Is Your Style Constitutional? What You Should Know About Clothes & The Law

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RuthannslidePhoto: Courtesy of Ruthann Robson; Cambridge University Press.
In this era of self-expression, many of us are blithely unaware of how our fashion sense is limited by the law. After all, it's not a crime to wear a miniskirt, put some feathers in your hair, or don a T-shirt proclaiming your support for legalized marijuana. But Ruthann Robson, a lawyer, scholar, and author of Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes (Cambridge University Press, 2013), says that the laws in our country have a far bigger impact on how you dress than you might think. To learn more about what it means to "dress constitutionally," we got Robson on the line to talk dress codes, freedom, fashion shaming, and the economics of clothing.

Tell us a bit about your new book.
"It's about everything [regarding] clothes and the law: From textiles and appearance, to the history of legal regulation, to current controversies in terms of expression and equality, as well as the manufacture of clothes and consumerism. The book looks at the Constitution, which is our founding document: how the Constitution affects clothes, but also how clothes and textiles have really affected the Constitution. It's for anyone who is interested in clothes or the law, or both!"

At the Constitutional Convention in the late 1700s, it was proposed that Congress would and should have a power [to regulate] what people wear. That was defeated. Still, it's an interesting thought experiment to think about what it would be like if that were true...we don't have a national dress code, but in a way, don't we? We have this patchwork of laws and social mores that make us dress or not dress in different ways."

What does it mean to dress (or not to dress) constitutionally?
"One basic way is that we have to wear something, otherwise we'll be arrested for indecent exposure! You think that you are completely free in the way that you are dressed, but actually there are all these laws. Things like masks and masquerades can be totally outlawed by a municipality because of the Ku Klux Klan — but then you think, what about Halloween or Mardi Gras? Also, dressing constitutionally can affect thinking about what you put on in the morning for your job — the requirements and dress code. And then, of course, where did you buy it, where was it made, how was it made. All of those things are affected by regulations and laws."

How does fashion get policed by dress codes?
"Well, it falls under the question of 'What are things that the law could and should enforce?' In terms of fashion, throughout time, you can see a number of cases and the way that they change the law and [how] people dress — how many inches above the knee should a skirt be, regulations against showing underwear, baggy pants, things like that. Obviously, private employers can set whatever dress codes they would like, but things get more tricky for employees of the federal government or state government, like teachers, office workers, and more."

What do you say to people who are offended by trends like bra tops and ultra-short shorts?
"Personally, I'm on the side [that believes] more freedom would be a good thing. For example, women should not be sexually harassed or blamed for dressing a certain way. I ask where we are going to draw that line between finding certain trends offensive or inappropriate, and understanding that styles change across time, across culture, and across regions of the country. That's a good thing, and that's fun, and that's what should happen.

I think there's a lot of issues relating to race, sex, and religious freedom, as well. Toplessness is one area that's really been pushed for women in the news lately, and that comes with a free-expression claim and an equality claim."

What are some other issues where the law and fashion intersect?
"Well, one is 'dressing economically'...aka, thinking about the economics of fashion. There's been a lot of fashion-blaming and woman-blaming around disasters at garment factories. People say 'Oh, it's the fault of women who want to be stylish. If they didn't want to be stylish, then none of this would happen.' Those sorts of disasters have happened throughout history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. People who are making money get off the hook, and people who are buying clothes get blamed, no matter what it is.

There's also the idea of 'fast fashion.' People want their clothes and they want [them] cheap, but it's true that very expensive, fashionable clothes are often made under less-than-fair conditions. That's something for consumers to think about, as well as [the] environmental impact. 'Made in the USA' is a problematic label: A garment could be made in a sweatshop, in a prison, in a U.S. territory where labor standards don't apply. Even if you can find a 'Made in the USA' label, that doesn't mean the person who made it got what we might think of as a fair wage."

Do you have any tips for finding clothes made under fair conditions? Or things to keep in mind when you're shopping?
"It's difficult, isn't it? But I would say really try to buy something that you really, really want as opposed to something that you just kind of like, even if it is fast fashion. Also, just being conscious and doing your research on the companies and stores that you buy from can make a big impact on the way you spend your money and the way you dress."