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Dress code review: from frock coat to flip flops

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In the early 1980s, wearing a tailored dark velvet three-piece suit and ruffled white silk shirt, my young English friend met me for dinner at the prestigious 21 Club restaurant. He was detained at the gate. Where was his tie? After a brief chat, a 21 Club tie, adorned with jockeys, was draped over the ruffles and we were escorted to Siberia. Richard Thompson Ford calls this 21 Club tie a badge of shame.

There are many badges of shame recorded in dress codes, a sharp and entertaining story of the rules of fashion. In his introduction, Mr. Ford, a Stanford law professor and cultural critic, writes that he learned his sense of style from his father, a trained tailor and ordained minister. For years, my father endured my sartorial mishaps (asymmetrical new-wave haircuts, nylon parachute pants, punk look, which consisted of deliberately torn clothes held together by safety pins or duct tape) in a quiet despair. Eventually, the author followed his father’s example and came to appreciate the virtues of tailored suits, polished dress shoes and crisp shirts. So much so that in 2009, he decided to participate in the Best Dressed Real Man contest from Esquire magazines.

Among the book illustrations is a snapshot of the author in an elegant pinstripe suit, his arms around his wriggling daughter. This helped Mr. Ford earn sixth place in the competition, but he missed the interview. I knew intuitively why I was wearing what I was wearing, but I couldn’t explain it to save my life.

Dress codes are his belated but eloquent answer. In a fact-filled investigation, Mr. Ford ably examines how fashion, far from mere frivolity, has shaped the lives of people from the 14th century to the present day. Her in-depth research is punctuated by quotes from cultural observers such as semiotician Roland Barthes, designer Miuccia Prada (who like Barthes considered fashion to be a portable language), historian Anne Hollander and economist Thorstein Veblen.

Joan of Arc was one of the first fashion victims in history, burned at the stake for heresy. Among his crimes: wearing men’s clothing. In some Italian towns of the 15th century, Christian women were prohibited from wearing earrings (symbols of sin), while for Jewish women it was compulsory. In the Renaissance, sumptuous clothes of fur, velvet, silk were a means of asserting social domination, and sumptuary laws kept upstarts in their place.

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