The vexing issue of dress codes


The issue of dress codes is one that arouses strong passions. Part of the problem is the gender bias involved. What women wear comes under much closer scrutiny than what men wear and the stringent dress codes that Muslim (and Orthodox Jewish) women must operate under in many parts of the world is one of the hottest of issues. In 35 nations some form of veiling of women is compulsory.

I think that most people would agree that any form of dress that people choose to wear voluntarily (that is not part of work requirements and that does not create safety or other problems) should be exempt from criticism. But it is not always easy to determine what is truly voluntary and what is heavily pressured.

Terri Murray looks at many of the justifications given for the burqa and explains why they don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Her article is well worth reading in full, but I want to highlight just one thing she deals with.

In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it. According to Islamic Hadith (or poor interpretations of it) the female body is so powerfully sexual that it is literally irresistible to the opposite sex.

The claim that covering yourself up in public is an empowering choice insults the intelligence and dignity of women everywhere, just as the theological claim that the burqa is a necessary defence against predatory male sexuality insults Muslim men insofar as it treats them as fundamentally incapable of responsibility for their sexual behaviour.

One issue that Murray does not treat is that even secular societies require some form of compulsory covering up of both men and women. You can get arrested if you walk naked in public in Cleveland. So what constitutes ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ dress requirements?

One aspect of this is of gender equity. I sometimes see from my office window a couple walking down the street. The man is dressed in casual western dress, short-sleeved shirt and slacks. The woman walks a few paces behind, fully covered from head to toe in black, irrespective of how hot it is. The fact that he can wear whatever he likes and she feels that, for whatever reason, she cannot seem to be somehow unfair. Some societies have laws requiring women to dress like that, others have strong family and social pressures on women to conform even if they don’t want to, in yet other cases women have internalized those dress norms and feel that they are freely choosing to dress that way.

What underlying principle enables us to arrive at a reasonable solution? Would the principle that all legal dress requirements be gender neutral settle it? i.e., that all legal requirements be written in such a way that they apply equally to all genders and that people should be free to dress in any way that meets those requirements?

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Take the case of Black’s beach in the San Diego area. In the part of Black’s beach that lies in the City of San Diego, nude swimming/sun bathing is illegal. In the part that lies outside the city but in San Diego County, nude swimming/sun bathing is legal.

  2. Chiroptera says

    In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it.

    It always seemed to me that if this were true, the proper solution would be to require men to wear straight jackets.

  3. Dunc says

    I think it’s a fascinating issue, because it illustrates the extent to which so many choices which we think are free are in fact conditioned by social factors. Consider the matter of hats… It’s really not that long ago when a man outdoors without a hat was scandalously under dressed, yet nowadays, wearing a hat is unusual enough to attract attention. Were all those men wearing hats victims of some sort of internalised cultural oppression? To what extent did they actually “chose” to wear a hat? My general rule of thumb is that if everybody makes the same choice, it’s probably not really a choice… What changed in the last couple of generations to turn this aspect of our society’s dress code on its head, and why?

  4. CaitieCat says

    Note that in a few places (notably, here in my province of Ontario), the law is gender-neutral on nudity. Since Gwen Jacobs, a university student in a town just east of mine, was walking home on hot summer day, and decided to take off her shirt, like the various men around were doing.

    She was arrested. And fought it. And won.

    And now, in Ontario, anyone can walk around topless in public, so long as they are not doing so for commercial purposes (this applies to men and women both).

    It’s sure made our Dyke March (the day before the Pride Parade in Toronto) a LOT more fun for all the women involved, and (unfortunately) for not a few creeps, too, with camcorders. One I ran into video’d my partner and daughter when they were both walking topless (I burn like bacon in the sun, so not me), then ran past us down the street, and set up in front of us again.

    At which point he got to find out how I got the nickname of Dyke Vader.

    He left. :D I can be very intimidating when I want to be. And really, pissing off a dyke about her family on Church Street on Pride weekend? He’d have bene lucky to end up better off than that ref in Brasil the other day.

  5. says

    require men to wear straight jackets

    Well, jesus (according to “matthew”) recommends that you gouge your eye out and cast it aside. Seems straightforward.

  6. machintelligence says

    In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it.

    This is an empirical claim, subject to testing and falsification. In fact , it has already been proven wrong. But logic and evidence do not count in theological arguments.

    And now, in Ontario, anyone can walk around topless in public

    That seems to be a reasonable compromise.

  7. CaitieCat says

    Nope, you’ve missed the point. How could a strip club possibly take advantage of public toplessness? How about requiring the workers to stand outside on the sidewalk semi-nude, enticing people inside?

    How about sex workers on street corners being actually semi-nude, instead of barely covered?

    There are lots of ways people could exploit this through control over women’s bodies by employment threat – “Don’t do it, and see if you get another stripping job in this city!”, or pimp control of sex workers, et c..

    So the anti-commercial thing was actually meant (and I agree with it) to put that exception in so that women wouldn’t be forced to be topless in public.

    The godly folks were on side with that, since they couldn’t convince the court that women’s bodies were super-special-snowflakey and could never be shown in public, they basically took the half a loaf and said “We’re doing it for the CHILDREN OMG!”

  8. Mano Singham says

    I have heard that president Kennedy was largely responsible for the demise of the men’s hat in the US, especially when he was sworn in without one.

  9. A. Noyd says

    I’d like to see dress codes as free as possible while addressing the problem of transfer of sweat and skidmarks. I don’t really care how much of someone’s body I’m seeing, but I don’t want to sit in a bus seat that’s sweat-slimed or shit-smeared. (Of course, the former can sometimes be a problem even with modest dress, especially in summer in Seattle where only half our buses have air conditioning.)

  10. Corvus illustris says

    As you’ve probably heard, Kennedy carried but did not wear a top hat at his inauguration. However, my impression from that era (I’m born 1938) is that Kennedy was following fashion rather than defining it. I have never owned a “grown-up’s” hat (unless you count the one that goes with faux-mediaeval costume).

  11. CaitieCat says

    Back when people thought I was a boy, my friends and I all wore fedoras as part of our ska in-group identification signals. We’d all gone down to vintage clothing stores and bought original 1940s/50s-era hats. They were spiffy.

    Hey, it was the early 80s, okay? I got a lot of play from that hat.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The man is dressed in casual western dress, short-sleeved shirt and slacks. The woman walks a few paces behind, fully covered from head to toe in black, irrespective of how hot it is.

    How do you know it isn’t another man walking few paces behind?

    In the UK Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler, has spent most of the last decade walking around the country naked except for boots, socks and a rucksack, or in gaol for ignoring injunctions to cover up. While his determination to stick to his principles is admirable, both he and the courts seem to have lost their sense of proportion.

  13. Corvus illustris says

    What changed in the last couple of generations to turn this aspect of our society’s dress code on its head, and why?

    (Block that metaphor!) It’s more than a couple of generations now–my father’s (b. 1911) was probably the last to have hats in their dress code in the US. Formalized behavior certainly dropped off in the US after WW_2, certainly by the 1950s*–possibly as a reaction to military spit-and-polish? At the other end of the body, Levis became the dominant trousers beginning with grade-school kids in the 1940s, and informality may have worked its way up as the age grades matured. The 1960s helped bigtime but a movement was very much perceptible in the preceding decade. Growing postwar Ami influence would have explained cultural transmission.

    *An example of the fall of formalism, as well as of misogyny: the Univ of Michigan’s men’s union did not permit unescorted women to enter its building, or women to enter at all except by a side door, until 1955. The late first Mrs C participated in the fall of that quaint custom.

  14. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it.

    This is an empirical claim, subject to testing and falsification. In fact , it has already been proven wrong

    Unfortunately in some Islamic cultures- in Tahrir Square in Cairo, for example- some men seem to be intent on demonstrating that in their case at least it is demonstrably true.

  15. Corvus illustris says

    Mrs Corva loves fedoras and hats generally (people think one of her sisters is a boy, and they’re right), but their wearing contains an element of parody that AFAIK did not exist when they were part of the male dress code.

  16. Pen says

    Some interesting things come about in the name of equity:

    1) Women should be able to go topless anywhere men can.
    2) Women should never be obliged to wear skirts as part of a uniform, but equally, men should be able to if they want.

    The one I found interesting was when the Pussy Riot protestors were arrested in France for wearing those balaclavas, because of a law against covering the face which was clearly set up to outlaw wearing of the niqab. The law was written as though not to discriminate against a religion and suddenly found this new application.

    Actually, there is no rational reason for us to find nudity offensive and insist that people cover anything in public. It’s all custom. Although I’m right there with CaitieCat @4. I hope we never have an obligation to uncover ourselves or I’ll be red with blisters all over whenever the sun comes out.

  17. Corvus illustris says

    Although I’m right there with CaitieCat @4. I hope we never have an obligation to uncover ourselves or I’ll be red with blisters all over whenever the sun comes out.

    Let us join you. The fog-bound NW European melanin deficiency is a total fail in any kind of sunshine. For exactly this reason, I have never owned a short-sleeved shirt.

  18. says

    “… sweat and skidmarks …” Eww! This is a good enough reason, especially the skidmarks, to require some measure of minimal clothing requirements. Imagine going about with a small child, and needing to wipe off every surface with disinfectant before he touched it. Imagine staining your clean clothes with someone else’s leavings.

    But the minimum can be gender neutral, and wouldn’t be too restrictive; a “tail covering” (“taparabo” in Spanish) of any sort would do.

  19. bad Jim says

    Actually, Kennedy did wear a hat at his inauguration (photos at the link). It’s been suggested that men stopped wearing hats when they switched from streetcars, which have ample headroom, to automobiles.

  20. sailor1031 says

    Nah – I see lots of older guys wearing their hats in cars…..i’s a sure sign you need to give them plenty of room!

  21. Guess Who? says

    When my kids were younger, they liked to go roller skating on Saturday afternoons. The local skating rink is also a hangout of the homeschoolers in our area, and you could always pick out the girl homeschoolers; baggy shirts, skirts down to their ankles, and long, shapeless hair. The boys were always in contemporary boys’ clothing (in the mid-2000s, it was baggy cargo shorts and t-shirts), but the girls were so enveloped in fabric and unwieldy hair that they could barely move. How is this any different from women in burkas?

  22. Nathanael says

    Canada doesn’t have the bizarre court protection of commercial operations that the US does.

    Basically, in Canada, lots of things are legal to do for run, but do it for commercial purposes, and you may be in trouble.

  23. Nathanael says

    FWIW, New York also has “topless equality”. It was established by the lawsuits of a group of pro-breastfeeding protestors in Buffalo, NY.

  24. says

    Aaah, I see. Got it. I didn’t realize strip clubs currently had nearly-nude ‘advertisements’ on the streets; I haven’t spent much time in Canada, and none of it was in the strip club strip (or whatever it’s called)

  25. Corvus illustris says

    Guilty of exemplifying the unreliability of eyewitness (via monochrome TV, of course) testimony, yer honner. The image that stayed in my mind was that of JFK giving his inaugural address in formal morning dress–but hatless. Nonetheless, the Snopes link backs me up on Kennedy’s participation, rather than leadership, in the decline of the hat code.

  26. Corvus illustris says

    The NW lower-peninsula MI county where we live has a substantial Mennonite community. The male dress is indistinguishable from everybody else’s; the female dress is homemade, all in the same patterns, with long skirts and various forms of hair covering that I cannot offhand characterize (different for married/unmarried?). Nice people; speak privately in an archaic German/Netherlandic dialact; but this is no different from putting women in burkas except that the fabrics are light-colored and patterned.

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