Command, be confiscated.”
In 1708, another Württemberg village court forbade Magdalena Schöttlin, a local weaver’s wife, to wear “her excessively large neckerchief, which she is accustomed to wearing above her station.” When Magdalena went on wearing it, she was summoned before the court and fined the equivalent of 11 days’ wages for a local maidservant.
Dress laws couldn’t totally stop people from doing new things, of course. But they increased the costs and risks of participating in an Industrious Revolution – especially for women, young people and the poor. It may not be a coincidence that in England and the Netherlands, the ‘miracle economies’ of pre-industrial Europe, dress laws were abolished around 1600, just before their Industrious Revolutions really began to take off.
UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE PRESS RELEASE