ALICIA WALLACE: Fashion parade and dress code police

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Alicia Wallace

DRESS codes, to some people, are necessary. To others, they are restrictive. The way they are received depends heavily on the reason they are introduced, the effectiveness in addressing that cause, enforcement, and the consequences, both intended and unintended, of their existence. It often seems as though we like dress codes. It isn’t that we particularly enjoy being constrained, but watching other people fail to meet the standard appears to be a favourite pastime.

Last week, the opening of Parliament took place and, as usual, it was a POPPY SHOW. People watched closely to see who was wearing what and, in many cases, who was wearing whom. This is an exciting element of the affair — seeing the work of Bahamian designers and celebrating their talent. Many would say it was a time to “show up and show out.” The invitation to the invite specified lounge suits and short dresses with hats and gloves. Some adhered to this, some used it as a starting point, and others seemed to simply do their own thing.

Throughout the event, photos and videos circulated. The main focus, of course, was fashion. Predictably, the vast majority of the comments were about the women in attendance. From proclaiming love for a particular hat to projecting a deep meaning onto what others see a simple choice in colour, the participants in these conversations were determined to assess every article.

It was interesting to see people defend the dress code and attempt to be gatekeepers from their mobile devices. If a woman was photographed with gloves, it could not go without comment. “These people ain’ read the invitation,” or some variation appeared in the comments on many photos.

Even more telling were the comments on features that were not stipulated in the dress code. It was almost as though people took personal offence to the choices women made regarding their own clothing and on their own dime. They labeled dress lengths “wrong,” disturbed by the visibility of women’s knees. They were equally scandalized by the exposure of shoulders, insisting that sleeves are required for such events. Some even references the queen, saying that these women would not have been allowed to meet her dressed as they were. This is, by the way, completely incorrect. You can definitely meet the queen with exposed shoulders, arms, knees, backs, cleavage, and even bellies. She does not seem to care what anyone else wears. That aside, why the focus on what the queen might want to see at the opening of Parliament in The Bahamas, independent since 1973?

Dress codes and uniforms are often seen as almost interchangeable. One key difference, however, is that uniforms tend to unify, at least in appearance, a group of people by eliminating opportunities for their differences — especially in disposable income — to be visible. For schools, uniforms are said to reduce distractions and give students less to compare. As we know, they simply focus on shoes, belts, and backpacks. Who can afford which brand? Who gets new ones after the Christmas break?

For workplaces, uniforms are said to make it easier to identify staff. Many people prefer uniforms because it is easier to get ready for work. I know someone who makes it her mission to convert staff wherever she works to her position on uniforms. Some businesses even leave room for staff to add personal flair by allowing them to make articles with a particular fabric and issuing scarfs that can be worn in different ways.

Dress codes do not do the same thing. There may be more room for personal flair, but constraints are still there. One of the biggest constraints is financial. What is the woman with a very limited amount of money to spend supposed to do? In addition to a beautiful dress, she now needs to purchase a hat and gloves. In many cases, dress codes are also discriminatory. It is now widely accepted that women wear pants, so why would women be required to wear dresses for an event? Further, gender is a spectrum and people express their genders in various ways, so it should not be surprising that some women and nonbinary people would prefer to wear something than what is prescribed.

The other thing about dress codes, which also applies to many uniforms, is that they are completely unsuited to The Bahamas. Gloves are a ridiculous requirement, only adding to the cost of attending an event. Even what we consider business attire is absurd. Men are wearing suits and ties, office air conditioning is set to a low temperature to compensate, and the women learn to keep a thick sweater or warm jacket in the office and drink tea all day to warm up. “Professional” dress is an import and a result of colonialism. We need to let it go. It is costing us money, in more ways than one, and results in discomfort. With all of the Bahamian designers who show us what they’ve got when people wear their designs in pageants, at balls, and spectacles like the opening of Parliament, we can certainly come up with our own business attire. Countries in the Pacific have done it, making business attire well suited to the weather, culture, and the pocket.

We need to think about what we consider “right”, “good”, and “proper”, and how we came to these ways of thinking. We need to be prepared to learn and do better or, at the very least, accept that others will move beyond these old, tired ways of thinking and there is no reason to be offended by their growth. There is a difference between holding the opinion that women should wear dresses that cover their knees and saying that women who wear shorter dresses do not know what is or is not appropriate. You believe one thing, and someone else has acted on their own position, liking with thinking about or knowing you, or having any loyalty to your fashion (in)sensibilities.

When we start to assign moral value to people’s attire, we leave room for much greater errors. People are blamed for acts of sexual violence against them. Women are turned away from voter registration because their shoulders are visible. Women fashion skirts out of shopping bags in the parking lot because the Department of Immigration deems that more appropriate than their uniform which includes shorts (which are longer than the shopping bag skirt). Students miss class because their skirts do not touch the floor when they kneel. We can and must do better than this.

Dress codes are, in most cases, unnecessary. They are used to exclude people. They are a tool of gatekeepers. They are usually rooted in sexism, racism, and/or classism. Dress codes are not about cohesion and do not have anything to do with the quality of an event. They are an excuse for people to say that certain people do not belong. To gain access, you must be able to afford a dress, hat, and gloves, and you must at least appear to believe that the shoulders and knees of women are an embarrassment that must be concealed in the hopes that everyone else forgets they exist. Dress codes are an arbitrary set of rules that some follow with ease and others struggle to meet in order to be accepted by a person or set of people who consider themselves worthy of other people’s deference, thereby validating those setting the rules and their positions, even if their intent was simply to insert themselves into a particular class of people. It is quite the tool, powerful enough that people on the outside — with no invitation — help with enforcement, announcing those who slip in with minor infarctions, dedicated to making their failures known. Keeping these old rules only encourages this kind of behaviour and does nothing to elevate any of us. Again, we can and must do better than this.

Recommendations

1. Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson. After spending the summer with her grandmother, Claudia returns home to find that her best friend Monday is not there. She was already confused by the lack of response to her letters, but when Monday doesn’t show up at school, especially on her favorite day of the week, Claudia gets more concerned. It seems like no one else is particularly interested in looking for Monday, so Claudia is on her own to look, ask, and recruit adults to help her. The premise of this story seems quite simple, but the two timelines — before and after — create more investment in the friendship and finding out what really happened. It gets more complicated when an unexpected piece of information about Claudia is shared with the reader. From the beginning, we know Monday isn’t coming, but finding out what happened to her is quite the ride.

2. Grow your own food. Last year, many people got excited about starting kitchen gardens. They posted their successes on social media and shared the bounty with family members and friends. It is now, again, time to start planting. It is already October, but still quite hot, so talk to the staff at your favorite plant nursery to find out what you can plant now. Be sure to tell them where your garden space is — for example, on the western side of your house — so they can let you know what will do best there given the amount of sunlight your plants will receive. If you don’t have much yard space, don’t count yourself out! You can grow a number of vegetables and herbs in small spaces.