Dressing Constitutionally NPR coverage of Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes by Ruthann Robson. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Dressing Constitutionally

Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes

by Ruthann Robson

Hardcover, 264 pages, Cambridge Univ Pr, List Price: $90 |


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Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes
Ruthann Robson

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Ruthann Robson examines the rights to expression and equality — as well as the restraints on government power — as they apply to our most personal choices of attire and grooming.

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'Dressing Constitutionally': When Fashion And Laws Collide

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Dressing Constitutionally

From our hairstyles to our shoes, constitutional considerations both constrain and confirm our daily choices. In turn, our attire and appearance provide multilayered perspectives on the United States Constitution and its interpretations. Dress raises a plethora of constitutional concerns. In addition to the First Amendment issues of expressive speech or religion that come most immediately to mind, our apparel prompts problems of equal protection based on classifications of sex /gender and race. Moreover, our habiliments and the profits to be made from their production, trade, and consumption have motivated important constitutional revisions of both doctrine and text. The intertwining of our clothes and our Constitution raise fundamental questions of hierarchy, sexuality, and democracy.

While we most often do not think our wardrobe selections are of constitutional magnitude, the legal regulation of dress is ubiquitous. The most obvious regulations are direct ones: laws criminalizing indecent exposure; laws prescribing and proscribing military uniforms; or regulations detailing the attire of government employees, prisoners, or public school students. Less obvious are the more indirect ways in which the law constrains our apparel. Our daily choices of how to look and what to wear are circumscribed by legal doctrines that fail to protect women from sexual violence, or limit antidiscrimination laws, or allow law enforcement officers and judges wide discretion to consider our appearance. Additionally, our available options of apparel in the marketplace are the product of legal forces. All of these provoke constitutional issues.

The interaction of constitutions with all types of regulation of dress generally falls into the two major categories of constitutional concerns: rights and structures. Under the United States Constitution, the rights that are most often interposed against regulations of dress are the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech (expression) and freedom of religion. Regulations of dress may also raise issues of equal protection, introduced into the Constitution by the Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War. The Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment and Fifth Amendment both guarantee "liberty " — at least to the extent that the state and federal governments cannot deprive it without due process of law — a concept that would seem to encompass one's choice of what to wear. But these rights have not only been asserted by individuals; they have also been advanced by private parties such as employers seeking to enforce their dress codes or labor policies. There are also important criminal procedure protections in the Constitution — including search and seizure, the right to confront witnesses, and the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment that are relevant to restrictions on dress in criminal and prison contexts.

In addition to rights, constitutions are concerned with the structures of government. In the United States Constitution, this is a rather complicated affair, of both separation of powers of the branches of the federal government and federalism as the relationship between the federal government and the fifty states. In the constitutions of individual states, there are also issues of separation of powers among the state branches of government, at times including an administrative branch, as well as issues regarding divisions of power between a state and its subdivisions, such as counties or cities. Additionally, the United States includes territories, both as a historical and present matter, with complex relationships and questions of authority. These issues of horizontal and vertical power distribution raise questions about whether the government entity regulating dress has the constitutional authority to do so. Moreover, in the United States, the doctrine of state action embodies the notion that the Constitution is concerned only with the actions of the government. With the notable exception of the Thirteenth Amendment — important in the production of apparel — actions by individuals, corporations, or other "private" entities that might infringe the constitutional rights of others are not cognizable.

The themes of hierarchy, sexuality, and democracy animate the constitutional concerns surrounding attire and appearance. While hierarchy is not usually acknowledged as central to constitutionalism, the constitution itself is a document that allocates power in hierarchal, or even anti-hierarchal balancing, fashions. Additionally, concepts of rights essentially invoke matters of hierarchy, whether it is the hierarchy between the state and the individual or group, or between individuals or groups with differing claims to rights. The doctrines that develop to elaborate constitutional rights are hierarchal ones: rights of political expression are valued more highly than rights of sexual expression. Moreover, and more controversially, constitutional interpretation often involves a choice between maintaining hierarchy or dismantling hierarchy.

Sexuality itself is a controversial candidate for being central to constitutionalism. Yet constitutional quarrels in recent decades have highlighted issues of sexuality, sexual freedom, bodily autonomy, sex, and gender. In the realm of attire and appearance, sexuality undergirds much of the constitutional reasoning, even when it is not explicit.

Democracy is most readily recognizable as a concept at the heart of our constitution, although it does not appear in the text of the document. Nevertheless, democracy remains problematical whenever there is judicial review of acts passed pursuant to democratic processes. It is also disputable whenever the democratic franchise is partial, as before the Fifteenth Amendment (for black men), the Nineteenth Amendment (for all women), and presently for noncitizens as well as citizen inhabitants of territories.

Other themes emerge from the exploration of constitutionalism from the perspective of dress. First, this examination uncovers the importance of clothing to the constitutional text itself. The Eleventh Amendment and the Reconstruction Amendments are traceable to controversies surrounding cloth. The Commerce Clause contemplated a lively trade in textiles, while the slavery "compromises" in the Constitution failed to contemplate the importance of cotton. The inclusion of the Patent Clause, despite objections to monopolies, would influence the cotton gin and sewing machine. A proposed sumptuary power for the federal government did not survive the Constitutional Convention but would have empowered Congress to legislate a national dress code. Arguments against inclusion of a freedom of assembly provision in the First Amendment were debated, and seemingly defeated, by reference to William Penn's hat. Additionally, textiles were not only important to the Civil War, but also to the Revolutionary War's creation of the nation.

Second, doctrinal incoherence, isolationism, and blurring make understanding and litigating constitutional issues of dress challenging. While these problems are not unique to matters of attire and appearance, doctrinal incoherence seems especially prominent in First Amendment disputes, whether they involve free expression or the religion clauses. The conjoined problems of doctrinal isolationism and doctrinal blurring confuse matters further. For example, courts often note that a challenge to a dress code might be raised as a First Amendment challenge or an Equal Protection Clause challenge but then proceed as if only one is implicated, at least until a stray concept from the excluded doctrine makes its appearance. Similarly, courts determining a criminal defendant's objection to attending trial in jail attire struggle with Sixth Amendment fair trial principles, due process fair trial principles, and even First Amendment concerns. Relatedly, there is often doctrinal asymmetry, again especially pronounced in the First Amendment area. In such instances, the government requires a certain appearance, while courts place a burden on persons resisting that mandate to prove that their deviation has a specific message other than deviation.

From Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, And Democracy From Our Hairstyles To Our Shoes by Ruthann Robson. Copyright 2013 Ruthann Robson. Excerpted by permission of Cambridge University Press.