Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the semiotic power of the collar

2020 has been the year of the collar. Seen on the Fall/Winter catwalks of Gucci, Celine and JW Anderson, what was once perceived as a playful accessory during fashion week has taken on a whole new significance since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Uprooted from our everyday lives and thrust into the digital realm of Zoom where our appearance is confined to one small square from the shoulders up, the collar, whether it be an oversized-Peter Pan number or ruffled Victorian style neckline, provides a channel of self-expression amidst the monotony of working-from-home dress. As Natalie Kingham, the buying director at MatchesFashion.com, states: “Ornate Peter Pan collars are definitely having a moment, as they are perfect to wear working from home for Zoom meetings.”

Gucci FW 2020 (Source: @gucci on Instagram), JW Anderson FW 2020 (Source: @jwanderson on Instagram), FW 2020 Celine (Source: @celine on Instagram)

No one knew better the power of the collar as a means of self-expression than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As the United States’s second female Supreme Court Justice who fought for gender equality throughout her career, Bader Ginsburg broke through the patriarchal barriers of American law. She embodied the same feminist sentiment in her penchant for collars taking the judge’s robe, a uniform designed for men, and feminising it. As she recalled in an interview in 2009, “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie”. Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female US Justice, “thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.” Bader Ginsburg and O’Connor wore lace jabots for the Supreme Court group photo in 2003, a controversial choice made by these two women to embrace their femininity in the male dominated workplace.

Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg wearing her first jabot by Everett Raymond Kinstler 1996. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute
TIME magazine Ruth Bader Ginsburg Cover (Source: @time on Instagram)

As Bader Ginsburg’s career progressed, she harnessed the semiotic power of accessorising, wearing different collars to give her opinions on rulings. As a Justice, she was required to remain neutral on most matters. The sartorial channel of the collar allowed her a small but significant means of expression. She had her “dissenting collar”, a bejewelled Banana Republic necklace on a black base with an armour-like appearance, worn to express disapproval. As she said to Katie Couric in 2014, eyeing up the collar’s metal spike-like beads, “it looks fitting for dissent”. She famously sported this collar the day after Donald Trump was elected President in 2016.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Dissent Collar (Source: @queenscityvintage on Instagram)

Then there was her collar of approval, the “majority opinion collar”, which she wore to announce rulings for the court. A crocheted yellow and pink collar with gold appliqué detailing and flowers, it seemed an appropriate sartorial choice to express agreement. Perhaps her most famous collar was white crochet jabot she brought back from a trip to South Africa. It was simple in design, with no embellishment or colour, but was worn on the most important of occasions—namely Barack Obama’s speech to congress at the 2012 State of the Union and on her 20th anniversary as a member of the bench in 2013. It was this collar that was printed on the cover of the New Yorker to pay tribute to Bader Ginsburg when she passed away in September. On the cover, the crochet detailing was manipulated into the form of the female gender symbol.

Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her favourite collar (Source: @bazaaruk on Instagram)
The New Yorker cover in tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Source: @newyorkermag)

Bader Ginsburg’s use of the collar as a tool for self-expression shows how a small sartorial detail can go a long way in asserting one’s own personal style, but may also hold the power to communicate cultural and political ideas. As we remain (for the moment at least) confined to the world of Zoom, we can take inspiration from her use of the collar, and fashion ourselves an identity from the neck up.

 

By Violet Caldecott

Sources

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/25/ruth-bader-ginsburgs-trademark-collar-dominates-week-of-tributes

https://www.ft.com/content/1a8a270d-7a4d-41d2-9f5d-b0265296aa17

https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2020-09-23/life-lessons-ruth-bader-ginsburg-collars

https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/g34097013/ruth-bader-ginsburg-collars-meaning/#:~:text=Though%20she%20had%20many%20collars,her%2020th%20anniversary%20on%20the