Jess Jones "Weeping Quilt" (detail)

SDA Book Club: “Dress Codes” Reviewed by Vivien Zepf

This month’s SDA Book Club is by our contributing author Vivien Zepf, who reviews Dress Codes.

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

Colorful dresses with pockets. Patterned shirts and dark pants, with and without stretchy waistbands. That’s my wardrobe.  My choice is based on comfort and cost, and a bit of vanity. Thankfully, I don’t live in the 1800s, when women’s garments were designed to restrict movement. What would I have done then?

In his book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, Richard Thompson Ford suggests I might have had little choice in the matter. Why? Dress codes, as defined by the author, are explicit rules that determine what fashion means, and when, how and by whom it may be worn. (Please note that the term “fashion” extends to personal grooming.) Ford argues that fashion has always been symbolically relevant, from a Renaissance cleric’s robe to a present-day hoodie. Some dress codes have been dictated by monarchs and politicians, enforceable by law. Others have been codified by society, with potentially crushing personal repercussions if disregarded. And, in his book, Ford offers examples throughout history to explain how and why different social and cultural groups–from nuns and flappers to runaway enslaved persons, students, and Silicon Valley tech whizzes–have used fashion to upset expectations, challenge perceptions and prescribed societal roles, and establish new fashion ideals. Even nudists have a stance on dress codes, albeit an ironic one.

Ford asserts that “Fashion is a wearable language”. As a legal scholar and professor, he was dismayed with the increasing number of legal disputes concerning contemporary dress codes that, in his opinion, trivialized fashion as an important mode of personal expression. Ford believes today’s laws aren’t being written to address its importance in matters such as race or sexual discrimination. In his opinion, the legal system has not adequately recognized that “Fashion is tied to the ideal of individuality, individual authenticity, individual rights”(1). He wondered if that had always the case and decided to investigate. Dress Codes is the result of that personal query.

Ford takes readers on a mostly chronological survey of fashion. Along the way he examines many of the legal, economic, and cultural factors that have influenced how people strove to adorn themselves…. or not. You’re as likely to read a quote from philosopher as you are an excerpt of a court case. It’s intriguing social commentary that’s expansively researched and fascinating, but at times it was too minutely detailed for me. 

I’ve since reflected a bit on Ford’s discussion about tailoring, a technological advance that emphasized the “individual morphology of the wearer”. This development dovetailed nicely with the evolution of the belief in the distinctive individual with personal rights. Tailoring enabled men and women to find ways, within the dictates of society, to express their taste, aspirations, and dreams. It was a pivotal moment in fashion, one cultural phenomenon among many I hadn’t thoughtfully considered before reading the book.

Ford enlivens the text with phrasing such as “vestimentary villains” and historical quotes in context, like warning against the “seduction of appearances”. (We’re talking about wigs here). These are often fun interludes amid legal descriptions. Anecdotes and digressions also enrich the text and keep it from being textbook-y. Counter-culture discussions, such as explanations of clothing fetishes, make the book even more robust. Throughout the book I absorbed a great deal of history and sociology. I recommend Dress Codes to anyone looking for an expansive discourse on the social and personal constraints, permissions, and developments that have contributed to the evolution of fashion and personal autonomy in dress.

1) Richard Thompson Ford, in conversation with Vogue’s Contributing Editor, Corey Seymour, October 21, 2021.

–Viven Zepf |

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (buy it here)
  • Date: February 2021
  • ISBN: 9781501180064

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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