Sumptuous Origins

sumptuous, adj.
1. a. Of buildings, apparel, repasts, and the like: Made or produced at great cost; costly and (hence) magnificent in workmanship, construction, decoration, etc.

sumptuary, adj. (and n.)
A. Pertaining to or regulating expenditure.
sumptuary law, a law regulating expenditure, esp. with a view to restraining excess in food, dress, equipage, etc.

—Oxford English Dictionary, 3d edition

While sumptuary laws may first bring to mind the Middle Ages, the earliest known sumptuary laws date to ancient Greece and Rome. Almost as soon as people had luxury goods, they had laws regulating their consumption and display. Over the millennia, sumptuary laws have been used to reinforce social hierarchy, protect public morals, control trade, and identify those viewed as “other”—namely non-Christians and prostitutes. In this section of the exhibit, we’ll look at sumptuary laws over the centuries, ranging from the humorous to the sinister.