By Dale Peers
The recent passing of Supreme Court Judge (and completely amazing woman!), the notorious RBG – aka Ruth Bader Ginsburg – has highlighted her iconic collar. Is it possible this often, overlooked element of fashion, or accessory in the case of her honour, may enjoy a revival due to its sudden notoriety and the symbolism attributed specifically to those worn by RBG?
In her role on the highest court in the United States Ginsburg wore what became her signature collars as a quiet yet visual affirmation of her female gender in a male dominated world. The black robes of these judges were designed so that they could be worn with the collared shirt/tie ensemble typical to the corporate and legal world. Ginsberg’s first “jabot” was also a pristine white making it vie for attention not only against the black robes but in contrast to what other members of the court were wearing.
In later years she began to wear more distinctively different collars which she used not only to affirm her presence in the court but to silently express her opinions. The silver studded, punk inspired collar from Banana Republic was her Dissenter Collar and worn when she was in disagreement with political and legal decisions made by the court. Her favourite was a delicate, white crocheted collar she acquired from Cape Town, South Africa. The Stella & Dot designed Pegasus necklace was worn by RBG to announce her return to the court after a fall in which she broke several ribs but also in silent protest of Justice Brett Kavanaugh of whom she did not approve.
The collar is one of those elements of fashion which, with the influx of more casual attire (e.g. t-shirts, tops) has disappeared from many wardrobes. Business/corporate attire for men, usually defined as a collared shirt-tie-suit combination, is also on the decline in this year of Zoom, with the possible exception of politicians and some newscasters.
But that has not always been so. Collars have been used to indicate wealth and status as seen in any portrait of Elizabeth I and her courtiers. The colour white was chosen as an example to show status as it is difficult to keep clean and being sparkling white implies that you are not doing anything which would cause the collar to be anything less than white.
The material chosen for such collars was often lace and with the hundreds of hours required to make even a small inch of lace the cost of such fabric was high and therefore reserved for the very wealthy. Whether the material was lace or not the fabric was often stiffened so that the collar extended and framed the wearer’s face. The structure of this would also be an indication of wealth as the person’s range of motion would also be limited, again suggesting you were not engaged in any strenuous activity.
The concept of the white collar versus the blue colour worker as an indicator of status came about with the establishment of offices. Men working in offices wore a white collared shirt with tie and were able to keep them mostly clean because clerical, legal or other office work did not require manual labor of any sort. The “blue colour worker” came to mean the individual who was engaged in more productive, manual labor of the sort that meant a darker coloured shirt (perhaps paired with rugged blue denim) that would hide the dirt better. In the 1980s when women began to break through the glass ceilings of the corporate world the “pink colour worker” phrase was coined to identify the female manager in the office world.
And the preppiest of collars, those found on the ubiquitous polo shirt were a style created by tennis player Rene Lacoste in the 1930s. Borrowing from the popular polo players of the period Rene began to wear this new sport shirt with its attached collar on the tennis court. He “popped” the collar not as a fashion statement so much as a way to ensure that his neck wouldn’t get sunburned while bashing those tennis balls at his opponents. Moving into the 1980s, designer Ralph Lauren’s Preppy Look brought the polo shirt back into fashion, especially with the Yuppies of the decade.
The elimination of collars on shirts and tops has been a cost saving for clothing manufacturers as it reduces the amount of material as well as labor required to produce a garment. That may be changing if the influence of RBG’s iconic collar as well as passionate fans of this woman are anything to go by.
“Real Change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020).