'Dressing Constitutionally': When Fashion And Laws Collide

Aug 11, 2013
Originally published on August 22, 2013 9:19 am

How short is too short, according to the law? Wardrobe choices, or lack thereof, raise all sorts of issues — from First Amendment concerns to questions of equality, sexuality and control.

Ruthann Robson's new book, Dressing Constitutionally Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes, examines anecdotes throughout history demonstrating the ways fashion and laws can conflict or influence one another. Robinson talks with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about some of those examples.


Interview Highlights

On head coverage and the law

"... William Penn, as a Quaker, was someone who refused hat honor. And what that means is to doff your hat at someone who you think is a superior or as a sign of respect. And interestingly, William Penn ... was kind of set up in a courtroom to not doff his hat, and then was prosecuted for that."

On a case of public nudity

"He is shopping in a Florida Walmart ... and his short shorts are too short ... and he is arrested. And he comes to court, and brings the shorts as kind of his evidence. And the trial judge says, 'Let the record reflect that when he changes those shorts he's not wearing any underwear.' And so he changes into shorts, and the judge finds that they are too short. And he's given a citation. He does not go to jail. And he loses on appeal. ...

"I think one thing that I find most problematic is that, especially now, he could be deemed a sex offender for something like that because we would think of it as, you know, exposing himself. And then he would have all the liabilities that would attach to being a sex offender: having to report, having to only live in certain places and things like that."

On local laws that ban "cross-dressing"

"It often acts as a cipher for other sorts of problems, right. So that if people dress decently, then there won't be gambling, then there won't be theft, then there won't be muggings — as if those two things go together. And of course, people's notions of what's 'decent' really varies across class, varies across time, and varies across age. And one way to look at some of these is really about older people policing the sexuality of younger people."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Fashion law may not sound like the most serious legal pursuit out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED WHITE AND BLONDE" MOVIE TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In America, there are those who make the law and those who make it look good.

REESE WITHERSPOON: (as Elle Woods) Oh, excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Elle Woods found the perfect job.

WITHERSPOON: (as Elle Woods) We're lawyers. We have to fight for justice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) Never underestimate a woman with a French manicure and a Harvard law degree.

LYDEN: A new book takes a rigorous look at how we legislate what we wear. It's called "Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyle to Our Shoes." Author Ruthann Robson joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

RUTHANN ROBSON: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: You know, your book is an absolute treasure trove, and you have so many wonderful anecdotes in here about how fashion and the law collide. I'd like to start at the beginning - I almost said at the top - with an article of clothing - a little tongue in cheek - the hat. Tell us a little bit about the history of head coverings, would you please?

ROBSON: So one thing that's - was very interesting, and something I didn't know when I started researching the book, was how important the hat was, including being responsible for the assembly clause in the Constitution itself. So when they're arguing over what should be included in the Constitution or not, someone raises the question of, is the assembly clause really important - and that's in the First Amendment - and someone else says: Well, remember it's as important as William Penn's hat.

And for us, that doesn't resonate as much, but for the framers and for people who know constitutional history, it would've resonated in terms of knowing that William Penn, as a Quaker, was someone who refused hat honor. And what that means is to doff your hat at someone who you think is a superior or as a sign of respect. And interestingly, William Penn, as a Quaker, was kind of set up in a courtroom to not doff his hat and then was prosecuted for that.

LYDEN: Let's talk about a lack of clothing. This is an area where U.S. law has always had a lot to say. We've really had a huge problem in this country with nudity, I think you - we could all agree. And you talk about a couple of fascinating stories about how public nudity has been regulated over the years. The first one involves a Florida Wal-Mart shopper. Tell us that story.

ROBSON: This person, I think, is quite interesting. So he is shopping in a Florida Wal-Mart, as you say, and his short shorts are too short, according to another shopper, who calls, it seems like, security. Security calls a police officer and he is arrested.

And he comes to court and brings the shorts as kind of his evidence. And the trial judge says: Let the record reflect that when he changes into those shorts, he's not wearing any underwear. And so he changes into the shorts, and the judge finds that they are too short. And he's given a citation. He does not go to jail. And he loses on appeal.

LYDEN: Well, so in your opinion as a legal scholar, without having actually seen the man with the tiny shorts, did he have a case?

ROBSON: He might have a case. It would depend upon how the statute in Florida was drawn. I think one thing that I find most problematic is that especially now, he could be deemed a sex offender for something like that because we would think of it as, you know, exposing himself. And then he would have all the liabilities that would attach to being a sex offender, having to report, having to only live in certain places and things like that.

LYDEN: Let me ask you about perhaps one of the most famous flash cases of nudity in recent years, and that is Janet Jackson's so-called wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show couple years back. That still really resonates. And you've certainly seen the Super Bowl tighten up in its restrictions. Why do you think that resonates so much with us?

ROBSON: There's lots of nudity around us in museums, in facades on buildings and all different kinds of things. But yet, when we see it sometimes on television, on the street, then we have a different reaction.

LYDEN: One of the things that I also found fascinating in your book is how many local - and these might even be, you know, city council - clothing-related laws are on the books. And some of them involve banning cross dressing in a lot of places.

ROBSON: Yeah. So I think that there are fewer and fewer of those, but definitely banning cross dressing and banning kind of indecent dressing. And I think one of the things that's interesting about that is that it often acts as a cipher for other sorts of problems, right? So that if people dress decently, then there won't be gambling, then there won't be theft, then there won't be muggings, as if those two things go together.

And, of course, people's notion of what's decent really varies across class, varies across time and varies across age. And one way to look at some of these is really about older people policing the sexuality of younger people.

LYDEN: That's Ruthann Robson. Her new book is called "Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes." Ruthann Robson, thank you so much for being with us.

ROBSON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.