To understand why we care so much about what we—and other people—wear, I had to look at how clothing and fashion shape our behavior and perception of the world. That's not always easy to do because the way clothing affects our social interactions and worldview is a matter of habit, so reflexive and deeply engrained that we don't even notice it. Of course we do notice the multibillion-dollar fashion industry dedicated to offering us an array of clothes to choose from, the styles that change every few months, the clothes magazines and newspaper columns that report on the latest trends, the stores full of clothes, and all of those dress codes, rules, and expectations around clothing. But all this ever-changing detail, as overwhelming as it can seem, is just a small part of the world of fashion, like an eye-catching appliqué on top of a jacket.
We're immersed in these details, but we rarely question or analyze the larger patterns of dress. For instance, what makes some fashions masculine and others feminine? Why are some garments considered bold or edgy and others conservative or demure? What makes high heels frivolously sexy and flat shoes sensible but boring? We make small decisions about the fit, cut, and embellishments of our clothing, but almost no one questions its basic design. Two thousand years ago, a politician would have worn a draped garment—what we today might call a "toga"—when going to discuss affairs of state. The political leaders and elites of seven hundred years ago still wore draped robes not so different from the ancient toga. But most of today's politicians wear tailored trousers—the garb of the barbarian or the peasant to the ancients—and a matching longish jacket with lapels: the business suit. Why and when did this change take place? No one would dream of wearing a robe or a toga to an important meeting, but many women in more tradition-bound professions still eschew pants in favor of a dress or skirt, both essentially draped garments descended from the ancient toga. We take all of this, and much more, for granted. These larger and more long-lived trends in fashion organize society and shape how we think about ourselves. They are often the subject of explicit rules—dress codes—that determine both what clothing means and when and by whom it may be worn.
We need to look at changes in fashion over a long period of time—not seasons, years, or even decades but centuries—in order to see these larger trends. Looking at the rules that codified these changes alongside the historical events of the time helped me to understand what fashion meant then and what it means for us today. I learned that fashion is much more than just clothes.
Fashion is a way of communicating ideas, values, and aspirations through clothes. Through our attire, we announce who we are, what we care about, and where we belong—or aspire to belong—in society. Sometimes the message is obvious and direct, like the way an officer's uniform conveys authority; other times, more inchoate and figurative, like the way a punk-rock girl's denim jacket covered with patches and pins conveys rebellious swagger.
Less obviously, but perhaps more important, fashion is a means of transforming our sense of self and our sense of our place in society—what I will call, borrowing from the historian Stephen Greenblatt, self-fashioning. Attire can also change our self-perception and affect our learning, development, and sense of possibility. In a sense, we become what we dress for: our clothing trains us to occupy a social role—giving us confidence or sapping our courage, straightening our posture or forcing us to slouch, offering a sense of physical comfort and support or constraint and irritation. In this respect, in contradiction to the old saying, clothes actually do make the man (or woman, and they've long helped to establish the difference). Our clothing becomes a part of our bodies, both reflecting and shaping our personalities and helping us fit into various social roles—or making it hard for us to do so. An obvious example of this is women's clothing in the mid-1800s, which consisted of large full skirts, frills, and boned corsets. These outfits not only sent the message that women were decorative objects, valuable mainly for their beauty; they also made it impossible for women to move around easily or quickly and harder for them to perform many types of physical tasks, which in turn served as a visual "evidence" that women were less competent than men. Most women internalized the dress codes of the time and only felt comfortable in such clothing. This in turn led some to think of themselves as helpless and fundamentally decorative: their clothing determined their social roles and ultimately their sense of self. Here's another example of the self-fashioning power of clothing: psychological studies in 2012 and 2015 found that people who wore a white lab coat or dressed up for a job interview exhibited better abstract reasoning than people of comparable intelligence wearing jeans and T-shirts.
Dress codes are key pieces of evidence about both of these social functions of attire: communication and self-fashioning. "Dress code" has a double meaning: a code is a rule regulating action or behavior, such as a law, but a code is also a rule or a formula for interpreting or deciphering a text. So, a dress code is a rule or law regulating how we dress and also a rule controlling the meaning of our attire. In 1967 the semiologist Roland Barthes used the explicit discussions of clothing in high-fashion magazines as a guide to understand more mundane, day-to-day attire. He found that almost every detail of an ensemble—shirt collar, skirt length, color, pattern, fabric—could express passions, aspirations, fantasies, and convictions. The fashion magazine offered an incomplete lexicon of vestimentary meaning—it was at once a description of existing fashionable practices and a prescription for refining and improving them. I have a similar ambition for the study of dress codes. Dress codes simplify the often-overwhelming complexity of vestimentary custom because they take the form of rules. Because it must be specific in its prescriptions and prohibitions, a dress code—like fashion writing—makes the often implicit and unconscious meaning of attire explicit and deliberate. When a dress code requires or forbids an item of attire, it implies something of its social meaning. A dress code that excludes "unprofessional" attire simultaneously reinforces the perception that whatever attire it excludes is unprofessional. Ladies' "fascinators" are modish and informal in comparison to hats that cover the top of the head; septum rings are edgier than nose studs. A dress code can be the Rosetta stone to decode the meaning of attire.