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Arts and Culture

What Fashion History Says About A Vice Presidential 'Vogue' Controversy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Remember a few weeks back, when the vice president-elect appeared on the cover of Vogue? A controversy erupted over which pictures the magazine chose for the cover shot. For the online version, a picture of Kamala Harris in this sleek, sophisticated blue suit, a look befitting the first woman and woman of color to be vice president. For the hard copy, a picture of a more casual Harris - black pants, brown blazer, her signature Chucks. It was the uniform she wore on the campaign trail.

So why does it matter what the first woman to hold the office of vice president wears and which image was chosen? Well, we want to talk about this with Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford. His new book is called "Dress Codes: How The Laws Of Fashion Made History."

Welcome to the program.

RICHARD THOMPSON FORD: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: We're going to get to this "controversy" - air quotes (laughter) - that I talked about in the introduction. But how did a Stanford law professor end up writing a book about the history of fashion?

THOMPSON FORD: Well, there are a couple of reasons. One, I teach civil rights and employment discrimination, and I was surprised by how many disputes involve dress codes of one kind or another - employees, for instance, that defy dress codes that require makeup for women, that require particular types of hairstyles. And what was striking to me was that both sides, the employer and the employee, really cared about these dress codes - how people dressed, how people presented themselves, so that someone would be willing to give up a good job because they didn't want to comply with the dress code; employer would be willing to give up a good employee who wouldn't comply with the dress code. So I wanted to delve into why people care so much about clothing, and that got me interested in looking at the history of rules and regulations around dress.

CORNISH: For Black women, there have been a lot of implications here - right? - in terms of the ways we're asked to comply with various dress codes, especially when it comes to hair. The reason why I'm asking this is because of those dueling images of Vice President Harris. The fact that this became a subject of debate, what does that tell you about this moment?

THOMPSON FORD: The dress that a political figure wears is of importance for their position of authority. And this has been true throughout history. I mean, if you look back to, for instance, Queen Elizabeth I, it's very clear that she cared about the power of fashion and that her clothing wasn't just a fashion statement, but it was a symbol of her authority and her power. And to some extent, that's still true today. So political figures wear clothing in order to express the authority of their position. And so for Kamala Harris, particularly because she's the first Black woman to occupy the position of the vice presidency, that image, that self-presentation, it was an important reflection of her power and her respect.

CORNISH: A very well-respected writer, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, talked about this idea that the pictures were too familiar in their approach. I wanted to get your opinion because it was a Black photographer. In terms of her choice of dress, this is how she dresses - right? - especially on the campaign trail. Is that a fair assessment?

THOMPSON FORD: I think it is a fair assessment, but it's a little complicated. I don't think that Vogue intended to - intended any disrespect to the vice president. And indeed, what they were trying to do is consistent with another big trend in the way we think about fashion, which is to convey individual personality and authenticity. So in a way, the print cover was an attempt to show Vice President Harris kind of as a normal person, someone that you could relate to. But that's inconsistent with the respect and esteem that her office demands. And the fact that she's a Black woman, to some extent, means that she needs that armor even more than, for instance, a white man.

CORNISH: Fundamentally, I think you argue in your book that not only does dress matter, but there are implicit dress codes as well and that they matter. But is that a tough view to have in this day and age? Like, I feel sheepish doing the interview about this (laughter), right? When people - inevitably, someone will write me and say, why are you talking about what she's wearing?

THOMPSON FORD: Historically, we've seen very explicit dress codes that give us some idea of why people care about fashion, and that was my way in to looking at these issues. But today, we have implicit dress codes all over the place. To give you an example from the Silicon Valley, where I am, where everyone says they don't care about dress; no one cares about what people wear. Mark Zuckerberg wears a gray T-shirt, you know, and - but he couldn't resist ascribing moral significance to it. And he said something like this - the reason I wear a gray T-shirt is because I don't want to spend any time thinking about what I'm going to wear; if I wasted my time worrying about what to wear, I wouldn't be doing my job.

Now, what does that have to say about people who look like they do spend time on what they're wearing? Women aren't as - they don't have the gray T-shirt option as easily available to them. So I think these implicit dress codes communicate quite a lot, and they still have profound significance for people's professional aspirations.

CORNISH: With the pandemic, with quarantines, with people being forced in many cases to stay home, how are we dressing, so to speak? I don't know if, for instance, you are still the dapper professor (laughter) I see online and in your book jacket.

THOMPSON FORD: I think people are dressed...

CORNISH: And you have kids.

THOMPSON FORD: I do have kids.

CORNISH: So I want a real answer.

THOMPSON FORD: All right, all right. Fair enough. No, I do have two kids. And, you know, sure, I don't dress the same way I would if I were going into the office or out in public. Now, I do like to still dress to some extent for the day.

CORNISH: And we should say, right now you are wearing a jacket, casual jacket.

THOMPSON FORD: Yes.

CORNISH: I think this is a black shirt.

THOMPSON FORD: Right.

CORNISH: Button-up, no tie.

THOMPSON FORD: That's true.

CORNISH: And for you, one button is undone, so I know you're casual. This is cassh (ph) Professor Ford.

THOMPSON FORD: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON FORD: Yeah. No, that's right.

CORNISH: With the one button - because I don't see, like, a pocket square.

THOMPSON FORD: No.

CORNISH: I don't see - (laughter).

THOMPSON FORD: A necktie.

CORNISH: Yeah.

THOMPSON FORD: No, that's right. That's right.

CORNISH: So you're slumming it, basically.

THOMPSON FORD: (Laughter) This is my - yeah, it's my relaxed outfit.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

THOMPSON FORD: No, this is probably close to what I would wear on a regular day if I were going in person. But, you know, I mean, yeah, on some days, I wear a sweatshirt, like anyone else, particularly if there's nothing visual about the day.

CORNISH: Is there a new implicit dress code in this environment?

THOMPSON FORD: Wow. You know, I think there is a sense in which it seems weird to dress up too much for Zoom, and so the dress code is - you know, like, really, you're wearing a suit and tie; we're all on Zoom - to dress down, but still to convey some degree of professionalism. Not pajamas, right? Not that you just rolled out of bed.

CORNISH: In the end, are we dressing for other people or are we dressing for ourselves?

THOMPSON FORD: I think the answer is always both, that we dress based on how we feel about ourselves, but also based on the image that we want to convey to other people. Now, sometimes the image - that image is, I don't care about clothing. But that is also, in a sense, dressing for other people. I think everyone cares about how other people see them, and clothing is a profound part of that.

CORNISH: Professor Richard Ford, thank you so much for speaking with us.

THOMPSON FORD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE CLOTHES")

JAY-Z: (Singing) Your boy is back.

PHARRELL: (Singing) Sexy, sexy.

JAY-Z: I know y'all missed the bounce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.