How We Dress and Why It Has and Does Still Matter with Richard Thompson Ford

Richard Thompson Ford

How We Dress and Why It Has and Does Still Matter

Fashion says a lot about who we are, the image we project, and the society we live in. But crimes of fashion are no laughing matter when company dress codes that can dictate everything from how we wear our hair (no braids or dreadlocks please) to requirements that women must wear makeup and tight shirts (yes!) are upheld in the U.S. courts.

“There are a surprising number of dress codes in the workplace and lots of litigation around these dress codes,” as Richard Thompson Ford explains in a Stanford Legal on SiriusXM interview to discuss his new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.

Ford, the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford, started researching Dress Codes when teaching Employment Discrimination Law. “I noticed that there are a lot of disputes around dress codes in the employment discrimination sphere,” he says. The topic also resonated with him on a personal level.

“I got my own sense of the importance of clothing and dressing well from my father, who wore many hats. He was an ordained minister, a university administrator for many years at Cal State Fresno, and early in life was trained as a tailor,” says Ford. “He was one of the very few African Americans in a lot of the circles in which he moved, and dignified dress was an important way for him to present himself in those environments.”

Ford traces the importance of fashion through the Elizabethan era when strict dress laws enforced ridged social class structure through women’s efforts to wear “bloomers” and break free of corsets and hoop dresses through the Civil Rights marches to modern day issues of gender and transgender norms.

“One of the most breathtaking aspects of the research was just how consistently and relentless gender norms and gender rules around dress were for many, many centuries dictated by the gender to which you were born,” he says. “And the structures around women’s clothing are a really striking catch 22 in which on the one hand, women are required to be kind of decorative, but on the other hand, they’re required to be modest. And they could be condemned, sometimes by law, but often by social custom for failing to conform to either one. It’s a kind of tight rope that women have had to walk.”

This episode originally aired on SiriusXM on March 13, 2021.