Dress Codes and the Laws of Everyday Life

Richard Thompson Ford
4 min readOct 25, 2021

or why a law professor wrote a fashion history.

I’ve taught law at Stanford for over 20 years and I’ve written several books on civil rights, social justice, urban development and legal philosophy. My latest book follows naturally from these long-term interests. It’s a history of fashion from the Renaissance to the present.

Okay, bear with me for a minute. The book is called Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. It’s really a history of rules about fashion. It’s about rules that tell us what we may and may not wear, such as school and workplace dress codes. It’s also about rules that tell us what our clothing means.

I decided to write about dress codes for two reasons: one personal and one professional. The personal reason is that I’m a bit of clotheshorse. I like fashion. I got this interest from my father, who trained as a tailor. He attended a historically black university where all students learned both trade and a profession — an insurance policy in case racial barriers thwarted his professional ambitions. He became a university professor and administrator but he remembered his training in tailoring and was always the sharpest dressed man in the room. His personal style wasn’t just a matter of vanity. It was also a matter of professional survival. As the first Black man in most of the places he worked, his refined attire was an important assertion of dignity. This taught me that how we present ourselves is more than just a “fashion statement.” It has real stakes for professional success, equity and social justice.

My professional reason for writing about dress codes is that a surprising number of legal disputes involve clothing. People are fired from their jobs, sent home from school and sometimes even sent to jail because of what they are wearing. Dress codes are an overlooked type of social control.

Most of my academic writing has been informed by one basic insight. The most important laws are not the ones you notice. It’s the laws that work in the background that really matter. The laws that are so well established you take them for granted. The laws that tell you where your kids can go to school. The laws that determine where one city begins and other one ends. The rules that tell you what you can…

Richard Thompson Ford

Professor. Lawyer. Dilettante mixologist. Amateur sartorialist. Watch geek. Author of Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history. www.dresscodes.org