How the laws of fashion made history

Richard Thompson Ford
6 min readFeb 7, 2022

…and still affect us today

In 1565, a man named Richard Walweyn,was arrested for wearing, quote, “a very monsterous and outraygeous greate payre of hose.” He was detained and his pants were confiscated and exhibited in a public place as “an example of extreme folye.” In that same year another man was arrest for wearing trunk hose were considered “contrary to good order.” The authorities cut and ripped the linings out of his pants and he was forcibly marched through the streets as a public spectacle.

These kind of laws weren’t just a quirk of Tudor England. Beginning in the 14th century, the fashion police were all over Europe. There were new laws regulating clothing — sometimes several in a single year — all over Europe: England, France, Spain and the cities of the Italian peninsula.

You might be thinking: that’s ancient history. These kinds of dress codes are like bloodletting and trial by ordeal. We don’t do anything like that in today’s enlightened era.

Actually, we do. Even in the 21st century, people are routinely excluded from flights, fired from their jobs, sent home from school and even thrown in jail because of what they were wearing. For example, in 2015 Stephanie Dunn was sent home from Woodford County High School in Kentucky for wearing a shirt that exposed her collar-bones. Another high school student, Miranda Larkin, was forced to wear a Day-Glo yellow shirt with the word “Dress Code Violator” when she wore a short skirt to school. And in 2012 an Alabama Judge actually sentenced a someone to three days in jail for wearing sagging pants: “you are in contempt of court because you showed your butt in court,” admonished the judge.

I’m a law professor who studies and works on issues of civil rights and I’ve been surprised at how many legal disputes involve dress codes. All these lawsuits got me thinking that there’s more at stake with our clothing than just a making a “fashion statement.” So I started to look into the history of rules and laws about clothing. Five years later, I published my book, Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history.

Richard Thompson Ford

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