Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 57: Sumptuary laws

“Ah!” said Domenica’s friend, Dilly Emslie, holding up a small jar filled with artichoke hearts. “People love these.”

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“And these too,” said Domenica, pointing to a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. “We can put these on small oatcakes, along with a slice of salami. And there’s hummus that people can ladle out with celery sticks.”

“Then drop on the carpet,” added Dilly.

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Domenica smiled. “If you invite people round, you have to expect a certain amount of wear and tear. And a buffet supper is inherently risky. James Holloway told me that he was at a dinner in India Street – it was a buffet – and somebody sat on a plate of food left on a chair by somebody else.” She paused, remembering another detail of the story. “The house in question was up at the top of India Street, on the corner with Heriot Row. But because it was on the corner, it had a couple of windows that actually faced onto Heriot Row. So, they put a letterbox in one of the windows so that they could use the Heriot Row address – it being a whole lot grander than India Street. The Heriot Row people didn’t like that one little bit. They said you had to have a door on Heriot Row in order to say you lived there.”

Dilly laughed. “Oh well, these things are important to some people. It’s ridiculous, really.”

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“Addresses are an odd thing,” Domenica mused. “They confer status on people, don’t they? As do buildings themselves. Yet status should have nothing to do with geography.”

“Do you mean status, or worth?” asked Dilly.

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“I probably mean worth,” said Domenica. “It’s all the same to me – I take the view that what matters is character . . .” She thought of Robert Burns, and that great egalitarian hymn, A Man’s a Man For a’ That. That was a fundamental text as far as Scotland was concerned. If there was one thing that distinguished Scotland from her neighbour, it was that. Scots believed that it did not matter what bed you were born in; Domenica was not so sure that the same could yet be said of England, where there was a more entrenched tradition of deference being shown to those higher up the pecking order. It was harder to change where you were in England, because of the rigidity and the insidious effect of an antiquated class structure. And yet that was changing, she thought; everything was changing, everything was fluid, and people were breaking free of the grasp of old institutions and prejudices. And not before time, she felt.

This line of thought led her, unexpectedly, to Rome – not in a theological sense, of course – but in a sartorial one.

“Do you think,” she asked her friend, “that people still use clothing to signal things?”

Dilly looked thoughtful. “Possibly.”

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“I was just thinking, Domenica continued, “if you went out into Scotland Street right now and walked up the hill, do you think that you’d be able to place the first, say, dozen people you encountered? And by place, I mean be able to say something about what they did, what their likely tastes were, what they believed in? I ask that because I was just thinking of Rome and how your clothing revealed your lineage, or membership, very precisely. If you were a member of the equestrian order, your toga had a thin purple stripe. If you were of senatorial rank, then it was broader.”

“As in a naval uniform? Three rings of gold braid, slightly separated, if you’re a Commander. Put those three rings together, leave a tiny space, and then add a fourth ring, and you’re a . . .”

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She looked for guidance.

“Angus might know,” said Domenica. “A captain? Or even higher? A rear-admiral perhaps. In Rome, of course, the toga could show how much you actually had – in money terms. To be a senator, and have the appropriate stripe on your toga, you needed to be worth four hundred thousand sesterces – later it was more, I believe. Very precise. Ordinary people wore plain or dark togas. Brown and so on. Of course, there have been many other societies where what you might wear depends on rank and was legally controlled by sumptuary laws.”

“Conspicuous consumption is never very attractive,” mused Dilly. She looked at the jar of sun-dried tomatoes – a look that was intercepted by Domenica.

“Sun-dried tomatoes are okay,” Domenica said, with a smile. “I very much doubt whether they’ve ever been caught by sumptuary laws. But those laws did affect some sorts of food. You had to eat according to your station. Montaigne railed against that in one of his essays, I seem to recall. He said that legislating that only princes could eat turbot was surely an invitation to make everybody else long to eat it. So, a sumptuary law could have the opposite effect from that intended.”

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She reached for a salami and started to slice it, while Dilly buttered oatcakes.

“We had sumptuary laws in Scotland, you know,” Domenica said. “Under James I, I think – not the English James I, of course – the real one – James the McCoy, so to speak. Anyway, there were laws about how commoners were not allowed by law to wear coloured outfits that went lower than the knee. And even in America – pre-Tea Party – the Boston one, that is – in the Massachusetts Bay Colony you had to be worth at least two hundred pounds to be allowed legally to wear things like lace or buckles.”

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“That’s somewhat prescriptive, don’t you think?” said Dilly.

“I don’t think people obeyed it much,” Domenica said. “Of course, sumptuary laws were really about power. Those at the top of the tree – those in power – did not want people beneath them outdoing them in signs of wealth. So the aristocracy didn’t want the bourgeoisie to look smarter and richer than them, although, of course they often were. And the bourgeoisie didn’t want artisans and so on looking better off than they were in case they might get ideas.” She paused. “Of course, the Scottish Parliament could turn all this on its head and introduce sumptuary provisions that punished people who pay themselves too much, who cream money off the top. Hedge fund managers, for instance. They should be made to wear clothes of hodden grey. Then we’d be able to identify them. Hah! Would they like that? I don’t think they would. And we’d take away their Porsche Cayennes and so on and make them drive small Fiats. Or reconditioned Trabis! Hah! Pass the sun-dried tomatoes, Dilly.”© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99