Book Review: Dress Codes

Ford, Richard Thompson. Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021) E-book.

Fashion history has been a bit of an interest for me, mostly in the whys and wherefores. I mean, if I’m going to dress 150+ years out of date, I probably ought to know something about the clothes and the reasons (then) for them. Professor of Law Richard Thompson Ford takes a sideways look at fashion going back to the Renaissance, arguing that laws related to dress had serious effects on society, and can reveal a lot about power and culture. I don’t always agree with him, but he has some very interesting observations and ideas. Ford grew up with a father who dressed. The gentleman understood the power of a good suit and respectable clothes, and instilled that in his son (despite the younger Ford’s desires at times.) Dad was correct, and that led son on an exploration of sumptuary laws, why some people dressed up and others dress down, the political meanings of clothing, and the power (legal and political) of fashion and style. He starts with the Renaissance, when tailoring was invented, and goes through to today, when young civil rights protestors wore their “Sunday best” to march for racial justice and equality after the Charlotte church shootings.

Up to the Renaissance, clothing had been draped, for the most part, and how many layers of what you wore signaled your status. Rome and others had passed laws restricting certain clothes for the elites, but sumptuary laws really became common after 1400. Clothes could now make the man (or woman), and in a purely visual society, where appearances were identity, the elites insisted that they alone could wear certain things. To dress above your station was to challenge the political order.

That also applied to wearing clothes deemed inappropriate for your sex. Joan of Arc was eventually executed for wearing men’s clothing, and other people through the ages faced fines and legal sanctions for cross dressing. Here is one area where I disagree with Ford, because he applies concepts like transsexuality and transgender to Renaissance men and women. Practicality had a lot more to do with Joan of Arc wearing hose under her armor than did her understanding of her sexual identity and persona, at least based on what records we have of her time and deeds.

Postmodern analysis and language appears a lot in the book. Michel Foucault’s ideas about the state, discipline, and control run through the work. There’s a bit of Antonio Gramsci as well, and other postmodernists. I tended to skim those sections, because Ford makes an important point about “Why did people wear things like that?” Because the clothing made the people feel powerful, proper, and in control. They liked corsets, and hoop skirts, and wearing heels to march for civil rights. Straight hair made Black women feel good about themselves in a time when a chunk of the surrounding population tried to enforce ideas about race and social and economic status. Physical comfort came second to mental and psychological comfort. Ford acknowledges this several times, although in some cases he seems uncomfortable with that, as if he knows he is pushing against a certain academic tide.

He writes best when doing case studies and talking about real people. The theoretical and sociological parts of the book did not seem as strong. I don’t enjoy social and historical theory, so that might be swaying my impression. This IS a legal history, after all, more than a fashion history. Ford is interested in the formal and informal laws, the dress codes that appear so often in society.

I’d recommend the book for people interested in the politics of fashion, in dress codes, and in how groups use their clothing for political and/or social ends. It is not a straight fashion history, or about sumptuary laws alone. It is very well written and enjoyable, and Ford makes a number of thoughtful observations. I didn’t care for the gender theory, but that’s just me.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Dress Codes

  1. I would love to be a fly on the wall when you and Jonna get going on this. Not that I’d understand ANYTHING you were talking about… I seem to remember something about the color purple being restricted in Rome due to the cost of dyes.

    • Also the use of silk. Too much good Roman silver and gold going to China (a serious problem), and silk corrupting the morals of the younger generation, and is a sign that a man wasn’t a proper, Roman manly-man, and it encourages loose ways among Roman women, and . . . At least, that was the lamentation of certain Roman authors and politicians.

  2. I think reading your reviews will play havoc with my book budget. When I put this onto my reading list, Amazon recommended ‘The Fabric of Civilization’ by Virginia Postrel, which also sounds fascinating.

    I started writing this before checking to see if you reviewed or mentioned that book, and I have really bad luck loosing what I wrote when I leave a comment unfinished. So I’ll go check your reviews after I post this.

    • I have not read it yet. There was a similar one that came out last year, or in late 2019, that I started, then stopped because it turned into a “western civ and free markets bad” sort of work. It put me off textile history for a while.

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