October 2018: Middle Temple Dress Codes

Over the centuries, members of the Middle Temple, from students to Benchers, have had their clothing discussed, disputed and delimited by outside statute and internal order. This month, we look at some occasions on which dress codes have been imposed upon Middle Templars - and occasions on which such codes have been violated.

One of the earliest records of costume at the Middle Temple is a document describing life at the Inn during the reign of King Henry VIII. Covering a wide range of aspects of the Society's habits and governance, including the manner of study, discipline, food prices and staff wages, it also describes the mode of dress amongst Middle Templars. The document states that while members of the Inn 'have no order for their apparell', each Middle Templar 'may go as him listeth so that his apparell pretend no lightnesse, or wantonesse in the wearer'. The original document is part of the Robert Cotton collection at the British Library, but a transcript of it from a century or so later was recently discovered amongst the archive's collection of loose papers.

Extract from a manuscript copy of the state, orders and customs of the Middle Temple, taken from a report to Henry VIII (HI/6/FW)

In Tudor England, clothing and apparel were closely regulated by what were known as 'Sumptuary Laws' - laws which delimited consumption of various sorts. This was chiefly a matter of status - the authorities were concerned that people dress according to their rank or position, and not demonstrate exhibitionist vanity. A statute of 1574, by order of Queen Elizabeth I, fretted that, quite apart from the damage to the realm wrought by the import of flashy foreign fabrics, there was risk of 'the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen... allured by the vain show of these things'.

Portrait engraving of Queen Elizabeth I (MT.19/POR/245)

This atmosphere of tailoring totalitarianism was felt everywhere in society, even within the cloistered precincts of the Inns of Court. The minutes of the Middle Temple's Parliament from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries are littered with detailed sartorial diktats.

For example, in 1557 orders were made that 'none of the Companies except Knights or Benchers shall wear in their doublets or hose any light colour except scarlet and crimson, or wear any upper velvet cap, or any scarf or wing in their gowns'. Members of the Inns were forbidden from wearing their 'study gowns' into the City, from wearing 'Spanish cloak, sword and buckler' in commons, and from wearing their beard over three weeks' growth.

Order of Parliament that no one below the rank of Knight wear a beard above 'three weeks growing', Minutes of Parliament, 1557 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Order of Parliament concerning the colour of doublets, velvet caps and scarfs in gowns, Minutes of Parliament, 1557 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Transgressions against these rules are also recorded extensively in the archive. On Friday, 23 May 1617, four young Middle Templars were hauled before Parliament to answer for a terrible crime: wearing hats in Hall. Not to be cowed, they appeared before the Benchers in hats, boots and spurs, and were threatened with expulsion.

Things grew worse, as the minutes of the subsequent Parliament relate, describing the Benchers' frets about a 'great conspiracy among the gentlemen of the Fellowship'. Many members had taken to dining in their own rooms rather than Hall - presumably in order to wear their hats in peace, free of disturbance or censure.