In Elizabethan England

In Elizabethan England, an individual’s status was so important to the order of society that there were laws passed by the ruling class to specifically control who could eat certain luxury foods and wear certain luxury clothing items to help distinguish a person of noble birth from that of lower classes. These laws prohibited the use of items that were considered strictly for the upper class by those of lower classes because the use of these items by those of lower class blurred lines, giving deference and status to those who were not worthy. However, in the theater world, actors were exempt from these sumptuary laws so that upper class characters could be accurately portrayed on the stage. It is my argument that, because of the exemption to the sumptuary laws for actors, the portion of the audiences who were of similar lower-class standing were encouraged to break the sumptuary laws and dress above their station because that is what the actors were allowed to do.
Sumptuary laws, or the regulation of who, by class, could wear clothing of certain quality, were first implemented in London in 1337. These laws regulated who could legally wear luxurious clothing items based on class status or income in an effort to distinguish between the ruling class and those of lower class that were perceived as “dressing above their stations” (Mortimer, “Medieval England”, 104). Sumptuary laws tried to create a visual representation of class so that a person’s rank in society was quickly and obviously evident. In Elizabethan England, the sumptuary laws were issued by decrees from the Queen, rather than an act of parliament and were more specific as to whom, by income and rank could wear specific items. Those of lower ranks could not wear certain types of cloth or rare furs, certain colors, neck ruffs or embroidered fabrics (McMurtry, 219). According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, one proclamation issued in 1559 specifically stated “None shall wear in his apparel any cloth of gold, silver, or tinsel; satin, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables; except earls and all of superior degrees” (Sumptuary Laws). It was important enough that those of noble status be differentiated from those of lower class that these laws were reiterated several times during Elizabeth’s reign (Mortimer, “Elizabethan England”, 134).
Actor enjoyed an interesting place in society. Actors were of the lower classes but were allowed to dress and pretend to be of higher status while on the stage. At this time in Elizabethan England, there was a shift from the feudal society with its hierarchy of noble landowners and those beneath them that worked the land and were thus tied to that land and that noble, to a more city-based merchant, tradesmen and working class that was more socially mobile than in the past (Gurr, 59). Howard explains, in his book The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England that “In sixteenth century England fewer and fewer people had fixed manorial ties. Consequently, the wage labor pool grew, creating a class of landless persons alien from the feudal world of obligation and fixed residence” (Howard, 26-27). The changes in the waning feudal system created not only a more upwardly mobile middle class, but also a broader lower class which included artificers and laborers, those who worked for wages and those who were vagrants and unemployed either by choice or lack of skill (McMurtry, 17). Actors fell into this lower class, referred to in several sources as low born, of low estate, or “the meanest sort of men” (Bailey, “Monstrous”).
Even though actors were considered lower class, they were allowed to wear sumptuous clothing far above their station while on stage. In Elizabethan times actors had to be organized into troupes so that they were not arrested for vagrancy, licensed by the government to perform and were exempt while performing from the sumptuary laws (Mortimer, “Elizabethan”, 315). The actors’ status in society would have been known by those that came to view the performances because actors were considered low born vagrants and the roles portrayed by the actors obviously had varying social statuses. “Many Elizabethan plays were about Kings and the nobility, but actors were restricted to wear any clothes which might convey this high status. This would have obviously severely restrictive and spoilt the performance of plays. The Queen herself enjoyed this form of entertainment so a ‘Get out Clause’ was written into the Sumptuary Laws” (Alchin, 2012). Theatergoers of all classes attended performances together and those of lower classes would have seen the garments worn by those in the upper classes also attending as part of the audience, and then seen similar sumptuous clothing also represented on stage, worn by actors who were also of the lower class. Seeing the actors dressed in clothing that portrayed a class far above their own was a visual contradiction to the audience who were expected to follow the sumptuary laws that actors were exempt from. With laws specifically designed to control what people wore, it seems counterintuitive to allow those of low class to portray characters of high class on the stage while wearing what those of the nobility and upper classes would have worn and not expect the lower class portions of the audience to want to do the same. “Although they were legally permitted to dress outside their station, actors pushed this license to its limit by performing in plays that revolved around characters who violated sumptuary laws. Thus, in both their roles as actors and as the characters they played, lower and middle rank men violated the very laws that those within their audience were expected to obey. In late Elizabethan culture, the theater served as the privileged site of sumptuary transgression” (Bailey “Staging Sumptuousness”, 18).
I believe what the audience saw being worn on stage created the perfect storm for the breaking of sumptuary laws. Costuming was necessary to indicate the status of each character and therefore, actors who were considered of lower class must have an exemption to the sumptuary laws to allow them to practice their craft. In a society where class distinction was already changing in ways the nobility could not hold on to, what was portrayed on the stage gave the common people an example to follow. Evidence suggests that actors did not only wear the sumptuous clothing on stage but out of the theatres in public where the exemption was no longer in force. Phillip Stubbes, a contemporary to Elizabethan society was rigorously against the theater, he saw the theater as a “school that teaches its audience how to lie…and can easily observe how to become a bawd, to steal, to murder, and how to commit treason” (Bailey, “Staging Sumptuousness”, 109). Stubbes also felt that actors who wore clothing above their station “hid his true status by wearing stage finery on the street and encouraging others to imitate him” (Cox, 279). Stephen Gosson, another Elizabethan theatre contemporary who was also against theatrical practices noted that actors “prating on-stage” in the attire of their betters teaches lower rank actors, and their hirelings, to “jet under gentlemen’s noses in suits of silk,” even when off stage and abroad in the city. Inspired by the licentious atmosphere of the theater and encouraged by their successful evasion of sumptuary penalties on stage, these men are emboldened to disregard sumptuary strictures beyond the confines of the theater (Bailey, “Staging Sumptuousness”, 15-16). While these are the opinions of contemporary Elizabethan theatre critics, there are more practical examples of the public’s desire to copy what they saw actors wearing on stage. The best example of actors breaking sumptuary laws and encouraging others to do the same comes from Philip Henslowe, the head of the Elizabethan Rose Theater. Henslowe had to write into actors’ contracts provisions that specifically denied the actor the ability to remove costumes from the theatre, specifically wearing costumes out in public and around the city. For those provisions to be important enough to include in an actors’ contracts suggests there was a problem with actors pushing the boundaries of the exemption and wearing the costly costumes on their own time. Costumes were also rented or sold to the general public and theatres generated funds by renting out costumes to anyone that could pay for it, including the audience (Bailey, “Monstrous”). Some members of the audience, liking what they saw on stage and being able to afford to rent or buy costume items, were allowed use the sumptuous costumes regardless of their class status. One man, John Arnold, was reported for renting or selling costumes to “players as well as non-actors” meaning members of the audience (Bailey, “Monstrous”).
Sumptuary laws in Elizabethan times may have been more about a desperate desire to preserve the class status for the nobility; to keep the status quo at a time when class status in the lower ranks was changing in a way the nobility could not want or understand. What a person wore in Elizabethan England was an immediate indication of who they were, what class they belonged to, and where they fit above or below another. When an individual dressed outside their class, it was considered as confusing the social order and allowing the wearer who wore clothing beyond their station to give themselves a new identity; to be treated with deference they did not, according to the ruling class, deserve. The sumptuary law exemption for actors allowed the audience to see their social peers in clothing well above their station in life it seemed that the population was willing to break the sumptuary laws to follow that example. Class status was changing at this time, providing an environment where those of the lower class could use the clothing of the upper classes to embrace a better identity than the one they would have without that clothing. After all, clothes do make the man.