Dress Codes | Richard Thompson Ford

Summary of: Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History
By: Richard Thompson Ford


Embark on a fascinating journey through the history of dress codes and the dynamic role of fashion in shaping society with this summary of Richard Thompson Ford’s Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. Witness how societies have used clothing to indicate and maintain status, control social structures, and express political ideals. From the Sumptuary Laws of the Renaissance to today’s unwritten social dress codes, you will discover the intricate relationship between attire and personal identity, as well as the ever-evolving power struggle between the wealthy and commoners.

Clothing as a Sign of Identity

Clothing is a visible expression of one’s identity and status within the community. From the Sumptuary Laws of the 14th century to the dress codes of Queen Elizabeth I, clothing has been used to maintain social hierarchies. As the Black Plague subsided and merchants and commoners gained wealth, dress codes became threatened. Italian laws forced prostitutes to wear bright colors, while Jewish women were required to wear hoop earrings as a sign of their identity. Clothing may indicate personality and gender, but it is also a means of asserting oneself within a social group.

The Evolution of Fashion in the 1700s

In the 1700s, clothing became a reflection of an individual’s political and moral values instead of their wealth and status. The European aristocracy shifted from opulent attire to more somber and frugal clothing, embracing modern ideals. The three-piece suit was introduced by King Charles II as a symbol of refined elegance and the wig evolved to become more practical for modern thinking men. Dress codes became increasingly important to maintain class distinctions, with knowledge and etiquette being the new dress code. Expert tailors created sophisticated garments specifically tailored to each occasion. As the rich employed dress codes to preserve their status, the general population used fashion to destroy it.

The Gender Politics of High Heels

High heels were initially designed for Persian soldiers to help hold their feet in stirrups more securely. However, the French court adopted the trend with French King Louis XIV painting the soles of his four-inch-heels red. The high-heel shoe first symbolized masculine, aristocratic elegance and leisure. When women started to wear heels, it was a symbolic expression of sexual freedom. However, men later rejected the shoes as uncomfortable opulence and foisted them onto women, furthering female objectification. High heels were even mandated for working women in the 20th century. Today, with advances in gender equality, the shoes serve alternately as a symbol of the patriarchy or as a tool of chic authority or sexual power – a single item of clothing that embodies a myriad of controversies, contradictions, pleasures, pain, and prejudice of gendered clothing. The red-soled high heel remains a symbol of wealth and power thanks to designer Christian Louboutin, but the significance of this fashion statement has evolved with time.

The Power and Politics of Clothing

Enslaved people in South Carolina were prohibited from dressing above their station as a means to maintain white superiority. During the Civil Rights Movement, clothing became a tool of social expression. While some Black protestors sought to dress “respectably” to match white standards, others rejected this idea and wore clothing reminiscent of working-class people. The “Black is Beautiful” movement launched in the 1960s celebrated unaltered Black appearances, creating a fashion trend and a political movement. However, dress codes quickly followed, disguised as efforts to maintain professionalism, but were ultimately discriminatory. Renee Rogers, a flight attendant, sued her employers for racial discrimination when she was told to cover her corn rows, but lost the case. Many more cases followed, ultimately leading to laws protecting everyone’s right to wear their natural hair.

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