Books

When Wearing the Wrong Pants Could Land You in Prison

A new book explores the history of (literal) fashion crimes.

Dress Codes book cover, tiled.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Simon & Schuster.

On a late January day in 1565 London, a man named Richard Walweyn found himself imprisoned for committing what was, for all intents and purposes, a crime of fashion. Walweyn, a servant, was arrested for wearing “a very monsterous and outraygeous great payre of hose” and ordered to be detained until he could prove he had some other hose “of a decent & lawfull facyon.” The garment that caused such an uproar was a pair of trunk hose, basically baglike shorts that billow out from the waist and taper midthigh, giving the impression of the wearer having two balloons strapped to his legs. As law professor and cultural critic Richard Thompson Ford writes in his new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, “Trunk hose were the parachute pants of their day; Richard Walweyn, a Renaissance-era MC Hammer.”

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Dress Codes traces nearly 600 years of fashion law and social norms, detailing how style and attempts to control it have shaped history. Perhaps nowhere is the boundary between the personal and the political, the individual and the state, more blurred than in the clothes that we put on our bodies. Ford argues persuasively that fashion as we know it is largely the result of the Enlightenment-era school of thought leading to the concept of the modern individual “with personalities that transcend our social status, occupation and family heritage.” Individualism separated the symbolism of clothing from its tradition-bound roots: If a merchant’s wife could afford a crown, if a slave wore the same dress as an antebellum belle, or if a servant like Walweyn donned “monstrously extravagant” trunk hose usually reserved for the nobility—then the original meaning of the garment was undermined and transformed. “Fashion presented a distinctive opportunity because it alone could transform the body itself into a form of political persuasion,” Ford writes.

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Poor Walweyn got off relatively easy. Ford recounts how, in the same year that Walweyn was arrested, Thomas Bradshaw was marched home through the streets with his trunk hose deflated and de-poofed, the stuffing torn out. The problem with Walweyn’s and Bradshaw’s avant-garde hose wasn’t its gaudiness but its potential to disrupt the political order. European governments became increasingly concerned with who wore what around the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, when technological advances and trade expansion brought economic prosperity across the continent. Ford writes that this boom, along with the labor shortage created by the mass death event that was the plague, “allowed working people to demand higher compensation, better working conditions, and more respect, making social mobility more pronounced than ever.”

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Changes in dress codes and fashion law tend to emerge during periods of intense social change. It makes sense, then, that these dress codes often police expressions of sexuality or attempt to create visual boundaries between racial, religious, class, and gender categories. The Renaissance-era sumptuary laws that Walweyn and Bradshaw faced aren’t the only ones that demonstrate an effort to either impose or dismantle a social hierarchy. Fifteenth-century Italian decrees that condemned jewelry as ostentatious vanity also required Jewish women to wear hoop earrings to publicly identify themselves—visually equating the sin of vanity with Judaism. More recently, legislation like the CROWN Act, which forbids hair discrimination, reflects the opposite impulse, forbidding rather than enforcing the status quo that dictates that European standards of beauty are synonymous with professionalism.

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Perhaps one of the best-known examples of boundary policing—and its futility—is Louisiana’s tignon laws, passed in 1786, five years after Louisiana became a Spanish colony. Under Spanish law, some enslaved people could buy back their freedom. Freed from bondage, Black women began exploring their personal style, elaborately adorning themselves in feathers and jewels and upsetting the racial order by competing too closely with white women. Tignon laws, which required Black women to cover their hair with scarfs or tignons, were an attempt to visually return freed Black women to slavery—one that spectacularly backfired. Intricately styled tignons in dazzling fabrics became statements of resistance, a tradition that persists to this day.

Oddly, tignon laws don’t get even a passing mention in Dress Codes. Though the book begins its chronology with the Elizabethan sumptuary laws that Walweyn and Bradshaw ran afoul of, Ford spends more time in the period after the Great Masculine Renunciation at the end of the 18th century, which still largely defines male fashion as we know it. As European societies overthrew their monarchies, opulence was renounced in favor of “understatement, nonchalance, and relaxed elegance.” And though the rejection of all things loud and vulgar might seem egalitarian and democratic on its face—it is, after all, what gave us the homogenizing suit—in reality, it reinscribed hierarchy. Instead of laws dictating who could and couldn’t wear ermine, luxury and good breeding were now demonstrated in small, costly details. The material of a suit jacket’s button today is as significant as wearing purple would have been during the Renaissance.

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Ford is an apt cultural historian, and he’s at his strongest when tracing the changing winds that produced modern dress codes. A section on the rise of the Midtown Uniform (slacks, a Patagonia vest, and a collared shirt) as the outfit du jour of financiers effectively argues that it re-creates the very uniformity it was seeking to break away from by rejecting the suit. Just as fascinating is his description of the role that Jazz Age flappers played in reforming gendered dress codes that had held women in thrall to corsets and “cocoons of tulle and taffeta.” He pays deft attention to the ways marginalized people use fashion either to assimilate or to repudiate the dominant culture, touching on everything from the use of respectability politics in the civil rights movement to the reclamation of the hijab.

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Dress Codes feels rushed at times; squeezing six centuries’ worth of history into one book is a massive undertaking. Inevitably, some trends receive more attention than others, with the much-maligned sagging pants of the early aughts afforded less historical detail than Louboutin’s infamous red-bottom heels. Still, Dress Codes largely manages what it sets out to do. Ford notes in the conclusion that as he was researching the book, he was often met with “puzzled looks and bemused expressions” whenever he brought the project up with his colleagues concerned with more “serious” topics. But Ford builds a case familiar to anyone who’s used a pair of shoes or a skirt as an act of rebellion—or who’s carefully selected a wardrobe to help themselves blend in. Fashion is both strategy and self-expression. It reflects the values of the society and the people who live in it, existing where the two overlap and conflict. What could be more serious?

Dress Codes

By Richard Thompson Ford. Simon & Schuster.