The best books that show how fashion shaped our history

Richard Thompson Ford Author Of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History
By Richard Thompson Ford

Who am I?

I’m a law professor and the son of a very well-dressed man. My father was a university Dean, a community organizer, a Presbyterian minister, and a social worker. But he also trained as a tailor and knew clothing—both how it is (or should be) constructed and also how it communicates. I became interested in the importance of clothing because of his influence. Then, in law, I noticed a lot of disputes that involved clothing: high school dress codes, workplace dress codes, dress codes used on public transportation. I wanted bring these two together to give a better idea of why we still fight and struggle over clothing.

I wrote...

Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History

By Richard Thompson Ford,

Book cover of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History

What is my book about?

Dress Codes is a serious but entertaining history of the laws of fashion. Clothing is been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and a way to maintain political control. In medieval Europe, silk, velvet, and fur were reserved by law for the nobility in order to ensure they were signals of social status. In the 1920s, bobbed hair and form-fitting “flapper” dresses were banned in workplaces throughout the United States because they signified women’s social and political liberation. In the 1940s baggy zoot suits reflected the social alienation of Black and Latino men causing riots in cities from coast to coast. Dress codes still govern us today: in fact, even when there are no written rules, implicit dress codes influence opportunities, and social mobility. 

The books I picked & why

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Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress

By Anne Hollander,

Book cover of Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress

Why this book?

I’ve long felt more powerful, confident, and chic wearing a well-cut suit. But why? Sex and Suits expressed and explained my own vague intuitions about the power of significance of clothing. Hollander explains that the suit is perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of modernity. Discussing the evolution of fashion—particularly men’s fashion—she shows how the suit is both a practical, streamlined, and unassuming garment and the ultimate status symbol.

Stylin': African-American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

By Shane White, Graham White,

Book cover of Stylin': African-American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

Why this book?

Stylin tells the history of African American fashion and style. As a Black man, I have always loved the unique style of the Black community and noticed how trends that start with Black people have consistently become central to American culture. This book explains why this is; how black culture evolved in conversation and conflict with the dominant culture of white America. But it doesn’t devolve into stereotypes or typical, simplistic observations. Black style is the blues, jazz, the cakewalk but it is also refined elegance and a knowing commentary on European culture.  

The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns

By Elizabeth Kuhns,

Book cover of The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns

Why this book?

This book explores the origins and evolution of nuns’ habits, explaining why religious women initially chose distinctive attire and how their relations to what, in the end, we must call fashion, evolved. There is great stuff here on schisms between progressive feminists who called for reform and traditionalists who insisted on elaborate and cumbersome clothing. The book is broadly sympathetic to its subject—unlike some religious studies work that adopts a stance of cosmopolitan opposition to religious faith. But it is also probing and savvy: Kuhn highlights the inherent tension between a garment that is supposed to reflect modesty but is also conspicuous and stylized striking comes through.  

The Psychology of Clothes

By J. C. Flugel,

Book cover of The Psychology of Clothes

Why this book?

This is really just an essay, but it is one of the most insightful documents on fashion ever written. It asks a deceptively simple question: why have modern men rejected the fashionable adornment, finery, and splendor that was once the hallmark of all high-status clothing, masculine and feminine. The psychologist and dress reformer John Carl Flugel attributes the change in masculine fashion in the 18th century to a change in social and political ideals. The Enlightenment and the political revolutions against the old regimes of Europe inspired a new, modern wardrobe for men: sober, practical, unassuming. Flashy clothing was then associated with discredited aristocratic—and feminine—vanity.  

The Fashion System

By Roland Barthes, Matthew Ward (translator), Richard Howard (translator)

Book cover of The Fashion System

Why this book?

Written by the great French semiotician, this book applies the semiotic method to symbolism of fashion.  People often say that fashion is like a language, but Barthes actually explains precisely how it symbolizes. He explains how fashion is a symbolic system that includes not only clothing itself, but also representations of clothing in text and image, fashion magazines, films, and other depictions that anchor the meaning of sartorial symbols.  

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