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DRESS CODES by Richard Thompson Ford Kirkus Star


How the Laws of Fashion Made History

by Richard Thompson Ford

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-5011-8006-4
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Clothes make the person—and a social code that defies resistance.

Stanford law professor Ford opens with a memory of his “rigorous and refined” father, a minister and scholar who “endured my sartorial misadventures (asymmetrical ‘new-wave’ haircuts, nylon parachute pants, the ‘punk’ look, which consisted of deliberately torn garments held together with safety pins or duct tape) in quiet despair.” Of course, that garb was part of the costume by which one identifies with a group, and it speaks to a point Ford frequently reiterates: We all abide by dress codes, whether required to do so or not. The author’s discussion embraces a vast body of knowledge, from what might be called fashion anthropology to a philosophy of sartorial splendor, and he’s an assured, genial narrator. He has an acute eye for detail, too. We eagerly follow his gaze from the well-dressed young men and women who sat in at lunch counters during the civil rights era to the Black Panthers’ “quasi-military style that combined berets, aviator sunglasses, bohemian turtleneck sweaters, and long, sleek leather jackets.” Ford’s referents extend deep into the past. He notes that one reason that Joan of Arc was tried and burned for heresy was her penchant for wearing male clothing, in violation of biblical precept. As a lawyer, Ford is naturally drawn to disputation, and there’s plenty to cover. Lawsuits concerning makeup, cornrows, hairnets, miniskirts, and bare midriffs punctuate his pages while bodies of regulations such as Louis XIV’s order that “only members of his royal court would be allowed to wear shoes with red heels” turn up frequently. Particularly relevant are Ford’s observations on how formal dress codes tend to target the least powerful—women, minorities, the poor—and can serve, as he points out, “to undermine self-esteem.” The author also includes a “timeline of important dress codes and historical events.”

For the clotheshorse and the jeans-clad alike, a lucid, entertaining exploration of how and why we dress as we do.