The late US Supreme Court justice knew how to use fashion to make her mark
As the world has mourned the passing of the great Ruth Bader Ginsburg over the past few weeks one item has stood out in tributes to the feminist icon: her signature lace collar. Throughout her 27-year career as a US Supreme Court justice, a span in which she did more to further gender equality and workers’ rights than almost any person in living memory, RGB’s variety of lace collars became as indelible a part of her persona as Karl Lagerfeld’s white pompadour or Coco Chanel’s pearls.
However, the collars still remain a style choice and RGB did not limit herself to one or two. Inevitably, just as commentators often imbue meaning on the Queen's jewellery selections, it was tempting to read into RGB’s choice of collar. And, while it may be mere wishful thinking on the part of the always highly diplomatic Queen, when it comes to RGB, there might be something to the theory. In 2014 journalist Irin Carmon, co-author of Notorious RGB: The Life and Time of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, tweeted a picture of a spiky jewelled Banana Republic collar with the caption “RGB: “This is my dissenting collar… It looks fitting for dissents.””
Gifted to her when she was named Glamour’s Woman of the Year 2012, and sparking many imitators since, the collar immediately became a signifier for political insiders of which way a court decision was going to go. Perhaps more importantly, it also provided RGB with a way to communicate a dissatisfied opinion even when the court wasn’t due to issue any decision. A case in point - she wore it the day after Trump’s election.
There’s also a simple white jabot from South Africa that RGB fans have nicknamed ‘the favourite’ thanks to the justice’s clear preference for the design. When interviewed by Katie Couric after her strong dissent in the 2015 Burwell vs Hobby Lobby decision, it was the first of her vast collection to be highlighted and was also chosen for President Obama’s first address to a joint session of the US Congress in December 2005. Fancy getting one of your own? The design has spawned plenty of copies over on Etsy.
An interesting thing to note about RGB’s collars, however, is how they’ve evolved over time. Perhaps as a sign of RGB’s greater confidence and comfort as a Supreme Court justice later in life or maybe merely a natural adaptation to changing fashions, when RGB posed for her first official court portrait in 1993 the delicate, lacy collar was nowhere to be seen. Instead a more androgynous, strait-edged pleated design similar to those worn by French justices was chosen.
By the end of her life, however, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had leaned fully into her femininity, choosing pieces more akin to necklaces than collars in the last years of her life. She explained to Couric that she had a special collar worn specifically to announce the opinion for the court. A signifier of approval (it also made an appearance at Obama’s State of the Union address in 2013), this jabot is made from gold lace with purple detailing and finished with gold hardware. A gift from her law clerks, it is easily one of the most intricate in her wardrobe.
Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, is the feathered and spiked Stella & Dot collar RGB reserved for moments of serious disproval. Resembling Amazonian battle armour, it was this piece RGB chose for the first official court portrait after the approval of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Incidentally this was also the first public appearance RGB had made after falling and fracturing her ribs in 2018 and many took it as a sign that the then 83-year-old wasn’t backing down without a fight. They couldn’t have been more right.