The Dress Codes of Respectability

Well-dressed Black activists were not trying to impress White people

Richard Thompson Ford
Momentum
Published in
4 min readApr 22, 2021

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People at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. Photo: Warren K. Leffler via the Library of Congress

A 2020 South Carolina march against police violence had a dress code. The organizers asked that demonstrators “come in dress attire, please”. Later, they boasted that the thousands-strong crowd had been “fully adorned in their Sunday best.” Not everyone was impressed. Many thought the dress code was a distraction from the life-and-death issues of police violence and racial injustice. Or worse, an example of “respectability politics” — a pointless and pathetic attempt to impress bourgeois White people. One commentator remarked, “This business-casual nonsense is just begging to be accepted by a system that was never built for us. It will take more than a necktie to get the noose from our necks.”

But as I discovered when working on my book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, a savvy use of attire has been a part of the struggle for racial equality for generations. Sunday-best civil rights activism began in the era of Jim Crow segregation. Thousands of well-dressed Black people marched in the historic 1963 march on Washington, D.C. Civil rights demonstrators faced fire hoses and attack dogs wearing suits and ties. They desegregated lunch counters and buses in pencil skirts, nylons, and pumps.

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Richard Thompson Ford
Momentum

Professor. Lawyer. Dilettante mixologist. Amateur sartorialist. Watch geek. Author of Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history. www.dresscodes.org