Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Dress Codes

Join getAbstract to access the summary!

Dress Codes

How the Laws of Fashion Made History

Simon & Schuster,

15 min read
7 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

Dress codes reflect the struggle between individual expression and the status quo.

Editorial Rating



  • Eye Opening
  • Well Structured
  • Concrete Examples


The first thing people see is what you are wearing, writes Richard Thompson Ford. He explains that – according to centuries of written and unwritten dress codes – your clothing indicates your social position, gender, class and ideology. Historically, dress codes seek to reinforce cultural hierarchies. Daring individuals who defy the rules in order to change their social standing are the ones who write fashion history. Fashion is, thus, a tool of visual expression and cultural oppression, underscoring the dance between humanity’s attempts to break free from societal labels and society’s efforts to keep everyone in line.


Dress codes defined status, gender and personality throughout history.

What people wear offers multiple clues about who they are and where they fit into their community. Clothing indicates status, personality and gender.

In the 14th century, for example, dress codes sprang from status and took the form of Sumptuary Laws. These laws reserved fine furs, rich leather and opulent jewels for aristocrats and made it illegal for anyone else to wear them.

Starting with the post-Black Plague economic boom, European merchants and commoners could afford rich clothing, thus threatening to blur the lines of existing class structures. The more dress codes Queen Elizabeth I enacted in the 1500s, the more commoners broke them to show their rising wealth.

In 15th century Italy, clothing laws indicated people’s identities. Dress codes forced prostitutes to wear bright colors and makeup to display their lack of virtue and low moral character. Antisemitic laws compelled Jewish women to wear hoop earrings – a Christian symbol of vanity. 

Clothing’s style and meaning change with ideals and politics...

About the Author

As the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, Richard Thompson Ford studies and writes about employment discrimination, housing segregation and critical race theory. His other books include The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse and Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality. Both titles were designated New York Times' Notable Books of the Year in 2008 and 2011, respectively.

Comment on this summary

More on this topic

Learners who read this summary also read

Related Channels