Indeed, now we need to make ourselves and our homes presentable while also managing the new demands of kids learning remotely from home. Some people have settled for a designated “Zoom shirt” reserved specifically for video appearances while others have taken to quarantine-friendly athleisure designed to communicate a down-to-earth nonchalance. We stage managed webcam-friendly bookshelves, groaning with weighty tomes and strategically placed books that announced our hipness, creativity, political values or interests. It’s telling that Room Rater, which began as a lighthearted assessment of webcam lighting and composition, has become a kind of status competition that rewards the most prestigious items of furniture, works of art, bottles of wine and other accoutrements of taste and privilege. Fashion consciousness, forced to shelter in place, turned its focus to shelter.
The urge to judge people through appearances — and to attempt to regulate them — recurs throughout history. Dress codes have been an unavoidable part of life for centuries as I discovered when researching my book “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.”
Toward the end of the middle ages, a booming economy and new developments in tailoring helped usher in new, highly expressive fashions. It didn’t take long for all those who could afford it — and quite a few who couldn’t — to use fashion to express themselves and either assert or transcend social order. Governments from Tudor England to the city-states of the Italian peninsula responded with sumptuary laws to make sure that only elites could wear luxurious clothing: these dress codes made a well-established hierarchy tangible and visible.
Authorities in Elizabethan London deemed one hapless commoner’s showy attire “contrary to good order” and ordered the linings ripped out of his pants before he was marched through the streets of the city as a cautionary example for all to see. In Siena, Italy, religious authorities insisted that jewelry, makeup and other “vanities” were a “sign of the whore” and threatened that women wearing them should expect men to demand sex just as a thirsty traveler would “demand wine from a taverner.”
Centuries later, similar laws reinforced America’s racial and gender inequality: South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740 prohibited enslaved people from dressing “above their condition,” among numerous other restrictions. In the 1920s, workplace dress codes banned the bobbed hair and close-fitting skirts of the flappers and until the mid-20th century, women wearing trousers could face arrest for public indecency. In the 1940s, flamboyant zoot suits inspired riots in Los Angeles; in response, California lawmakers tried to outlaw them.
We’d like to think we’re more easygoing about clothing today. But just before the pandemic, many schools had dress codes that banned yoga pants or clothing that exposed knees and even shoulder blades. And some of the punishments for these crimes of fashion could have come straight from the Elizabethans: one school forced students who broke the dress code to wear an oversized neon-yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words “DRESS CODE VIOLATOR” for the day.
Even those who say they don’t care about clothing still use implicit dress codes to judge, criticize and rank others. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, tech companies in the Silicon Valley rebelled against the suit and tie, but now they’ve replaced them with more insidious, unspoken rules: for example, tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel advises venture capitalists to “never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit” suitable-disruption and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was trashed on social media for wearing a designer dress. Rejecting fashion has become a fashion statement of its own. And of course, women have always faced more demanding dress codes than men: expected to exhibit feminine decorativeness but condemned for seductiveness, vanity and immodesty.
We can’t get away from dress codes because clothing doesn’t just cover our bodies; it also lets us invent and reinvent ourselves, both reflecting and shaping our beliefs, convictions and sense of self. We can, however, try to make the inevitable rules and judgments more charitable, equitable and inclusive. For instance, the United States Congress finally dropped a rule in 2019 prohibiting headwear on the floor of legislative chamber, a victory for equality of religion; professional women around the globe have resisted and overturned workplace rules that require high heels; and African-Americans have sponsored legislation to eliminate dress codes that ban Black hairstyles like braids and locs. Reforms like these won’t free us from the power of dress codes. But they can help to transform the tyranny of fashion into a democracy of style.