FASHION CRIMES
Reason magazine|January 2021
WHEN FABULOUS CLOTHES ARE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL BE FABULOUS.
VIRGINIA POSTREL

IN 1368, ZHU Yuanzhang ascended the throne as China’s emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty. Born a peasant, Zhu had commanded an army fighting to overthrow the Mongol Yuan dynasty, eventually triumphing over both the old regime and his rival rebels. Once in power, he sought to restore what he viewed as traditional Han order after nearly a century of barbarian rule.

One of his first acts was to establish a dress code. It banned Mongol styles and dictated standards for each rank of government officials, distinguishing them from each other and from ordinary people. It also restricted what commoners could wear, reinforcing the neo-Confucian hierarchy: scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The code regulated clothing materials, colors, sleeve lengths, headgear, jewelry, and embroidery motifs. The goal, the emperor declared, was “to make the honored and the mean distinct and to make status and authority explicit.” Just because you could afford certain clothes didn’t give you the legal right to wear them.

Anyone who has been a teenager or dressed a 4-year-old knows that what we wear can be a source of intense conflict. Clothing is more than essential protection against the elements. It helps define who we are—to the world and to ourselves. And it is an everyday source of aesthetic pleasure. Clothing is a form of self-expression.

For most of human history, most people simply couldn’t afford choice in clothing. Cloth was too expensive. But there were exceptions, particularly in the thriving commercial cities of Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages, much of whose prosperity was itself derived from the textile trade. Peasants might still have to stick to basics, but merchants and the artisans who served them could afford more. With commercial prosperity came choice, and with it an unsettling social dynamism that expressed itself in clothing.

In response, rulers adopted sumptuary codes that restricted what people could wear. The exact nature of those codes varied with the local culture—and so did the ways in which consumers resisted. Because they almost always did.

Take Ming China. Most of its rules governed who could use what types of textiles. Commoners were forbidden to wear silk, satin, or brocade. The stricture was relaxed for farmers in 1381, allowing them silk, gauze, and cotton. But if any member of the family engaged in commerce, no one could wear silk. Merchants, while useful, were to be kept in their place.

“The basic function of the Ming clothing system was to impose state control over the whole society,” writes historian Yuan Zujie. “If the whole society was shaped exactly by the regulations and continued these regulations forever, it would be a model Confucian society, stable and stratified.” That was the theory at least.

For the nearly three centuries of Ming rule, the regulations did remain largely unchanged. From time to time, penalties for violations were increased. The society did not, however, remain stable. The rituals central to Confucian order fell out of use or took on discordant elements, as when funerals included actors, musicians, and prostitutes as entertainment. Daoist and Buddhist practices seeped in. As commerce flourished, merchant families grew wealthy and prominent, sometimes assuming aristocratic status.

And people didn’t follow the rules. “Archaeological evidence from the tombs of Ming princes shows that Mongol styles of dress persisted well into the sixteenth century,” writes historian BuYun Chen, “thus revealing both the limits of Zhu Yuanzhang’s sartorial code and suggesting, more seriously, the failure of his efforts to eradicate the legacy of the Mongol Yuan.”

As time passed and commerce grew, violations increased. Wealthy commoners dressed in fabrics and styles supposedly reserved for nobler classes. They scorned plain silks and adopted forbidden brocades. They wore off-limits colors, including dark blue and scarlet. They sported gold embroidery. They bought hats and robes that were formally restricted to court officials. “Customs have changed from generation to generation,” complained a Ming scholar, writing in the late 16th century. “All people tend to respect and admire wealth and luxury, competing for them without considering the bans of the government.”

Nor were commoners the only offenders. Officials and their families dressed above their station. The sons of nobles, themselves in the lowly eighth rank, habitually donned the dress reserved for their high-ranking fathers. “They wear dark brown hats and robes patterned with qilin,” a dragon-like creature with cloven hoofs, “tied with golden ribbons, even when they live at home or have been dismissed from official positions,” complained another Ming writer. Emperors themselves undermined the rules too, he observed, bestowing robes on favorites without regard to whether their status merited the design.

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