Everyone has to get dressed. Isn’t it silly to think that something everyone has to do everyday isn’t meaningful?
How many times have you seen a book or article title that starts with a major event with, “and what they wore” tacked onto the end as though we should be embarrassed to care?
According to the new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, by Richard Thompson Ford clothing, whether chosen by the wearer or foisted upon, can either determine the outcome of events or even the events themselves.
I’ve been waiting to read this book for a while, but when I started to read it, I got a little confused and was also initially disappointed because of the lack of attention to female attire. As I neared the end of the first section, women’s clothes had barely been mentioned, except for a somewhat surprisingly detailed analysis of nun’s habits with a less attention given to male clerics.
I found out about this book through a “rave” on LitHub, and I couldn’t believe such a well regarded book had such a glaring omission! Where were the ladies? We may have been shut out of a lot of historical events, but we did always wear clothes! Yeah, I’m pretty sure about that!
I kept thinking I must have missed something.
Apparently the issue is that aside from a few exceptions, women’s fashion wasn’t very important or interesting, except to serve as a walking advertisement for the man’s prosperity.
Another reason for this surprising (to me) omission seems to be that, according to Ford, basically before the 1920’s, women’s clothing didn’t change that much and was more or less a variation on a basic draped outfit that when fitted was simply fitted over the corset or undergarment, which was the part that was tailored.
I certainly am no clothing scholar, but I understand what he’s saying.
In the 1920’s, apparently things got interesting for women because of the freedom they got during World War 1 and decided not to give up! As women’s lives ventured out of the home and off the farm (remember that the average woman has always worked, but earlier the goal was to work primarily in your home rather than having to go out to work). For the rest of the book, women figure more heavily.
Read the book and judge for yourself: my point is, don’t give up too soon.
Given that for as long as I can remember, there have been controversies about what we wear in different situations (to work, school, etc.), it seems obvious to me that we should treat clothing seriously and put some though into what we are talking about when we talk about clothes (great book title right?), which is why I recommend this book.
Meanwhile, here are my thoughts on various topics that jumped out at me.
Controversial Ideas from Dress Codes
Dress Codes on the Civil Rights Movement
One of the most interesting and compelling sections of this book was on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and how people either dressed up, or at times, dressed down, to connect with people and make their point.
He also rightfully points out there is a big difference between dressing down on purpose and dressing down because you have nothing better to wear.
Honestly, if Ford wrote a whole book on the politics and effect of dressing ironically, I would read it.
When are you being “one of the people” and when are you being condescending? As Ford points out, usually people who have the least take dressing up the most seriously.
Dress Codes on Workwear in the 2020’s
The section on 21st century work wear is also quite interesting, especially since I have realized that I may be a little outdated in my ideas about appropriate attire. Just last week, my daughter asked me what she should wear to court, then she asked an attorney her own age, and I was surprised to hear how much things have changed.
I still maintain that when in doubt, it’s always better to be a little overdressed than underdressed! But if young businessmen are running around in Manhattan in fleece vests (as Ford says they are), I suppose things had changed more than I realized.
And I totally was VERY interested in his section on high heels. Why have women been so pressured to wear them? I know I have, even though I have worked in schools most of my life. And I can tell you exactly which brands to wear that look good while still being able to get through the day without limping!
Dress Codes on Muslim Women and Head covering (Hijab)
I was also impressed to see the section on hijab (the Arabic word for the head coverings many Muslim women wear). After living in the Middle East for so long, my patience with the fetishization and received symbolism of hijab in the United States and other western countries is short.
On the other hand, I quickly got frustrated with Ford’s overgeneralization. What he and many people don’t understand is that the Muslim world transcends as many different sects/denominations, cultures, nations, and languages as does Christianity in the West. Judging everyone by the strictest countries, such as Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, is like judging all Christians by the Amish.
There are many devout Muslim women who don’t cover (wear hijab), and there are many more who wear hijab but will bare their arms…and the list goes on.
Ford does get it right when he says that hijab can be a political statement, and yes, it can be out of piety, but often it’s also out of family or cultural tradition.
I’ll also tell you that every single person will probably tell you their way is the way it’s done, and almost every person will tell you something different.
The idea that wearing makeup with hijab is some sort of conflict makes no sense to me at all. Ford mentions the idea of “CoverGirl and hijab” several times, which cracks me up because seriously, in my experience, Muslim Arab women probably don’t think CoverGirl is up to the level of make up they wear. They are good at putting on make up, and it looks good, but it is TOTAL COVERAGE. Look, covering your face is also a Muslim thing, even though many don’t. If anyone thinks the face is too sexy to look at, the woman has that option, make up or not.
Oh, and eye make up in the Middle East is traditional. I believe it is meant to protect the eyes from the sun.
Finally, the wearing of hijab and loose flowing clothing probably comes from the climate just as much as religion. The sun can be brutal, and the dry air means that perspiration is minimal. Generally, light, loose clothing…not dissimilar from traditional clothing in the Middle East…is most comfortable because it protects the skin and makes you feel cooler.
Why you should read Dress Codes
The idea that what we wear doesn’t matter is silly. Of course it matters. Sure, we want to be comfortable and practical, but I for one also want to look ok, and I definitely make a choice about what I put on based on that. People who claim to ignore it are also making a statement.
What we choose to cover or not to cover and how is our most basic form of signaling to people who we are, or who we want to be.
When I was younger, I was really interested in fashion magazines and books to help me figure out how to present myself. Now that I’ve got it figured out, well enough, I find analysis of the whole concept extremely interesting, and this book has both an approachable style and the depth to make it a must read.