Sumptuary law  

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For Bataille, ‘sumptuary moments’ are revolutionary in themselves, purely because they are the antithesis of use. Games, war, spectacle, art, ...--Nic Hughes

This page Sumptuary law is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
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This page Sumptuary law is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumptuariae leges) are laws which attempt to regulate habits of consumption. Black's Law Dictionary defines them as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.". Traditionally, they were laws which regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. In most times and places they were ineffectual.

Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and often were used for social discrimination. This frequently meant preventing commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats, and sometimes also to stigmatize disfavored groups. In the Late Middle Ages sumptuary laws were instated as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the prosperous bourgeoisie of medieval cities, and they continued to be used for these purposes well into the seventeenth century.

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