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Are dress codes oppressive?

Across the world, people are raising voices over dressing styles for being sexist and racist

The strife over dress codes reflect a general movement towards more casual, informal dress in modern society, says Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and author of 'Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History'.
The strife over dress codes reflect a general movement towards more casual, informal dress in modern society, says Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and author of 'Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History'. (Unsplash)

A sneaker-clad Latino state senator in Rhode Island is objecting to his chamber's jacket and dress shirt edict as a form of white oppression. Female lawmakers in Montana complain proposed rules dealing with skirt lengths and necklines are overly sexist. And an Iowa state representative wore jeans on the floor last month to highlight the irony of Republican leaders refusing to mandate face masks in the chamber as the coronavirus pandemic rages while still banning jeans and other casual clothes.

With women and people of colour elected in larger numbers in many states, legislatures are being forced to confront longstanding dress codes that are increasingly viewed as sexist and racist. “These rules make it OK for us to judge people based on the way they dress or how they look, and I just feel that's super problematic,” said Jonathon Acosta, the 31-year-old Democratic state senator from Rhode Island. “I assure you that what I wear does not influence the quality of the work I produce.” The National Conference of State Legislatures hasn't tallied how many legislatures are considering or have adopted rules addressing attire this year. But the Denver-based organization said roughly half of all state legislatures had some sort of formalised dress code in 2019.

Debates over dress have also come up in Congress. Objections from female lawmakers to a longstanding ban on sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes in the House prompted former Republican Speaker Paul Ryan in 2017 to promise a review, though it's unclear whether the rule was updated to reflect contemporary standards. Spokespersons for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't respond to phone and email messages seeking comment Wednesday.

On the other side of the globe, a Maori lawmaker won his battle against wearing a tie in the New Zealand Parliament last month. He derided the tie as a “colonial noose" and wore a traditional hei tiki pendant instead.

Last week in India, a different kind of clothing-related debate was taking place. Tirath Singh Rawat, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, had criticised a sartorial choice (the wearing of ripped jeans, especially by women), saying such a style statement is an aberration for "Indian culture". Soon, a large number of women across India shared photographs of themselves in ripped jeans on Twitter.

Wearing unconventional clothing can be an effective “statement of resistance” or solidarity in the political arena, but dress codes also play an important role in preserving decorum in the democratic process, said Rhonda Garelick, a dean at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

“That is where the pushback comes from: We dress differently for a funeral from the way we do at a barbecue,” she said. “Are there other ways to convey difference or resistance while still conveying respect or formality?” The strife over dress codes also reflect a general movement towards more casual, informal dress in modern society, said Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. “When I look at the senator from Rhode Island, he looks more like a tech bro' to me than anything else,” Ford said, referencing the sometimes derisive nickname for certain workers in Silicon Valley.

The Democrat-controlled Rhode Island Senate approved its new dress code Tuesday, over objections from Acosta and other lawmakers.

The provision, a revision of a policy the chamber has had for decades, requires Senate members and staff dress in “proper and appropriate attire, such as blouses, dress slacks and collared shirts with accompanying jacket.” Democratic Sen. Louis DiPalma, who chairs the rules committee that vetted the revised mandates, argued that the dress provision is broader than those in other state legislatures. “It's not about judging how anyone looks,” he said. “A dress code and decorum are about respecting an institution that is 200-plus years old.” Sen. Gordon Rogers, a Republican from rural Foster, said he supported the attire rules even as he admitted it was difficult to trade in his beloved Chippewa boots for dress shoes and secondhand suits to enter the chamber.

“It's not about disenfranchising anybody,” the businessman and farmer said to some applause. “Sometimes you have to force respect.” But Sen. Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat, countered that this year's dress code is more specific than the chamber's previous one, which simply required all persons on the Senate floor “be properly dressed.” She also questioned the timing of the new edict, following an election in which more women and people of color were voted into the 38-member chamber in its history. “This is colonization language. The need to remind everyone who is in power. It has always started with what you tell them to do with their bodies,” Mendes said.

“That's not lost on me.” Acosta, who was elected in November to represent the strongly Latino city of Central Falls, argued that the Senate's dress code isn't even widely enforced. He's been wearing cardigans, joggers and Air Jordan sneakers for weeks without any apparent objection. “Whose sensibilities are being insulted?” Acosta asked, purposefully donning a black guayabera, a traditional Caribbean dress shirt, that didn't have a collar for Tuesday's debate.

After the vote, the Brown University sociology graduate student acknowledged that Senate leaders at least removed language imposing the dress code on chamber guests, a concern he and others raised earlier. But he said the strong opposition to ending the dress code outright only underscores the uphill battle younger, progressive lawmakers face in trying to advance more pressing priorities. “It speaks to how conservative the institution is,” Acosta said. “It's very difficult to change anything."

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