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.
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.
What are you concerned about today? What is at the top of your list of qualms, battles to fight and issues to raise? It is always interesting to see what demands attention, riles us up and pushes us to take action. For so long we have been taking what has been dished out, finding ways to work around disadvantageous systems, and complaining in small circles.
To see people rise up is new for many, even if it has been happening in pockets for generations. Social media has increased visibility and, in some cases, given some a sense of security through anonymity. Resistance is uncomfortable, even for the people observing it. Sometimes it feels unsafe for people, but most times it just seems unsafe for the systems and norms we know well. Even change for the better can be scary. As they say, “Ya know what ya got, but ya don’t know what you gon’ get.”
It makes sense there are some things we just don’t want to let go. It makes sense when it directly affects us, but what is our excuse for opposing progress for other people? How do we decide what is progressive and what is regressive?
One issue we are not likely to agree on is dress.
While it has become acceptable to wear bright or pastel colours at funerals, red dresses at weddings and jeans on Fridays at the office, we hold on to some old, nonsensical rules we like to call “standards”. That term makes it easier to subjugate, shame and force people into compliance. It means anyone who does not fit the mould is less-than, and we can look down on them, never bothering to think about the real difference between us and them.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Education posted a dress code for “visitors” to school compounds on its Facebook page – and everything is wrong with it. To start, if we really want to talk about “appropriate” appearances, the Ministry should hire or contract a graphic designer, or at least graduate from using the word art in Microsoft Word.
In the post, the Ministry demands visitors refrain from wearing mini skirts, tank tops, pum-pum shorts, high cut or off the shoulder tops, visible cleavage, see through clothing, tightly fitted clothing, and t-shirts with violence or sexual images. It further states that security has the right to deny property access to anyone deemed “inappropriately dressed”. Far too similar to the Parliamentary Registration Department’s foolery during the voter registration period ahead of the 2017 general election, this dress code is misogynistic. It targets women, limiting what we wear in what seems to be an attempt to make us invisible by hiding body parts deemed dangerous to the sight of others — namely unsuspecting, innocent, impressionable childlike men. It does not address low-hanging pants or exposed butt cracks. Interesting.
What is wrong with a parent collecting their child in a tank top and jeans? What, exactly, is the issue with a v-neck that, on certain body types, will expose cleavage? Why are women expected to be ashamed of our bodies? Some of us have cleavage and many pieces of “work appropriate” clothing will not conceal it. It does not even seem possible to have a conversation about cleavage when this dress code reveals a problem with shoulders and legs.
The comments on the dress code post are not surprising, but disgusting nonetheless. People are celebrating this announcement, some asking for other articles of clothing — like leggings — to be added to the list while others suggest a similar policy for teachers. In a conversation about the inappropriateness of this dress code, someone tried to convince me that is acceptable because teachers and employees at other places of business have a dress code to follow. Rather than argue about the history of colonialism and its persisting affects on former colonies like The Bahamas, I pointed out that employees choose — though we can argue about real choice and the illusion of choice — to sign on to policies through employment contracts and that is not a sensible parallel.
Adults are free to wear what they wish and there need not be ridiculous limitations on what parents or guardians wear when collecting children from school or engaging with administration or teachers.
If I am a waitress whose uniform includes a mini skirt or pum-pum shorts and I take a break to collect my child from school, I will be in violation of the dress code. Is that more important than being there to take my child home from school? If I work shifts and break my sleep for the school run, I won’t be able to enter the school compound in a tank top and shorts? I need to suit up for the trip?
The dress code is based on personal taste, and what is deemed “inappropriate” is completely subjective. I wonder if the people celebrating this dress code are the same people who complain about how many children are left in the schoolyard for hours, or how few parents show up for meetings at the school.
Dress codes go beyond sex, sexuality, nudity and discomfort with the human body. They are often rooted in respectability politics. There are expectations of black people that are not held over white people because there is an idea that black people need to do more work to be worthy of respect. A white women and a black woman could be in the same place wearing the same outfits and receive completely different responses because of the way we see gender and race as a package. The same goes for women of different sizes, or even different ages.
In majority black spaces, it seems we work even harder to fight stereotypes, putting the burden on individuals to undo centuries of oppression by checking all of the boxes that are supposed to grant access to a better life and perception of the entire race. Still, it doesn’t work. A black man in a suit with a school-boy haircut, fancy watch, nice car and university degree is still a black man.
Students of the University of The Bahamas are currently fighting a battle against administration. UB president Rodney Smith — the same former president known for plagiarising part of a speech in 2005 — has banned stoles and decorated caps from future graduation ceremonies. He claimed such things are not “academic” or “dignified”. It is interesting he would dare to utter those words given his past, but of course a man with the gumption to reapply for the position of president of the University of The Bahamas, after accepting responsibility for plagiarism, would have the confidence to steal joy from his moral high ground.
UB students are not accepting his position. They are not prepared to give up their traditions because this man has decided it just doesn’t look good or fit his perfect vision of the ceremony. I hope they fight hard and refuse to stop until he and the entire administration acknowledge the ceremony is about the students. It is not about his personal taste. It is a celebration of many years — because we all know it takes far more than four trying years for many to be done with UB — of dedication, waiting to register, pay and be advised in the hot sun, rat run-ins and financial hardship. They deserve better and they deserve our support as they fight for it, whether we like stoles and decorated caps or not.
Just because you’ve bought into respectability politics doesn’t mean everyone else must. If you are comfortable living in that box, good for you. Wear turtlenecks, blazers, culottes to pick up your children from school. Shield the eyes of your children from the offensive legs and shoulders around you. Avert your eyes from the “undignified” newly-degreed young people. Let people have nice things, even if those things are not nice to you.