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 dressing like princes and butchers’ wives wearing gem-encrusted crowns were public enemies in medieval societies structured by social hierarchy and defined by spectacle. 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.
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 Times, The Washington Post, The 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 Report, The 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.