Does fashion matter? In his new book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, Stanford Law School professor and author Richard Thompson Ford argues that it absolutely does—and not just to so-called fashionistas but to everyone, whether they realize it or not.
Over the centuries, people have been praised and punished alike based on their manner of dress. As Ford explains, “Medieval and Renaissance-era sumptuary laws assigned clothing according to social rank” and “the laws of American slave states prohibited black people from dressing ‘above their condition.’ ” What someone wore could be a life-or-death decision, he notes, pointing to Joan of Arc as an example. She was found guilty of heresy for wearing traditionally masculine attire in battle and was burned at the stake, making her “one of history’s first fashion victims” circa 1431.
In addition to exploring how gender roles influence fashion rules, Ford looks at religion, politics, race and class as they relate to dress codes and their inherent contradictions. For example, a “hoodie sweatshirt is threatening on Trayvon Martin but disarmingly charming on Mark Zuckerberg.” And high heels? They originated as men’s riding shoes, later became a means of controlling women by “literally hobbling them” and are now often seen as signifiers of confidence and empowerment. Fashion’s very flexibility is what makes it exciting, of course. It’s “a wearable language” and means of expression that, depending on the beholder, can be thrilling or confusing, threatening or comforting, which black and white photos demonstrate throughout the book.
In Dress Codes, Ford has created a thorough and well-thought-out history of fashion from a legal and societal perspective. Whether exploring cultural appropriation, praising Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace neckwear or cautioning social media users that “every triumph or crime of fashion lives on in a digital archive,” the author is knowledgeable and passionate about his topic. “A dress code can be the Rosetta Stone to decode the meaning of attire,” he writes. Readers will come away with a new understanding of—and critical eye for—what we wear and why.