Traditional sumptuary laws, especially those government efforts aimed at regulating public attire, are often considered to be largely dusty relics of pre-industrial societies. Yet cultural legal theorists have long argued that sumptuary codes are still relevant and inextricably linked to the development of our contemporary sociolegal hierarchy. A better understanding of the primary objectives embodied in earlier sumptuary codes can shed important historical light and guidance on issues being discussed in current policy-making arenas, such as the proposed Design Piracy Prohibition Act (DPPA). The proposed law has yielded lively debates amongst legal commentators and industry professionals regarding whether or not fashion designs should be protected under copyright law. Although strong arguments exist on both sides of the issue, what is typically missing from the discussion is an adequate consideration of historical context concerning earlier government efforts to regulate dress.

Examining the congressional testimony and stated objectives of the DPPA, one can tease out some of the core principles of pre-industrial sumptuary codes; government control over social identity, the reinforcement of public morality, and the implementation of economic protectionism. Part I of this article provides a brief overview of pre-industrial sumptuary laws and addresses the main stated objectives and evolution of these restrictive codes. Part II illustrates linkages between the primary foundational tenets of traditional sumptuary laws and the proposed objectives of the DPPA. Part III cautions that earlier sumptuary laws often suffered from infrequent and half-hearted enforcement, increased demand for and piracy of the forbidden items, and insufficient public support for and compliance with the proposed laws. The article concludes that absent a better understanding and recognition of the threads of our sumptuary past in our current legal order, the proposed Act may likely endure a similar fate, if enacted.

Article Author: Lucille M. Ponte

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