Brothel scene; Brunswick Monogrammist, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The yellow dress – a medieval sign of prostitution?

At the marked this weekend a very sweet woman complimented my new dress and the beautiful mustard yellow colour. She when went on to say that not all markeds would allow it as it yellow was a sign of a woman being a prostitude. I was of course not trilled to hear this but I was also sceptical. Was yellow dresses really a sign of prostitution?

If so I will have to sew something else wouldn’t I as my role is a house keeper for a rich merchant – I am sure he wouldn’t stand for me walking around looking like a whore. I have however found that some of the things we tell each other at markeds are more myths than historical fact, so I set out to investigate the claim. In this post I will detail what I found on what prostitudes wore in the medieval and early modern period. I am of course particrally interested in Denmark and the German area, as that is where we attend markeds.

Sumptuary laws in Europe

Sumptuary laws were (mostly) city laws that regulated what people were allowed to wear. Sumptuary laws were about one of three things: Either it was about being able to tell high status people from low status people (especially being able to tell nobles from merchants with money), shaming particular groups (mostly Jews, prostitudes and executioners) or it might limit who was allowed to wear imported cloth to protect local industry. For this purpose we are mostly interested in the clothing that singled out particular groups as someone who had to wear something specific, so others could spot them.

According to sunagainstgold on Ask a Historian on Reddit, a few places did regulate what prostitutes wore:

“In terms of specifics, the laws usually mentioned with respect to prostitutes required, in various times and places:

  • Not allowed to wear jewels, embroidery, or other finery (very common, and sometimes extended to other women of low rank, like domestic servants)
  • Required to wear striped hoods (English cities)
  • Very explicitly and repeatedly banned from wearing fur-lined hoods (also England), or fur-lined clothing (France, 1360)
  • Various types of badges or decoration on one’s dress (Provence, Burgundy) or cloak (various Italian cities)

Concerning your particular colors: James Brundage briefly mentions that prostitutes in Zurich, the law being passed in the 13th century, were required to wear red caps. He also says that Augsburg at some point required prostitutes to wear green, but I haven’t been able to back this up and am a little skeptical. Executioners, another stigmatized group, were required to add strips in the city livery colors (one of which was green) to their clothing; this sounds more reasonable for prostitutes (especially since executioners were sometimes responsible for running brothels) given the apparent difficulty (ergo expense) of achieving a true green dye in the Renaissance era.”

Continuing down this path led me to that had a list of places that did have sumptuary laws about the dress of prostitudes.

“Beach has, very gently, been putting together a list of these symbols for the edification of the present age. These are drawn from several different sources.
Beaucaire: a mark on the left arm (a tattoo or ink or…? See Toulouse below).
Berne: red cap.
Bristol: striped hoods.
Castres: a man’s hat and a scarlet belt.
Florence: gloves and bells on the head (in the hair?) and high-heeled slippers.
Languedoc: a cord belt.
Leipzig: yellow cloak trimmed with blue.
London: striped hoods.
Mantua: white cloak and badge on chest (what on earth did it look like?).
Marseilles: striped tunic.
Milan: black cloak.
Nimes: a sleeve of a special colour.
Pisa: a yellow headband.
Strasbourg: black and white sugarloaf hat.
Toulouse: a mark on their sleeve.
Venice: yellow scarf.
Vienna: yellow scarf.
Zurich: red cap.
(…) As to the badge in Mantua, we have a 1516 record from London where a prostitute was punished by being made to wear a yellow H (for harlot). Perhaps a Latinate equivalent (P)? Interesting how yellow and stripes are also seen as being godless.”

Here we do see that yellow scarfs and trims has been a sign of prostitudion in Italy, but in Northern Europe it was not the case. The other thing that is quite apparent is how non-uniform the laws are. So the fact that yellow scarfs were a sign of prostitution, really doesn’t say anything about Denmark, let alone particular cities.

Sumptuary laws in Denmark

Looking at the danish history site I found that Skånemarkedet in Skåne (now Sweden, then Denmark) had laws on the subject: They were only allowed to wear “simple and cheep clothing”.

King Hans (1496) wrote into law that danish prostitutes had to wear a cap, half black, half red and only to wear cheep cloth. Uncovered hair was a sign of virginity and the prostitutes was not allowed to wear their hair uncovered.

In 1522 abolished Christian II this law, but still stated that one should not be able to confuse sex workers with “honest folk”, so they were not allowed to wear robes. At the same time it became punishable by death to use violence against prostitutes. However the new laws came on the books when he removed from office in 1523. In some cities prostitution was restricted to some streets or areas of the city.

After the reformation (1536) the authorities tried to restrict prostitution and was no longer officially tolerated. From the middle of the 1500’s it became illegal and was punishable by whipping and death – not that eliminated prostitution – of course.

So to conclude…

There were no laws on the books about yellow dresses or head gear in the danish kingdom at any point in the medieval or renaissance period – as far as I can find. However in the late medieval period, sex workers was required to wear cheep clothing and red and black caps. What they actually wore, is anyone’s guess.

If anyone know differently, please let me know. Do anyone know any historical sources that link yellow dresses with prostitution in Northern Europe in the middle ages? If I am wrong I would love to know.

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