Clothing is an endlessly fascinating topic. It’s a non-verbal language that can convey information about mood, attitudes, preferences, and most obviously sexuality. Its numerous parts, from the endless permutations of shoes to the variety of decorations a military officer can earn, offer a far deeper vocabulary and far more potent social commentary than many people realize. It’s a language where women have many more sentences they can form and words they can use than men do, and which is often dismissed as a frivolous, ultimately unimportant area of human experience…not at all coincidentally.
It’s also a language that faces a peculiarly rigid and socially sanctioned sort of restriction, in the form of dress codes.
I don’t like dress codes.
I understand dress codes—I know, usually, what they’re for—but I don’t like them. We balk at lists of pre-approved words people can speak or rules against painting in particular genres, but see no problem with blanket invalidation of numerous stylistic choices when it comes to clothing, and that unsettles me. We recognize that equivalent restrictions on other kinds of expression are the stuff of fascist dystopias, but telling people what clothes they can or cannot wear—that’s fine.
Perhaps it’s because the weight of the dress code falls disproportionately on women, especially in schools.
I remember my high-school dress code well. It had a few rules for men—waistbands above a certain height, no shorts, no “objectionable content,” etc.—designed primarily to prevent what they deemed slovenly presentation. That was the focus—a sort of “professionalism lite,” mandated seriousness via clothing. The section on women’s clothing was at least three times as long, and had rules for skirt length, top length, décolletage, and every other flavor of exposed skin. There were a few rules in both sets, such as the rule against backless shoes, that were there for public safety (to avoid people catching the shoes of the people ahead of them on crowded stairs, in this case), but those were few and far between. The rest was on those two goals: professionalism for men, avoiding “distracting” skin for women. And they made sure we knew it.
For who, indeed, were these “indecent” ladies distracting with the miniskirts and thin rings of midriff that the security guards policed with at least as much zeal as they devoted to fights and vandalism? I went to school in Florida in the early 2000s. The school could not possibly have cared less about gay people and would rather they all remained invisible and ignored. No, women’s clothing was restricted for precisely the same reason that men’s clothing was restricted—for the supposed benefit of men. Men were forces of nature, unrestrained whirlwinds of sex that could only be temporarily mollified if women, sagely, kept their skin under wraps. It was women’s responsibility to make sure men could get educated, by not distracting them. Both sections of the dress code made mention of avoiding “distracting” messages on shirts, but only one of them was burdened with not setting off others’ sexual attention.
And what did this tell the young women who teemed everywhere in that school but my high-level programming class? It told them that their sexuality was something to fear, that they should regard their own sex appeal as a weapon that others would use against them. It made the school and its administration into an extension of the same culture of cat-calling and harassment that Hispanic girls in particular simply learn to tolerate or even embrace. School was just another place where they would be inspected for sexual content on arrival and hassled if it was found. And for the ladies with particularly long legs or full breasts, this was yet more insidious, as garments that would have raised no eyebrows on another frame became unacceptably provocative on them. What lesson were they to gather, but that their own bodies were something shameful and dangerous, to be hidden and suppressed lest the world take notice?
And the men? What did they get out of it, aside from continued demonization of black cultural signals as indicative of poor breeding and criminality? They got yet another place where they had free license to stare holes through their female classmates, because every message they received from on high was that they were incapable of doing otherwise and thus had no reason to care whether the ladies in question approved. They got to watch the administration make one kind of example of the black student wearing an oversized sweater and a different, altogether more lascivious example of the girl whose skirt was a few fingers north of acceptable or whose top wasn’t quite long enough to cover all of the skin above her waistband. She became an object, a mere tool to demonstrate the sickening lesson of modesty. What this conveyed, the rest of society echoed with patriarchal triumph: women are objects. Use them accordingly.
I remember my acquaintances at Coral Gables High School regarding the dress code mostly as an annoyance, but what if they didn’t? I regarded those ladies who pushed its boundaries as a rare visual treat to savor, another tiny scrap of inexperience to shed with a new sight and a new smidgen of understanding of the female form. I was desperately lonely and desperately curious, but what if in my laser-focus on women’s bodies I didn’t see what other people were doing to them? What if the casual objectification in which I engaged was only the most benign tip of a far more jagged dehumanization? What if, when the administration decreed, “Showing this much skin is unladylike and could get you attention you don’t want,” someone heard, “Girls showing this much skin are free for the groping”?
I don’t have to imagine. People hear that message every day, as well as its corollary, “If you were showing this much skin and someone groped you, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
Dress codes take that magnificently, sublimely terrifying period of exploring one’s sexuality, of learning and understanding and trying out new ways to present it to others and to oneself, and turn it into shame, disgust, fear, annoyance, and taboo. Where once the ineluctable thrill of one’s first brush with oneself as a sexual being might have spawned confidence and empowerment, it becomes a tool of degradation. Where a public school stood the chance of being a student’s escape from the nightmare that is society’s attitude toward sexuality, and the Lovecraftian den of sadness and hate that is religion’s take on the same, the dress code makes the school complicit, and the first line of enforcement of those same norms.
But no. Just as religious dress codes metastasize into the surrounding community once religious groups figure out how to convince people that this is acceptable, just as religious groups get away with requiring that even non-members who visit them obey the same norms that they require for members, they get away with infiltrating their norms into our educational system. What was long justified with threats of hellfire, social ostracism, and moral opprobrium, now also wields the specters of “unladylike” and “distracting” to beat out of women any sense of sexual agency.
It’s not a coincidence that the places and cultures most insistent on this notion of “modesty” or “purity” or “not distracting men” are also the places most insistent on women having no choice in when they get pregnant or produce children. The impulses are one: the notion that a woman’s body is not her own, but the property of the men around here, to be controlled for “her” benefit.
That is not the world I want my offspring to inherit. And if the secular movement succeeds, it won’t be.