Sumptuary Laws and Consumer Rights: The New Woman and Chicago's High Hat Problem

Emily A. Remus

This paper examines a near riot that erupted in 1897 in one of Chicago’s most elegant theaters over the enforcement of a gender-specific sumptuary law regulating ladies’ theater hats. Throughout the 1890s, theater critics and customers had protested that ladies in elaborate millinery were obstructing the sightlines of those who had paid to see the stage. To safeguard the views of these customers, the City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting hats and bonnets in theaters. The measure outraged many women, who argued that it infringed on their personal liberty, and stirred conflict in the city’s theaters. But the law’s advocates insisted on the right of the state to protect the consuming public. In probing the conflict over theater hats, this paper offers new insight into the development of early notions of consumer rights, as well as the remaking of public culture and gender codes amid capitalist transformation.