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‘Dressing Constitutionally’: A lecture by Professor Ruthann Robson

Professor Ruthann

Professor Ruthann Robson

As part of a week-long visit to City University London, Ruthann Robson, Professor of Law at City University of New York will deliver a lecture based on her new book ‘Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality and Democracy…From Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes’(Cambridge University Press, 2013). Lawbore spoke to her on the eve of the event to find out more.

Thanks for speaking to us Ruthann. Tell us a little bit about your most recent publication ‘Dressing Constitutionally…’

The book looks at all different aspects of dressing and attire, including non-attire and things like grooming and hairstyles. It looks at it from the perspective of rights and specifically people’s rights to dress or not dress in a certain way. It also looks at how different kinds of structures of government and constitutionalism have been influenced by how people dress.

You are well known for your work in the area of Sexuality and the Law but this topic is an expansion on that. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered as you embarked on the research for this book?

The book actually has a lot of sexuality in it and I had already written about constitutional structures and the power of the judiciary to review different aspects of law. However, the historical research turned out to be really fascinating and it led me to discover things I really didn’t know too much about. For example, when we think of sumptuary laws during the reign of Henry VIII – like which classes of people can wear which clothes – we think of them as aiming to maintain hierarchy and keep the classes separate. While there’s a lot of truth to that, the enforcement of laws relating to dress were actually also about maintaining the economics of England and ensuring that the wool trade was profitable.

At that time, there was also a lot of patrolling around sexuality, which was surprising for me. When I think of the control on sexuality during those times, it would usually be related to women but I found that there were proclamations about how long men’s tunics could be and what they could show and not show – that was very interesting.

Is the law still having a real impact of how people dress today?

Sporting the saggy pants look.... Credit: Newtown Graffiti

Sporting the saggy pants look…. Credit: Newtown Graffiti

I think there are fewer and fewer direct laws, although they do tend to come back, so in the States recently, we’ve had issues around saggy pants and trying to prohibit those for men. However, we see the impact in work dress codes, in terms of both positive laws and also people being terminated or not promoted for the way they do or don’t dress. In certain spaces, like the military or in prison, there are still lots of rules.

In some ways, dress becomes kind of a code for race and class and gender but then other times it is really interesting to look at people’s style and think that a certain style would be encoded with criminality. This is something which I think has not changed at all because in the 60s and 70s, if you wore blue jeans, then that must mean that you were smoking marijuana or doing some other type of drug.

For women and to some extent men too, there is another indirect way in which the law gets involved. That is the failure of the requirement to protect women from sexual assault – there’s a lot of women blaming that goes on if someone is dressed a certain way.

What do you hope the audience at your lecture and readers of the book take-away with them?

We think that we have a lot of freedom in terms of how we dress, so one point would be that we actually have a lot less freedom than we think we do. The second is that we really need to carefully consider how we use the law. When I was reading people’s interviews about either dress codes in schools or even dress codes on the streets, they may be a quote included from the Mayor saying ‘I don’t like this or ‘I don’t think I have to look at that’. That may be true or not, but then there’s this question about whether the law should be the way that we control it, especially when we are talking about criminalising people. That is probably at the extreme end but then there are different kinds of judgements which become encoded in law, even for dress codes.

The lecture takes place on Tuesday 26th November at 6.30pm at City University London, EC1V 0HB, followed by a drinks reception. To attend, please register via the City Events website.

Ruthann Robson is a Professor of Law and University Distinguished Professor at City University of New York and the author of ‘Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes’ (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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