The Meaning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Lace Collar

[Live coverage of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg funeral, which begins on Wednesday with three days of honors.]

In 2014, the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the pioneering legal mind and advocate for equal treatment of the sexes who died on Friday, did something that probably none of her male colleagues were ever asked to do: she gave a tour of her office closet.

The occasion was an interview with Katie Couric after Justice Ginsburg’s strongly-worded, 35-page dissent in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision, in which the court sided with a corporation’s desire to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on the grounds of religious freedom.

But Justice Ginsburg did not seem remotely put out about starting the conversation with fashion.

Opening the imposing wood doors of her wardrobe, the Justice revealed, on one side, the long black robes of the court, and on the other — taking up more than half the hanger space — her extensive collection of elaborate collars. She had them, she said, “from all over the world.” She had them for every occasion, and for every kind of opinion of the court.

As much as the nickname “The Notorious R.B.G.,” which came to symbolize Justice Ginsburg’s status as a pop culture hero in her later years, the collars served as both semiology and semaphore: They signaled her positions before she even opened her mouth, and they represented her unique role as the second woman on the country’s highest court. Shining like a beacon amid the dark sea of denaturing judicial robes, Justice Ginsburg’s collars were unmistakable in photographs and from the court floor.

Though obviously Justice Ginsburg’s legacy of jurisprudence is her most important gift to history, her understanding of her own significance as a role model was undeniable. As the rare female law student (and student in the rarefied air at the top of the class) — not to mention the rare female lawyer — she was used to being the only one. She knew that every statement she made, every gesture, every image, would be noted, picked over and parsed. All her choices mattered. So she might as well imbue them with meaning.

Even if they were only about the collar.

In 2009, in an interview with The Washington Post, she explained how her collection originated: “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie,” Justice Ginsburg told the paper. So she and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Justice on the court, “thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.” They weren’t going to obscure their sex, or pretend it was beside the point. It was part of the point.

The idea was to claim what was a traditionally male uniform and unapologetically feminize it. That may seem innocuous, but it was in fact radical. In 1993, when Justice Ginsburg joined the court, women in the work force were still largely wearing men’s suits as armor; conventional wisdom had it that looking too “girlie” was a mistake, and would undermine the seriousness with which a woman was received.

But her collars were her weapon.

She used them to expand, ever so slowly and deliberately, in the same way she did the law, the landscape of our own understanding.

When, in 2018, a documentary on her life called “RBG” was released, the poster featured only a sketch of Justice Ginsburg’s head — along with a lace collar. The film’s first poster, in fact, simply featured the collar and the title; it was all that was needed.

Later, movie theaters placed cardboard cutout figures of the Supreme Court Justice in lobbies so attendees could take selfies with their heads framed by her black robe and elaborate lace collar. After her death was announced on Friday, many social media posts simply depicted a collar against a black background.

To pay attention to what a powerful woman wears is often dismissed as a way to denigrate her. But not to pay attention in this case is to disrespect the attention to detail that marked Justice Ginsburg’s work in all its dimensions.

After all, a gauntlet may once have been a metal glove, but sometimes it can also be a lace collar. That doesn’t make it any less effective at challenging an antiquated status quo.

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