When things are going well there is always somebody to go over the top. During the Celtic Tiger years the Irish singer Samantha Mumba appeared at a celebrity event wearing a diamond-studded dress costing some millions of euro. If it had covered her properly it would have been worth millions more! Similarly during the Tiger years there were people who paid thousands of euro for handbags. When I heard this I was incredulous, so I found out the brand and phoned a well-known Grafton Street store to enquire.
‘Yes sir,’ the superior assistant said over the ‘phone, ‘our handbags range from
€ 4,000 to €12,000. It depends on what the lady likes.’ I felt like replying: ‘Her boiled egg lightly done,’ but I didn’t.
‘There’s a waiting list of months or even years,’ she said.
‘Can you get fakes?’ I asked, and without stretching a vocal cord she said:
‘I believe so, sir,’
‘And have you got any?’ I enquired.
‘No sir, we carry only the real thing.’
As the fella’ said: ‘There should be a law against it.’ Well, believe it or not, there used to be.
Throughout history many cultures have had what were called sumptuary laws. One definition describes these as: ‘laws that restrict the personal consumption of goods based on class, income, occupation, creed or any other equally arbitrary criterion.’ The term also includes laws that placed limits on displays of wealth with food.
These days of ‘you are what you eat’ we forget that, despite the poverty of their subjects, princes and lords throughout history displayed their wealth and status by means of banquets. Some of these feasts lasted for days and could include as many as 20 or 30 courses. The high point of the feast was often the placing on the table of huge pies. When the crust was broken, birds, animals or even, it is said, cherubic little boys, emerged. You remember the nursery rhyme: “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,/ When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,/ Wasn’t that a dainty thing to set before a king.”
In ancient Greece, amongst numerous sumptuary laws, there were restrictions on elaborate house furniture and the possession of gold and silver.There was an extensively developed system of sumptuary laws in ancient Rome. These laws governed the kinds of material that could be used in making garments, the number of guests that could attend entertainments and they forbade the consumption of certain foods. A woman could not possess more than a half an ounce of gold and there was also a limit to the amount of money that could be spent on funerals and burial monuments.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Europe, when the old aristocracy became threatened by the rise of wealthy merchants and bankers, they used sumptuary laws to restrict the prominence of these ‘nouveaux riches’ who were becoming a threat to them. These merchants and bankers flaunted their wealth by bedecking their wives in finery and jewels. The wives of these wealthy Renaissance merchants had a myriad of excuses to circumvent the law; for example they claimed that jewelled buttons were functional and necessary to ensure modesty!
In the past in some Arab countries high-born ladies were required to cover their heads and faces, while concubines, servants and slaves were forbidden to do so. In these cultures veiling became a badge of social status as well as a device for ensuring anonymity. In Italy where for centuries women wore veils, the problem arose that the anonymity afforded by the veil allowed women of inferior social status to imitate their social superiors. Whereas the Church favoured head covering and veiling as a matter of modesty, some saw concealment as alluring.
In England Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree that only the nobility could wear clothes that included sable or clothes of satin, silk or cloth mixed with gold or silver. Furthermore in England, as in many other societies, the clothes that prostitutes wore were strictly controlled.
Specification of dress based on economic status was notorious in Japan. According to the Irish Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn, also known as Koizumi Yakumo, poor women were not allowed to wear leather sandals; only sandals made of straw or wooden clogs. They could not wear silk hair-ribbons or tortoise-shell hair combs. They could wear wooden combs or combs of bone, but not of ivory.
Maybe at the next election the Government parties, in these times of austerity, should promise to at least put a cap on the price of handbags!