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Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History

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A revelatory exploration of fashion through the ages that asks what our clothing reveals about ourselves and our society. Dress codes are as old as clothing itself. For centuries, clothing has been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and dress codes, a way to maintain political control. Merchants who dressed like princes and butchers’ A revelatory exploration of fashion through the ages that asks what our clothing reveals about ourselves and our society. Dress codes are as old as clothing itself. For centuries, clothing has been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and dress codes, a way to maintain political control. Merchants who dressed like princes and butchers’ wives wearing gem-encrusted crowns were public enemies in medieval societies structured by social hierarchy and defined by spectacle. In Tudor England, silk, velvet, and fur were reserved for the nobility and ballooning pants called “trunk hose” could be considered a menace to good order. The Renaissance era Florentine patriarch Cosimo de Medici captured the power of fashion and dress codes when he remarked, “One can make a gentleman from two yards of red cloth.” Dress codes evolved along with the social and political ideals of the day, but they always reflected struggles for power and status. In the 1700s, South Carolina’s “Negro Act” made it illegal for Black people to dress “above their condition.” In the 1920s, the bobbed hair and form-fitting dresses worn by free-spirited flappers were banned in workplaces throughout the United States and in the 1940s the baggy zoot suits favored by Black and Latino men caused riots in cities from coast to coast. Even in today’s more informal world, dress codes still determine what we wear, when we wear it—and what our clothing means. People lose their jobs for wearing braided hair, long fingernails, large earrings, beards, and tattoos or refusing to wear a suit and tie or make-up and high heels. In some cities, wearing sagging pants is a crime. And even when there are no written rules, implicit dress codes still influence opportunities and social mobility. Silicon Valley CEOs wear t-shirts and flip flops, setting the tone for an entire industry: women wearing fashionable dresses or high heels face ridicule in the tech world and some venture capitalists refuse to invest in any company run by someone wearing a suit. In Dress Codes, law professor and cultural critic Richard Thompson Ford presents an insightful and entertaining history of the laws of fashion from the middle ages to the present day, a walk down history’s red carpet to uncover and examine the canons, mores, and customs of clothing—rules that we often take for granted. After reading Dress Codes, you’ll never think of fashion as superficial again—and getting dressed will never be the same.


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A revelatory exploration of fashion through the ages that asks what our clothing reveals about ourselves and our society. Dress codes are as old as clothing itself. For centuries, clothing has been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and dress codes, a way to maintain political control. Merchants who dressed like princes and butchers’ A revelatory exploration of fashion through the ages that asks what our clothing reveals about ourselves and our society. Dress codes are as old as clothing itself. For centuries, clothing has been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and dress codes, a way to maintain political control. Merchants who dressed like princes and butchers’ wives wearing gem-encrusted crowns were public enemies in medieval societies structured by social hierarchy and defined by spectacle. In Tudor England, silk, velvet, and fur were reserved for the nobility and ballooning pants called “trunk hose” could be considered a menace to good order. The Renaissance era Florentine patriarch Cosimo de Medici captured the power of fashion and dress codes when he remarked, “One can make a gentleman from two yards of red cloth.” Dress codes evolved along with the social and political ideals of the day, but they always reflected struggles for power and status. In the 1700s, South Carolina’s “Negro Act” made it illegal for Black people to dress “above their condition.” In the 1920s, the bobbed hair and form-fitting dresses worn by free-spirited flappers were banned in workplaces throughout the United States and in the 1940s the baggy zoot suits favored by Black and Latino men caused riots in cities from coast to coast. Even in today’s more informal world, dress codes still determine what we wear, when we wear it—and what our clothing means. People lose their jobs for wearing braided hair, long fingernails, large earrings, beards, and tattoos or refusing to wear a suit and tie or make-up and high heels. In some cities, wearing sagging pants is a crime. And even when there are no written rules, implicit dress codes still influence opportunities and social mobility. Silicon Valley CEOs wear t-shirts and flip flops, setting the tone for an entire industry: women wearing fashionable dresses or high heels face ridicule in the tech world and some venture capitalists refuse to invest in any company run by someone wearing a suit. In Dress Codes, law professor and cultural critic Richard Thompson Ford presents an insightful and entertaining history of the laws of fashion from the middle ages to the present day, a walk down history’s red carpet to uncover and examine the canons, mores, and customs of clothing—rules that we often take for granted. After reading Dress Codes, you’ll never think of fashion as superficial again—and getting dressed will never be the same.

30 review for Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dana Stabenow

    This book tells the story of fashion in history from the toga to the t-shirt, and I was happy to see multiple references to Thorstein Veblen, as his chapter on women's fashion in The Theory of the Leisure Class was a revelatory read for teenage me. But I'm puzzled by what Ford leaves out. Where is the maxi skirt, which revolutionized the way Boomer women looked at high fashion? Where is Cher's closet in Clueless? Where is Lady Gaga's meat dress? In a book that includes Donald Trump's scotch-taped This book tells the story of fashion in history from the toga to the t-shirt, and I was happy to see multiple references to Thorstein Veblen, as his chapter on women's fashion in The Theory of the Leisure Class was a revelatory read for teenage me. But I'm puzzled by what Ford leaves out. Where is the maxi skirt, which revolutionized the way Boomer women looked at high fashion? Where is Cher's closet in Clueless? Where is Lady Gaga's meat dress? In a book that includes Donald Trump's scotch-taped tie, it feels insulting for so many other iconic fashion moments to be ignored. My couturier is Eddie Bauer so really I have no dog in this fight. The illustrations are great, and I wish there had been more of them, and this is probably an important reference text for Anna Wintour et al. Otherwise, all this book made me want to do was go back and reread Veblen.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David V.

    Received as an ARC from the publisher. Started 1-20-21. Finished 2-4-21. Scholarly, well-written and very readable world history told via clothing etiquette rules; from togas to business suits, from hoop skirts to miniskirts, from silk stockings for men to silk stockings for women, and bikinis to burkinis, and everything in between. A history book for the fashion-conscious and fashion for the historian. A unique study of the world. I won't ever look at old paintings of people in the same way aga Received as an ARC from the publisher. Started 1-20-21. Finished 2-4-21. Scholarly, well-written and very readable world history told via clothing etiquette rules; from togas to business suits, from hoop skirts to miniskirts, from silk stockings for men to silk stockings for women, and bikinis to burkinis, and everything in between. A history book for the fashion-conscious and fashion for the historian. A unique study of the world. I won't ever look at old paintings of people in the same way again---I'll be examining their clothing first. Many of the dress codes in history, even recent times, are hilarious when thoroughly studied, but the people who made them were totally serious. You also learn about some codes that are still hold-outs from previous times such as lawyers presenting cases before our US Supreme Court. Well worth the read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Marné Yates

    Skimmed through most of the chapters/sections. There were only a few that were interesting to me.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bookworm

    Borrowed this on a whim from the library. As discussions of this review have been moving towards returning to a more "normal" life, people have been discussing (sometimes hilariously) about having to put on pants or take on wearing "work" or "formal" clothing. So while I mostly sat around reading this in PJs or comfortable clothes, I thought it would be an interesting read to see how fashion has changed, the history, what it says about society, class, etc. The book goes onto various types of clot Borrowed this on a whim from the library. As discussions of this review have been moving towards returning to a more "normal" life, people have been discussing (sometimes hilariously) about having to put on pants or take on wearing "work" or "formal" clothing. So while I mostly sat around reading this in PJs or comfortable clothes, I thought it would be an interesting read to see how fashion has changed, the history, what it says about society, class, etc. The book goes onto various types of clothing from the Tudor silks to the zoot suits, etc. What they say, how they reflect the wearer, how they're used to control, send messages, flaunt wealth, etc. That's about it. As someone who doesn't care at all about fashion, doesn't feel invested in buying that particular item and really only cares about comfort, this was incredibly boring. It was also incredibly dry: the author is apparently a professor and it shows. It felt like a list that was well-researched but it wasn't something that was actually compelling as a read. I'm sure if you're interested in fashion and the topics the book often touches (class, politics, race, power, etc.) there is probably much of interest. But as a casual reader there wasn't much for me. Library borrow was best.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sushila

    This book was amazing! I absolutely love the concept — looking at the law and social norms that govern how we dress and examining how clothing interacts with and represents status, power, sex, and personal expression. Richard Thompson Ford carries out his task exceptionally. The book is thoroughly researched and the arguments are cogently presented. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that I wanted more! Ford has to limit himself in some way, to write a book of a readable length, so h This book was amazing! I absolutely love the concept — looking at the law and social norms that govern how we dress and examining how clothing interacts with and represents status, power, sex, and personal expression. Richard Thompson Ford carries out his task exceptionally. The book is thoroughly researched and the arguments are cogently presented. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that I wanted more! Ford has to limit himself in some way, to write a book of a readable length, so he limits himself to fashion from the Middle Ages to the present, largely confined to the Western world. However, since fashion is global, with trends traversing borders and cultures, there is a good amount of discussion about non-Western influences. It’s also interesting that the author happens to be male. A lot of other fashion history I have consumed is from the perspective of women and they often concentrate on women’s fashions. Ford writes about men’s and women’s fashions with equal emphasis (maybe with slightly more emphasis on men’s fashion) and it is fascinating. (He also discusses non-binary representation in clothing.) I also like that he doesn’t focus only on the clothing of the privileged. He spends some time talking about the clothing of nobility, but he is also discusses how fashion enforces and disrupts social hierarchies. He also leaves room for fun, never forgetting that fashion is personal and used to express individual spirit. I hope that Ford or someone who is inspired by him can continue this line of work and write about fashion in other parts of the world, particularly to focus on ancient manufacturing of clothing, regional clothing styles, and how it current fashion intersects with colonialism, imperialism, and globalization.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Popup-ch

    Vestimentary variations - vogue and versatility. Male dress went through an upheaval during the latter half of the18th century, which he calls the Great Masculine Renunciation, when ostentatious silk ruffs, ostrich plumes and high heels were replaced by the sober neatly cut vest and frock coat that eventually morphed into the modern three-piece suit. This was in part ushered in by reformist egalitarian protestant ideals, but was also taken up by the catholic church during the counter reformation. I Vestimentary variations - vogue and versatility. Male dress went through an upheaval during the latter half of the18th century, which he calls the Great Masculine Renunciation, when ostentatious silk ruffs, ostrich plumes and high heels were replaced by the sober neatly cut vest and frock coat that eventually morphed into the modern three-piece suit. This was in part ushered in by reformist egalitarian protestant ideals, but was also taken up by the catholic church during the counter reformation. I was expecting a historical overview of when/how hats went out of fashion, and the theory behind button-down oxford shirts, but the book talks more about the use of fashion as a way to express disdain towards gender/race roles in 20th century America. There's more discussion about Louis Vuitton being used by rappers, and purposefully wrinkled shirts worn by absent-minded professors than the fading away of the nce ubiquitous tie.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    Fascinating look at history through dress codes and how they have always been used to reinforce class boundaries. I learned lots of interesting things about sumptuary laws (some countries used to make it flat out illegal to wear certain things "above your station" and would literally arrest you), the evolution of women's dress and the cultural and legal strictures against "cross dressing." Also school dress codes, the civil rights movement, Preppies, 'Lo Boys, and why Brian Kemp is always wearin Fascinating look at history through dress codes and how they have always been used to reinforce class boundaries. I learned lots of interesting things about sumptuary laws (some countries used to make it flat out illegal to wear certain things "above your station" and would literally arrest you), the evolution of women's dress and the cultural and legal strictures against "cross dressing." Also school dress codes, the civil rights movement, Preppies, 'Lo Boys, and why Brian Kemp is always wearing a fleece vest in weird circumstances. Ok it does not mention him but it DOES explain the weird prevalence of the "I am dressed up but then I weirdly put on this fleece vest" thing.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joanne

    This is an interesting and well-researched history of fashion that points out the ways that clothing has always had personal and social meaning. The author tracked societal reaction to fashion through laws (since the 1300s) regarding various styles, which is a pretty ingenious and revealing method. One learns that some things never really change and that one culture has borrowed styles from others, changed its meaning, made a statement, and moved on. It's still happening. It's pretty fascinating This is an interesting and well-researched history of fashion that points out the ways that clothing has always had personal and social meaning. The author tracked societal reaction to fashion through laws (since the 1300s) regarding various styles, which is a pretty ingenious and revealing method. One learns that some things never really change and that one culture has borrowed styles from others, changed its meaning, made a statement, and moved on. It's still happening. It's pretty fascinating to realize the full picture and the fashion parade that marches on, continuing its message.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dеnnis

    "Pull out a five-dollar bill and you will see Thomas Jefferson wearing a fashionable wig of his day". Okay, I did and found Abraham Lincoln there. Old Tom is on two and isn't bewiged. That portait's there since 1869. I wonder where did that double whammy come from, Sir? "Pull out a five-dollar bill and you will see Thomas Jefferson wearing a fashionable wig of his day". Okay, I did and found Abraham Lincoln there. Old Tom is on two and isn't bewiged. That portait's there since 1869. I wonder where did that double whammy come from, Sir?

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kate McMurray

    I found a lot of the book fascinating! It's a history of fashion from a legal perspective, meaning the focus is on laws regarding what people can wear and less formal dress codes. (Spoiler: Pretty much all of these laws/codes are intended to keep people in their gender/race/class lanes.) I found a lot of the book fascinating! It's a history of fashion from a legal perspective, meaning the focus is on laws regarding what people can wear and less formal dress codes. (Spoiler: Pretty much all of these laws/codes are intended to keep people in their gender/race/class lanes.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    CatBookMom

    Just started this, an easy read, entertaining, though I'm not through Ch 1 yet. Can't decipher the graphic on my Kindle Paperwhite, so will be viewing that on my big PC monitor; drat! this is in mid-greys, and even on a 24in monitor, the words are difficult to read. Further review later. Just started this, an easy read, entertaining, though I'm not through Ch 1 yet. Can't decipher the graphic on my Kindle Paperwhite, so will be viewing that on my big PC monitor; drat! this is in mid-greys, and even on a 24in monitor, the words are difficult to read. Further review later.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Hoppe

    I am attempting to read more nonfiction this year, and this was my latest effort. It read a little too much like a textbook for my taste, but was interesting enough for me to finish.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Justine Chen

    You can publish this in a mobile app so a lot of readers can see your lovely work. Check on NovelStar and see how other writers earn by pursuing their passion in writing.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    Interesting and well-researched.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Mantilla

    For such a great story, a lot of audience must read your book. You can publish your work on NovelStar Mobile App.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Miki

    Interesting if a bit stuffy.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  19. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Grothaus

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laura Dolbow

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  22. 5 out of 5

    Maria

  23. 5 out of 5

    Hemoheja

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Hoffman

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Hitt

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andra

  27. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Christian

  29. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  30. 4 out of 5

    Laur

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