Book Review: Dress Codes by Richard Thompson Ford

As usual with academic scholarship, it is the subtitle–“How the Laws of Fashion Made History”–that really tells what this book is about.  In this wide-ranging study, Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford examines how dress codes—both formal legal regulations and less formal strictures in the workplace and beyond—have shaped how we dress.  Reaching back to Early Modern Europe, which he dates as the beginning of “fashion” (a contested assumption), he shows how regulations on dress have been used to define status, faith, sex, race, and personal taste. 

Ford’s central point is to show that fashion is an important area of study, an argument he didn’t need to make with me.  His examples are wide ranging, from Afrocentrism to zoot suits, from high heels to hijabs. As a self-proclaimed clothes horse, and son of a clothes horse, Ford gives particular attention to menswear.  Since most of the fashion history I read pertains to women’s dress, I learned a lot from this part of the book.  The incredible subtleties of men’s clothing surprised me—and I’m wondering how many people still recognize the difference between real and fake buttons holes on a jacket cuff.

Ford’s own area of expertise is American civil rights law, and the book was strongest when he stuck to legal codes in twentieth century America.  His expansive overview of fashion history in general was as once too broad—why attempt to cover all of Western fashion?—and also too narrow.  Besides a few examples, he makes no mention of fashion outside of the Western world.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema and colleague

Although Ford covers a lot of topics, from race to religion, I wished he had paid more attention to age as a category of dress.  It is mentioned only in passing. I think older Americans—and particularly women–face particular dilemmas on how to dress in our “forever young” society.  We are told/advised/encouraged not to be dowdy, but poked fun of when we try to dress too young.

Most of the book criticizes dress codes for infringing on personal expression, but Ford also takes pains to show that they can sometimes be a democratizing factor.  Even though he hesitates to tell his students what to wear to an interview, he knows that their appearance matters.  Why not help them crack the code?

Today, for the most part, we are left to define our own dress codes.  What’s yours? I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I lean more toward a conservative style.  If she had asked me, I would have told Senator Sinema never to wear that dress to Congress.

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8 Responses to Book Review: Dress Codes by Richard Thompson Ford

  1. Judith Rickard says:

    The “colleague” is Washington State’s very own Senator Patty Murray. She went from self-described soccer mom to highly senior and respected US senator. And she knows how to dress the part.

  2. Lynn says:

    Thank you! Her name wasn’t mentioned in the book.

  3. Bellneice says:

    When my female friends and I were first entering the workplace in large numbers, navy blue suits, white shirts and sometimes even ties were the uniform. I had to Google it, but I believe it was referred to as “power dressing”. The implication was that women had nothing at all to bring to the workplace – the best and only thing they could do was pretend to be men both in the way the dressed and the way they behaved. Women do bring something unique to the world and work and everywhere else they go, and it still isn’t valued. If you like suits, good for you. If you don’t, feel free to dress as you like – you might get worlds of crap for it, but at least people will talk about it, and realize how stupid it is to think the only thing a woman can do to be taken seriously is to be a man.

    • JS says:

      A popular guide at the time was “The Woman’s Dress for Success Book” by John Molloy.

      I’d say it’s a pretty predictable cycle for outsiders trying to break in to take their cue from the insiders, which were, and in many cases still are, men. As women develop more power and influence in the workplace they’ll free to express themselves more. Maybe one day a flowered, ruffled dress will be viewed as a power outfit.

  4. Susan Jarratt says:

    Thanks for this review. Your assessment of this book fits very closely with my reading–of both its strengths and weaknesses. It was painful to learn ( or be reminded) of the ways marginal people have been persecuted for dressing “above their station,” as in the zoot suit “riots.” When it comes to the expectation for women to wear men’s styles in the business and professional worlds, I actually enjoyed trying out the trousers and jacket, shirt and some kind of tie substitute. It was a form of approved cross-dressing that made me feel both comfortable, powerful, and costumed. But I probably enjoyed it because I didn’t have to do it every day to make my way in a profession. Ford captures some of these subtleties along the way, but as you note, he leaves out a lot in this too-wide-ranging study.

  5. Lizzie says:

    My dress code? No ruffles. No lace. No yellow. No heels over an inch. No restricting undergarments.

  6. JS says:

    ” I’m wondering how many people still recognize the difference between real and fake buttons holes on a jacket cuff.”

    I definitely would recognize surgeon’s cuffs. Men who care about well-made classic menswear (as compared to men’s fashion) and have money are obsessed with details like that. I’ve taken menswear sewing classes and appreciate handmade buttonholes, too.

  7. JS says:

    In a work setting, I usually wear dark sheath or shift A-line dresses, but my pandemic weight gain is making it hard for me to find anything to wear. My personal preference is florals dresses and rompers even if they aren’t as flattering or sophisticated, but I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I dressed that way. Some people look great in casual clothes. I don’t.

    I’m too distracted by Sinema’s current position on the filibuster to judge her at all objectively. I’m not crazy about her dress, but it does fit into the category of sheath dress, albeit with a very big print on the skirt and some gathering at the neckline. Senator Murray looks professional but dull. But I don’t care too much how pols dress so long as they’re working hard. In fact, I prefer them a little dowdy and rumpled.

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