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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Anne Hollander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sex and Suits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since the dawn of western fashion in the Middle Ages, women's dress has never stopped evolving, yet menswear has seen far fewer style revolutions. At the centre of the male wardrobe is the suit: relatively unchanged since the 17th century, its cut and cloth suggest athleticism, seriousness, sexuality and strength - qualities which contrasted with the perceived superficiality and frivolity of female dress, and eventually led to the adoption of the suit into the female wardrobe where it remains to this day.

In Sex and Suits brilliant essayist and art critic Anne Hollander charts the development of men's and women's…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Shane White, Graham White,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stylin' as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For over two centuries, in the North as well as the South, both within their own community and in the public arena, African Americans have presented their bodies in culturally distinctive ways. Shane White and Graham White consider the deeper significance of the ways in which African Americans have dressed, walked, danced, arranged their hair, and communicated in silent gestures. They ask what elaborate hair styles, bright colors, bandanas, long watch chains, and zoot suits, for example, have really meant, and discuss style itself as an expression of deep-seated cultural imperatives. Their wide-ranging exploration of black style from its African…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Elizabeth Kuhns,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Habit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Curiosity about nuns and their distinctive clothing is almost as old as Catholicism itself. The habit intrigues the religious and the nonreligious alike, from medieval maidens to contemporary schoolboys, to feminists and other social critics. The first book to explore the symbolism of this attire, The Habit presents a visual gallery of the diverse forms of religious clothing and explains the principles and traditions that inspired them. More than just an eye-opening study of the symbolic significance of starched wimples, dark dresses, and flowing veils, The Habit is an incisive, engaging portrait of the roles nuns have and do play…

Book cover of The Psychology of Clothes

Why did I love 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.  

By J. C. Flugel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Psychology of Clothes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

paperback, no dust jacket present. copyright 1969-first paperback edition. tight binding- inside cover glue is exposed on front cover. limited markings or creasing-black sharpie mark to front cover, previous price written on inside first page, and sticker residue. cover has signs of shelf ware. limited chipping or tearing to edges.

The Fashion System

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

Book cover of The Fashion System

Why did I love 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.  

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fashion System as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his consideration of the language of the fashion magazine--the structural analysis of descriptions of women's clothing by writers about fashion--Barthes gives us a brief history of semiology. At the same time, he identifies economics as the underlying reason for the luxuriant prose of the fashion magazine: "Calculating, industrial society is obliged to form consumers who don't calculate; if clothing's producers and consumers had the same consciousness, clothing would be bought (and produced) only at the very slow rate of its dilapidation."

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Interested in clothing, fashion, and the Age of Enlightenment?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about clothing, fashion, and the Age of Enlightenment.

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