Visiting professor discusses relationship between clothing and law
A lecture Thursday explored the intersection between the law and clothing.
Gary Watt, a professor of law from the University of Warwick, spoke about his new book, 'Dress, Law and Naked Truth: A Cultural Study of Fashion and Form' on Thursday at the School of Law. The lecture emphasized how the inseparable association between law and dress has withstood the tests of both time and culture.
“We will never have a society that has dress but not law, or law but not dress,” Watt said. “The same social compulsions that draw us to dress are the same that draw us to follow law.”
Watt noted many examples of how clothing has been an enduring feature of human civilization. He referenced The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest written human texts, wherein the wild man Enkidu is brought into civilization through the process of becoming clothed. He also noted that in Turkey the country outlawed the wearing of veils as a political statement in the 1920s.
For a more modern reference, Watt discussed how Steven Gough—also known as the “Naked Rambler”—crossed England naked on two separate occasions—2003 and 2005—the later of which he was arrested for due to his lack of dress.
"The reason I wrote this book is because I was fascinated about the universal nature of our compulsion to dress," Watt said.
Watt was the United Kingdom Law Teacher of the Year in 2009 and a National Teaching Fellow in 2010.
The Doctor of Juridicial Science program at the School of Law sponsored the event.
“Through the choice of speaker and topic, this event seeks to enhance intellectual engagement in law and interdisciplinary scholarship,” said Dian Shah, a candidate of the Doctor of Juridical Science program who helped organize the event. “We hope that this will add to the breadth of intellectual experience that Duke Law and Duke University as a whole already offers through its programs and courses.”
Students in the Doctor of Juridical Science program were given the opportunity to attend a workshop Friday with Watt to further engage the topic that is not commonly addressed in the field of law.
“It was an original approach to making a cultural discussion of the connection between clothing and law,” said Xiao Recio Blanco, a SJD candidate in attendance. “The idea of being dressed is so established in our society that I was surprised to hear that it was such a predominant issue in the laws of civil society.”
Watt noted that clothing can take precedence in the law over more pressing matters. He gave the example of how a topless woman in the park who saw a young boy drowning in a nearby pond would be prosecuted not for refusing to save the boy, but for her lack of clothing.
He added, however, that being clothed is a personal responsibility that one needs to fulfill in order to reap the benefits of society.
“We do need to find a way to fit into any nation-state,” Watt said. “I think we’re so often taught to stand up for our rights, but the counterpart is to ask ourselves, ‘What is my responsibility?’ It’s a situation of give and take. We should look not just to ensuring that we’re accommodated but also to accommodate.”
Through the use of clothing, people can essentially change their visible personalities, Watts said. For example, by putting on robes, judges transform into the face of justice. Similarly, lawyers and other professionals use clothing to put forth a persona of conscientiousness.
“Law students might be encouraged to look critically at the way they perform their professional role, and that will include asking themselves the question of whether they can retain their own personal integrity [in their professional clothing],” Watt said. “There was a confrontation between the front that the law puts on and the front that we all put on.”