Friday, February 19, 2021

Richard Thompson Ford's "Dress Codes"

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.

Ford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the last page in a pivotal chapter in the book entitled “The Great Masculine Renunciation.” Page 99 addresses the 1844 case of Regina v. Whittaker, which established the rule that English barristers must wear a powdered wig or “bench wig” when appearing before the court.

This in and of itself may seem like esoterica, but it actually reveals a lot: the wig is a great example of the way fashions that began as elite status symbols were used by people lower in the social hierarchy—not just to copy or try to masquerade as the elites but for their own purposes. It is also an example of how status symbols changed from flamboyant and opulent to subtle and elegant. The powdered wig began as a classic status symbol, worn by French royalty as a symbol of masculine virility and royal pedigree. But over time the wig became popular with all social classes. And the wigs themselves got smaller—less ostentatious and more unobtrusive.

This reflected a broader change in men’s fashions in the 18th century, which the psychologist John Carl Flugel called the Great Masculine Renunciation, when “men gave up their right to all of the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women.” Opulence and ornamentation—once signs of high status associated with honor and magnificence—then became associated with waste, frivolity and vanity. The Great Masculine Renunciation reflected an abandonment of political hierarchy based on inherited status and dynasty and the rise of Enlightenment ideals of industriousness, modesty and self-discipline and—to some extent—equality. So while Louis Quatorze wore a big, full wig, Thomas Jefferson wore a modest, short wig and Benjamin Franklin eventually stopped wearing a wig altogether (George Washington styled his own hair to look a lot like a wig, but apparently did not actually wear one.)

But this new egalitarianism did not extend to women—this was a Great Masculine Renunciation. And the Great Renunciation replaced outdated status symbols that were obvious and easy to copy with new status symbols that were subtle and understood only by those already in the know. Status symbols based on flash and showiness were replaced by status symbols based on refinement and savoir faire.

This kind of male wig now remains only as something highly formal and specialized—like a formal coat with tails, which incidentally, the federal government’s lawyer, the Solicitor General, still wears today when arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States. So the English have their bench wigs and we American lawyers have our antiquated customs too.
Visit Richard Thompson Ford's website.

The Page 69 Test: Racial Culture.

--Marshal Zeringue