Praise for Dress Codes

Dress Codes explores how for centuries fashion has marked a pathway for personal liberation and social critique even when it sought to reinforce class, race, and gender hierarchies.  From nuns’ habits to flappers’ fringe to burkinis and hijabs, from Joan of Arc’s armor to Martin Luther King’s Sunday best, Richard Thompson Ford reveals a history of individual imagination capable of outwitting and recasting even the strictest rules.  Ford’s writing is sharp, witty, and brilliant, with the elegance and craft of a bespoke suit.

Daniel Sharfstein, Vanderbilt University, author of Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War

I think that ‘Dress Codes’ is long overdue. Clothing is at the heart of culture, indeed it is almost a definition of what we mean by the term culture, a constructed but ever changing expression of social relationships, beliefs and ideologies. We should all, as Richard Thompson Ford does so magnificently within this book, be taking fashion much more seriously.

-Ruth Goodman, Historian and Author of How to be a Tudor and How to be a Victorian

“An intriguing history of formal and informal rules governing what people wear….[Ford] makes a convincing case that dress codes reveal much about the social order and the pursuit of individual liberty. This jam-packed history casts its subject in a new light.”

Publisher’s Weekly


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 dressed like princes and butchers’ wives in gem-encrusted crowns were public enemies in societies structured by social hierarchy and defined by spectacle.   In Tudor England, the common people were forbidden to wear silk, velvet or fur and ballooning pants called “trunk hose” were considered a menace to good order.  The 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 twentieth century, the bobbed hair and form-fitting dresses worn by liberated flappers were banned in workplaces throughout the United States and 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 it all means.  Workplaces ban braided hair and dreadlocks, long fingernails, large earrings, facial hair and tattoos or require suits and ties, make-up and high heels.  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 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 for granted.  After reading Dress Codes, you’ll never think of fashion as superficial—and getting dressed will never be the same

Richard Thompson Ford

Richard Thompson Ford is Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He writes about law, social and cultural issues and race relations and has written for The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and Slate.   He is the author of the New York Times notable books The Race Card and Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.  He has appeared on The Colbert ReportThe Rachel Maddow Show, andThe Dylan Rattigan Show.  He is a member of the American Law Institute and serves on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation.  Quite to his surprise, he was one of 25 semi-finalists in Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man contest in 2009.  He lives in San Francisco with his wife Marlene and two children, Cole and Ella.