Enfilade

New Book | Dress Codes

Posted in books by Editor on May 29, 2021

From Simon & Schuster:

Richard Thompson Ford, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021), 464 pages, ISBN: 978-1501180064, $30.

Dress codes are as old as clothing itself. For centuries, clothing has been a wearable status symbol; fashion, a weapon in struggles for social change; and dress codes, a way to maintain political control. Merchants who dressed like princes and butchers’ wives wearing gem-encrusted crowns were public enemies in medieval societies structured by social hierarchy and defined by spectacle. In Tudor England, silk, velvet, and fur were reserved for the nobility and ballooning pants called “trunk hose” could be considered a menace to good order. The Renaissance era Florentine patriarch Cosimo de Medici captured the power of fashion and dress codes when he remarked, “One can make a gentleman from two yards of red cloth.” Dress codes evolved along with the social and political ideals of the day, but they always reflected struggles for power and status. In the 1700s, South Carolina’s “Negro Act” made it illegal for Black people to dress “above their condition.” In the 1920s, the bobbed hair and form-fitting dresses worn by free-spirited flappers were banned in workplaces throughout the United States and in the 1940s the baggy zoot suits favored by Black and Latino men caused riots in cities from coast to coast.

Even in today’s more informal world, dress codes still determine what we wear, when we wear it—and what our clothing means. People lose their jobs for wearing braided hair, long fingernails, large earrings, beards, and tattoos or refusing to wear a suit and tie or make-up and high heels. In some cities, wearing sagging pants is a crime. And even when there are no written rules, implicit dress codes still influence opportunities and social mobility. Silicon Valley CEOs wear t-shirts and flip flops, setting the tone for an entire industry: women wearing fashionable dresses or high heels face ridicule in the tech world, and some venture capitalists refuse to invest in any company run by someone wearing a suit.

In Dress Codes, law professor and cultural critic Richard Thompson Ford presents an insightful and entertaining history of the laws of fashion from the middle ages to the present day, a walk down history’s red carpet to uncover and examine the canons, mores, and customs of clothing—rules that we often take for granted.

Richard Thompson Ford is a Professor at Stanford Law School. He has written about law, social and cultural issues, and race relations for The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Slate, and has appeared on The Colbert Report and The Rachel Maddow Show. He is the author of The New York Times notable books The Race Card and Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality. He lives in San Francisco.

Expanding Colonial Williamsburg’s Stories

Posted in today in light of the 18th century by Editor on May 29, 2021

Emily James in April portrays Edith Cumbo, a free Black woman who lived in Williamsburg in the 18th century.
(Photo by Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

From The Washington Post:

Peter Marks, “Colonial Williamsburg Gets Real,” The Washington Post (22 May 2021). Some of the most progressive and insightful theater in America is happening at one of the nation’s premier sites for experiencing U.S. history. Really.

On the streets of Colonial Williamsburg—one of the world’s premier living-history museums—Emily James cuts a formidable figure. Portraying Edith Cumbo, a free woman of color who walked these byways in the 18th century, James tries daily to convey to tourists the humiliations and contradictions Cumbo lived with.

“I’m restricted,” she explains to a group of mask-wearing visitors on a walking tour one late-April morning. “Because the laws didn’t say ‘free’ or ‘enslaved.’ They said ‘Negroes.’ ”

James has been embodying Cumbo in this mile-by-half-mile historic area for a decade, in a career in ‘actor interpretation’ spanning 34 years. Though she has always loved the work, it has taken on deeper resonance of late. Colonial Williamsburg—a place where theater lives, too—has been grappling with more determination than ever with the harsher realities of its past. And particularly with the lives of its Black inhabitants, most of whom were enslaved and formed the majority of its population in the 1700s.

It is through performance of various kinds that this bastion of history is seeking to raise awareness of Williamsburg’s legacy, one far more diverse than visitors heard about in the early days of the historic restoration, opened in 1937. The instruction has gone out lately to all of Colonial Williamsburg’s dozens of actor-interpreters that the city’s slaveholding past is to figure in every tour and talk. The sense that the rosy vision of hard-working artisans and horsemen in period garb requires more context pervades this extraordinary pocket of history. . .

Members of Jug Broke Theater Company performing Ladies of Llangollen, by Claire Wittman. Based on the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who eloped together in 1778, the play premiered on 10 April 2021 (Photo from the Colonial Williamsburg; by Wayne Reynolds).

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

And in the middle of town, on the Play House Stage—which sits on the remnants of what is believed to be the first theater of Colonial America—members of the resident Jug Broke Theater Company are performing Ladies of Llangollen. Claire Wittman’s drama, which includes new lyrics to 18th-century songs, is the first in the foundation’s history to feature a romance between women.

“Your happiness is my only aim,” Wittman’s Eleanor says to her fellow poet and lover, Sarah, played by Alyssa Elkins. “I don’t want a husband,” Sarah replies. “I want you.”

Think about it: In the midst of contemporary reckonings about the rights of women and people of color, Williamsburg is giving guests—who number about 550,000 in a normal year—the historical backstories. . . .

The full article is available here»