Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.
Legal opinion on dress codes’ effect on employment may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, the courts may be missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”
Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. Men’s attire became more sober and conservative. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.
Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from Target.
You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity and seriousness of their quest. A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.
Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who insisted on wearing trousers “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.
By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!