Review of “dress codes”: from frock coat to flip-flops
In the early 1980s, wearing a tailored dark velvet three-piece suit and a ruffled white silk shirt, my young English friend met me for dinner at the prestigious 21 Club restaurant. He was held up at the door. Where was his tie? After a brief chat, a 21 Club tie, festooned with jockeys, was draped over the ruffles and we were escorted to Siberia. Richard Thompson Ford calls this 21 Club tie a “badge of shame”.
There are many badges of shame recorded in “dress codes”, a precise and entertaining story of the rules of fashion. In his introduction, Mr. Ford, a law professor and cultural critic at Stanford, writes that he learned his sense of style from his father, a trained tailor and ordained minister. “For years my father endured my sartorial mishaps (asymmetric ‘new wave’ hairstyles, nylon parachute pants, the ‘punk’ look, which consisted of deliberately torn clothes held together with safety pins or tape) in silent desperation. In the end, the author followed his father’s example and came to appreciate the virtues of tailored suits, polished dress shoes and crisp shirts. that in 2009, he decided to enter Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man contest.
Among the illustrations in the book is a snapshot of the author in an elegant pinstripe suit, his arms around his squirming daughter. It helped Mr. Ford take sixth place in the competition, but it blew up the interview. “I knew intuitively why I was wearing what I was doing, but I couldn’t explain it to save my life.”
“Dress codes” is his belated but eloquent response. In a busy, fact-filled investigation, Mr. Ford ably examines how fashion, far from mere frivolity, has shaped the lives of people from the 14th century to the present day. His wide-ranging research is punctuated with quotes from cultural observers such as semiotician Roland Barthes, designer Miuccia Prada (who like Barthes considered fashion to be “a portable language”), historian Anne Hollander and economist Thorstein Veblen. .
By Richard Thompson Ford
Simon & Schuster, 443 pages, $ 30
Joan of Arc was one of the first fashion victims in history, burned alive for heresy. Among his crimes: wearing men’s clothes. In some Italian towns of the 15th century, Christian women were forbidden to wear earrings (symbols of sin), while for Jewish women it was compulsory. In the Renaissance, lavish clothing – furs, velvet, silks – was a means of asserting social domination, and lavish laws kept upstarts in their place.
For this reason, a badge of shame was awarded to an unfortunate London servant arrested in 1595 for wearing “a very monstrous and outrageous large slipper”. Known as the “trunk pipe” because they swelled at the waist, they were popular among the aristocracy of Elizabethan England (you saw them on Sir Walter Raleigh). When worn by the lower classes, they were seen as a public threat, disrupting “the political order of a society that dealt with outward appearances.” [as] a rank and privilege marker.
In the Age of Enlightenment, fashion had changed for men; powdered wigs, high heels and opulent fabrics were no longer in fashion. Mr. Ford quotes British psychologist John Carl Flügel, who called this change the “Great Masculine Renunciation”. In about half a century, “the business suit has become the livery and badge of Western society” en route to a role of “a global symbol of modernity, industry and the Enlightenment”.
But even before the pandemic hit and sweatpants became standard workwear on Zoom, the business suit had started to lose ground. “The world of high finance today no longer appreciates the prudence and sober judgment of prosecution,” writes Mr. Ford. “Instead, it values innovation and daring.” One might think that this newfound freedom could find its expression in the choice of a financier’s wardrobe. No chance. Mr. Ford laughs at what he calls “the Midtown uniform”: an Oxford cloth shirt, khaki or navy pants, expensive moccasins and a Patagonia fleece vest, usually gray. “You can imagine that some people dress like this when they are not at work, but few people do. As a result, the Midtown uniform looks unpretentious – just something you’ve thrown in – but it’s also instantly recognizable as business attire. . . . Three hundred years after the Masculine Waiver gave birth to the costume, we have arrived where we started, with a professional dress code based on a subtle social hierarchy and male exclusivity.
Silicon Valley casual is also a dress code. “While a sweatshirt and flip-flops demonstrate a resolute desire for innovation, a suit and tie betrays an outdated concern for appearance and status. As a result, an investor in Northern California advised “never invest in a tech CEO who wears a suit.” “
An expert in civil rights and anti-discrimination law, Mr. Ford has a lot to say when it comes to workplace regulations regarding hairstyles, makeup, tattoos, nails and jewelry. Clothing has of course also played a central role in the fight for racial equality. Mr. Ford writes: “A smartly dressed black person was a direct challenge to a racist society because race itself was a social status determined in large part by outward appearance. In 1740, South Carolina’s “Negro Act” prohibited slaves from dressing “above their condition”. During the 1940s, blacks and Latinos wearing baggy zoot suits (a Duke of Windsor-inspired look, no less) were attacked by mobs. In 1963, civil rights activists, to project an image of respectability, made a point of being well dressed as they sat at a white-only lunch counter in Woolworth, Mississippi (where they were clubbed with food) and wore suits and ties at the famous March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.
The now-closed 21 Club abandoned its tie requirement in 2009. As for the “badge of shame” loan tie, Ford reports that it has become a sought-after status symbol. It reveals that not only did you have dinner at this exclusive restaurant, but you were so nonchalant that you showed up without a tie. Too bad my friend left his on the table.
Ms. Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea Back then: My Adventures in Life and Food”.
Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8