April 19, 2021 - Visiting speaker Professor Richard Thompson Ford of the Stanford Law School gathered virtually with University of Houston Law Center faculty and students last week to discuss his book, “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” which offers a perspective on racial justice by discussing the history of dress codes and how they have worked to undermine personal dignity.
Ford said he first became interested in dress codes and their relationship to race when he saw how his father put a good deal of effort into being well-dressed, which Ford saw as a way of navigating race relations.
“It had a broader significance,” he said.
Ford then started looking into rules and regulations around dress codes and found himself being drawn back into history. Whether clothing or hairstyles, Ford said the history of discrimination in dress dates back to the late Middle Ages, when clothing began to transition from draped articles to more tailored looks to go with the newly developed plate armor. Before this, tailored clothing was reserved for peasants.
During the time of Queen Elizabeth I, Ford said laws were passed to prohibit the “butchers’ wives” from wearing tiaras, and if people who were of lower status were seen wearing clothes reserved for the rich and powerful, they were subject to punishment.
Ford also discussed the passing of the Negro Act in 1740, which outlawed slaves from dressing “above their condition.” Fast forward to the March on Washington in 1963, and many of those who protested in the march wore their Sunday best as a symbol of defiance.
“A Black person dressed in elegant attire was understood to be a threat to white supremacy,” Ford said. “It was a statement of defiance and an effort to insist on dignified treatment.”
That sentiment carried over to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, where Ford said protesters wore their Sunday best clothes in an act of continuity with the civil rights movements of the past.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Ford fielded topics regarding societal norms, gender inequality, work and dress in the time of the pandemic and culture in general.
He also discussed the CROWN Act, which protects against discrimination based on hairstyles - an issue very frequently faced by black professionals who choose to wear their natural hair. He also mentioned that even though work dress has become more casual, that’s not the case for people of color, who are often mistaken in their roles if they dress casually.
During the discussion, Ford also talked about how women throughout history and to this day have been subject to dress scrutiny.
“Gender inequities are striking and racial inequities are apparent,” he said. “We have to change the culture.”
Ford is an expert on civil rights and antidiscrimination law. Over the course of his career, his focus has been on the social and legal conflicts regarding discrimination, the causes and effects of racial segregation, and the use of territorial boundaries as instruments of social regulation. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and he teaches courses such as Critical Race Theory, Employment Discrimination, and Defining Discrimination.