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.
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.