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Fashion, Law and Self Expression

posted by Robert Clark

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Fashion can be as serious or simply delicious as one pleases. Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes, a new book about how fashion has shaped the law in the U.S., and how laws have shaped fashion, is insightful as well as delightful. 

The author, Ruthann Robson, a senior professor at CUNY School of Law, is an expert on the conflicts that have arisen over fashion, civil rights, and sexuality throughout the history of the U.S.  Although her book focuses on the present, it makes clear that fashion has always been a battleground where religion, class, and the struggle for equality have been contested.

Apparel and business issues are Robson’s springboard to more basic questions of self expression, political protest, and identity that clothing provokes.  She looks into whether strip searches by the authorities—taking away the privacy clothes may provide, as may be the case in New York City’s debatable Stop and Frisk policy—should be legal. But she also explores when and where the law should allow strip teases.  What laws are appropriate to apply to religious expression, from the hat that the Quaker William Penn wore to express his religion, to modern day conflicts over the wearing of veils, beards, turbans and other features of appearance that are part of religious devotion?  

More and more law schools are developing courses, and even whole programs, that specialize in the legal and social issues that fashion raises. For young aspiring fashion leaders, Robson’s book is a fascinating exploration of a frequent conflict between generations.  In a recent interview she mentioned that very often, laws about “public decency,” or expression through clothing, have been about “the old trying to police the young.”

--Robert Clark



Topics: fashion and law, U.S. Constitution, religious freedom, freedom of expression, clothing and human rights, fashion and diversity, fashion and equality