The sumptuary laws of Plantagenet times were designed to curb exuberances of attire, among which were sleeves cut so full that they trailed in the dung and shoes with such long points that a cartwheel could pass over them without crushing flesh. Every day, said Holinshed, 'there was devising of new fashions to the great hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.' In the matter of clothing, the sumptuary laws of the Second World War were directed at less dandiacal, but still state-threatening, indulgences: double-breasted jackets, double cuffs, turn-ups of all kinds, patch pockets, bellows pockets, belts, yokes, pleats, shirrs, flaps, tabs and all unnecessary adornment (one historian tells us that a West End dressmaker was taken to court for embroidering roses and butterflies on camiknickers). Here was the unusual, and some thought alarming, spectacle of a British government insisting on short skirts for its womenfolk, but it was a government which knew where to stop, and that was at the knee. Vast savings in labour and material could no doubt have been made if Captain Edward Molyneux or Captain Hardy Amies had come up with the mini-skirt, but there was trouble enough on the Home Front without pandering to what Hazlitt, contemplating Regency fashions, called 'the greedy eye and rash hand of licentiousness'.
LRB 20 March 1997 | PDF Download