Dress Code: Rules, Revelry, Subjugation and Choice in the Act of Self-Display

“Bras are a ludicrous invention…. but if you make bralessness a rule, you’re just subjecting yourself to yet another repression.” – Germaine Greer.


If you were the fashion police, what codes would you impose?  Would you make everything lively? Dignified? Sexy? Functional?  What if I didn’t get what your decrees meant? What if I come from a land where your parrot green festival-wear is mistaken for a mourning outfit?



In college, I wrote a poem late one night when I was supposed to be writing a poli-sci paper in quantitative methods.  I was quite pleased with myself over this one line:  “you rip my flesh and dress me in spices.” I immediately emailed it to my buddy J., who I knew was also awake, sketching costume ideas for an upcoming theatre production.

Next day, sitting on the campus green between classes, J. said to me: “Wow… Dressed in spices! That’d be fun…”

It’s not the response I expected, but perhaps should have. J. was a theatre major, flirting with the idea of switching to fashion design. I could just see all his neurons firing over the idea of dressing women in spices. I imagined him sending a lineup of androgynous girls sashaying down a runway, wearing wicker-woven rosemary gowns studded with allspice berries; garlands of garlic, turmeric and red chili peppers swaying around their necks; crowns of cinnamon and rhubarb on their heads.

Festive image.  But that wasn’t my point.  My words were supposed to evoke the bitter-sweetness of celebrating womanhood in the backdrop of patriarchy; to highlight how masculine affection, adoration – anything a man gives a woman in “appreciation” – is potentially a stylized articulation of her use-value to him. If there was any sartorial point to my poem, it was to show how women’s dress and adornment almost always contained an embedded patriarchal message:  You are a consumable object; we dress you in finery, just as we dress meat in spices.

I expected J. to come fully onboard with this idea. As a gay guy with a chiseled, classically “masculine” physique, a shock of thick, curly red hair and a ridiculously cuddly, baby-boy face, he was someone people constantly tried to put in some sort of gender-cage they expected him to fit. He, of all people, should’ve understood. But

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Women do really like to dress up …. even You.”

True.  Clothes, shoes, jewelry – they certainly had their allure. These indulgences even produced sensations of female bonding (through shared rituals of shopping, coordinating, getting ready for parties with girlfriends).

But as young women, we also sometimes felt pressured to meet constantly shifting – and manufactured – beauty standards . . . or else be considered “odd” or have people speculate about our sexual orientation.  We all read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and nodded in recognition.

Still, there’s just no denying the joy of “dressing up”!  Even Naomi Wolf wears make up, sensuously draped fabrics, and stylish hairdos.

As Palestinian writer Sara Yasin wrote in a New York Times article “a hijab isn’t inherently liberating – but neither is baring one’s breasts. What is liberating is being able to choose either of these things. It’s pretty ludicrous to think that oppression is somehow proportional to how covered or uncovered someone’s body is.… the substantive challenges facing all women …cannot be encapsulated in a debate about a piece of fabric.”

Feminist scholar Linda Scott sees nothing distorted about women’s interest in fashion. She rejects the idea that women beautify themselves solely for men. Her book, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, traces the long history of self decoration in an array of social contexts, not just in sexuality. She also asserts that there’s nothing inherently demeaning or disempowering about enhancing one’s sex appeal to attract the opposite sex.  Her research into the fashion industry has revealed, surprisingly, that it has been largely a female-dominated enterprise.

But writer Ariel Levy is troubled by current trends in fashion and entertainment, which she says amount to a “Raunch Culture” wherein women themselves have become purveyors of caricatured, misogynistic portrayals of femaleness in movies and music videos; and they have embraced porn-inspired body aspirations (evident from cosmetic surgery and grooming trends like vaginoplasty,  breast-augmentation, and Brazilian bikini-waxing).

Music legend Annie Lennox has also noted the disturbing trend among young female musicians to project a sexuality that is less about their own sexual expression or power and more about offering themselves as commodities for men’s pleasure.  She described these as “monetized forms of self-harm.” I would even add that certain images – like that of a semi-naked Miley Cyrus servilely “twerking” a fully clothed and utterly un-reciprocating Robin Thicke at the MTV music awards – bruise the psyche of the viewer in much the same way as any harshly misogynistic video by Snoop Lion.

Yet, it would be even more troubling if we were to react by prohibiting women from presenting themselves in this way, rather than figuring out how to persuade them that it’s harmful.  Because that’s how all repression starts. What would be next? A no-visible-ankles rule? Chastity belts?

The bottom line value – for all of us – has to be individual choice and agency regarding our persons.  That consideration must trump all symbolic injury to others, who are, after all, free to boycott what they find offensive – or to simply look away.



I recently had another conversation – on an entirely different topic – that touched on this same tension between a woman’s freedom of choice and the symbolic subjugation that might be encoded in what she chooses.

My friend Sohini told me she supported France’s prohibition on religious attire – most controversially, the hijabs worn by Muslim women. Sohini lamented the recent reversal of a similar measure in Turkey, calling it “a regressive move against secular Turkish women.”

“They’re not requiring anyone to wear a headscarf,” I said.

“No, but they’re relaxing the controls against men who dictate to women that they have to cover their heads.”

“And that’s worse than the state telling women they have to bare their heads?”

I was dealt a cold, disbelieving stare.  “You approve of gendered dress-codes?” She asked.  “It’s not for me to approve or disapprove.” I answered.

“Oh….you’re one of those!” She seemed relieved to have me pegged.

I knew exactly whom she meant. Sadly, I’ve met far too many of “those” cultural relativists who take the position that there’re no universal standards of humanity, only customs informed by “heritage.” That’s really cultural essentialism, as it treats entire societies as monolithic  —a far cry from any genuine respect for differences that the term “relativism” implies.  Interestingly, this kind of perverse “tolerance” is only ever extended to justify sexism; people endorsing such a view would recoil from it – and rightly – if applied to culturally sanctioned abuses based on race, ethnicity, caste, or religion.  To that extent, I’m with Sohini.

But what’s wrong with banning headscarves isn’t that it violates some cultural code.  It’s that it violates a woman’s personal choice. I support her right to wear a headscarf, not anyone else’s power to coerce her.

The Turkish case is more complicated than either Sohini or I accounted for.  Unlike European countries that have banned religious clothing (disproportionally affecting Muslims), Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country where the ban affects most women. Merve Kavakci was elected to the Turkish parliament, but then expelled for wearing a headscarf to her oath ceremony and later exiled. She has said 70% of Turkish women wear headscarves by choice and the ban – since 1981 – worked “to ostracize and marginalize them” in all areas of life: employment, education, even healthcare.

Turkish expatriate Sermin Womack, an international business attorney (whose own sensibilities are secular and multicultural), says headscarves signify historical continuity to many people. “The jury is still out about which direction the country should take. Pro-Europe, pro-Arab, pro-Israel? …so many dilemmas.  For many, headscarves are a way to hold on to the past, to something time-tested.”

Proponents of the ban say headscarves are symbols and vestiges of “oppression.”  Even if we accept that premise, we must ask, whom does it “liberate” to remove these symbols by force?  Someone who has internalized their importance and incorporated them into her identity will not feel the removal of her coverings as a liberation; she will feel violated and denuded against her will; this act will replace vestigial, symbolic victimization with actual victimization.

I asked Sohini – who, like me, is Hindu – whether any married woman in her family wore the ritual streak of vermillion (sindoor) on her head. She said her grandmother did.  Then she added “I understand where you’re going with this, but if I honestly thought that there was a widespread problem of women being forced to wear sindoor, and then I would welcome a ban on it. My grandmother would just have to understand that there are bigger issues in the world than her preference.”

But isn’t it a little perverse to force someone to remove her sindoor or her hijab as a remedy for others who might be forced to put these things on?

In France, Islamic feminist groups like Ni Putes Ni Soumises  (“Not Whores Not Doormats”), who support a hijab ban, have argued that French Muslim girls almost never wear hijabs by “choice” and that they face harsh punishment by their families if they defy the dress-code.

But how does banning headscarves protect those girls?  Wouldn’t families just put more restrictions on their daughters rather than letting them go out with their heads uncovered?  Effective mechanisms must be devised to prevent actual abuse and intimidation rather than attacking the symbols of abuse, which just ends up making things worse for victims.

And what about women who freely choose their hijabs?  Should their rights be sacrificed simply to provide symbolic remedies for other people’s injuries that they had nothing to do with?

Some women say they find it empowering to cover themselves. Shalina Litt, a prominent Muslim radio broadcaster in England, says that speaking with men while she is veiled is “liberating” because it forces men to focus on her words, not her looks.  But others prefer to shed what feels to them like confining conventions of circumscribed femininity. Earlier this year, Amina Sboui, a young Tunisian feminist, protested against coercive standards of “modesty” and “honour” by posting a topless photo of herself on Facebook with the words “I own my body. It is not the source of anyone’s honour.”

Sboui was threatened, arrested, and forced into a psychiatric facility; so, clearly not everyone agrees she “owns” her body to the extent of being permitted to show it partially naked on Facebook. Yet, the global media ignored the autonomy issue and fixated on the “controversy” of whether stripping is liberating or self-debasing. And, conversely, whether hijabs signify dignified self-possession or cowering submissiveness.

But that’s the wrong question. As Palestinian writer Sara Yasin wrote in a New York Times article “a hijab isn’t inherently liberating – but neither is baring one’s breasts. What is liberating is being able to choose either of these things. It’s pretty ludicrous to think that oppression is somehow proportional to how covered or uncovered someone’s body is.… the substantive challenges facing all women …cannot be encapsulated in a debate about a piece of fabric.”

Some people think that even if hijabs are freely chosen by some wearers, they are still vestiges of gender hierarchy, whose continued use accommodates and reinforces sexism on a larger, societal scale. I once met a German feminist, Melanie, who insisted that her country’s prohibition against teachers wearing headscarves was needed to protect children.  She feared her daughters’ minds would be indelibly imprinted with images of female subjugation if their teacher wore a headscarf.

But does symbolism really work that way?  I’ll bet Melanie’s children have seen pictures of their grandmother, circa 1960s, wearing a miniskirt, long boots and a big, bright psychedelic-printed headscarf. Are they supposed to instinctively discern which scarf is symbolic and which is a passing fashion craze?  Also, if these kids are so viscerally attuned to the historic significance of the gender politics of religious groups that aren’t even their own, then surely they will also key into the collective unconscious of their own culture and register their grandmother’s miniskirt as objectifying and catering to the male gaze?  Sexual objectification is just as harmful as coerced “modesty” – if one can be banned, why not the other?

Many people, like Melanie, question whether the hijab choice is ever really free.  They’re not worried about literal coercion in the way that Ni Putes Ni Soumises says is happening with Muslim girls in France. Melanie’s concern is that this “choice” – to embrace the symbols of a patriarchal tradition – is an expression of internalized oppression and is inherently coerced.

I guess that means when women make any traditionally female sartorial choice (like long hair and dresses instead of buzz-cuts and muscle shirts, or saris instead of dhotis), they aren’t exercising their agency; they’re participating in a delusion of agency – like they’re all suffering from collective Stockholm Syndrome.

By that logic, no human choice is ever “truly” free, since we’re conditioned by years of socialization (and millennia of civilization).  So, if an individual feels free and actually is free in the literal sense (i.e., nobody is choosing for her or threatening her), should we even bother straining to decode the symbols of her oppression? Also, if you really think people are brainwashed, why not empower them (with education and opportunities) to recover their own agency instead of violently robbing them of their happy delusions?

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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