*UPDATE, 18th November 2014: well, this post has certainly lived up to its name!
It’s caused a few (civilised!) disagreements with my friends, on the blog and on Facebook; some agree with me on some things, others not. Where I think I should clarify things (based on feedback), I’ll add new text with an asterisk.
This rather misses an important point about being compelled to wear (or not to wear) certain clothes… [update 26 Aug 2016] see The Ex Muslim for reasons why.
I may not like what you wear, but I’ll defend to the death your right to wear it.
(apologies to Voltaire!)
I have, in past blog posts, argued that if we intend to use our clothes to create an impression, then that’s precisely the impression we create. However, sometimes other people will make inferences about you, based on what you wear, and you have no control over this, even if they are utterly mistaken. Which is a bit of a pain.
Some will go further, and proscribe certain clothing – not on grounds of safety or practicality, nor for the sake of uniforms or ‘fitting in’, but morality. Now if this is because they are running a private business, then I’d say “their house, their rules” and best of luck to them. If we don’t like it, we can take our business elsewhere.
Visitors to St Peter’s should not wear orange mini-dresses or purple rowing bibs. I think.
Where I do have a problem is when people try to police clothing choices on the grounds of ‘public morality‘ (which is the polite way of saying ‘the most uptight members of society will impose restrictions on the rest of us’, having failed to learn that prohibitions never work.)
For example, Iran and North Korea require men to have fucking awful hairstyles, and the Taliban required men to grow beards. The Jewish Tzniut requires sleeves to cover the elbows and shirts to cover the collarbone, and skirts to cover the knees. Some women also avoid overly eye-catching colours, especially bright red; strict Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair. Presumably because women’s hair is made of magic and beams out lust rays to men?
In some parts of the world, men wear long flowing garments and cover their hair. So, too, did women (traditionally). But that didn’t go far enough for some tastes, and now they are compelled to dress like ninjas…
Restrictions on women’s clothing (among much else) is apparent in those countries which made strict interpretations of Islam into public policy. Some say the veil‘s a religious thing, some say it’s cultural; some women support it, some women protest it.
Regardless, it’s an item from the feminine wardrobe I would be perfectly happy to go without. But as much as I might loathe the veil and everything I think it stands for – I regard it as insulting and demeaning to men and women alike – I would never want it banned. *(It could be counterproductive, limiting the freedom of veiled women even to go outdoors – if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s unintended consequences; and laws used to ban things you dislike might also be used to ban things you do like, too.)
If, as a cross-dresser, I want to argue that I should be allowed to wear whatever I like, then the same must apply to anyone, even if I don’t like their choices. I do not believe people should be compelled to choose or refrain from their clothing choices.
Of course, there doesn’t have to be a law that compels people to dress a certain way (or not). This month’s (November 2014) Twitter ephemera is the story about the scientist in Rosetta Space Mission who wore a kitsch t-shirt whilst waiting for the Philae probe to land. An observer inferred from the man’s clothing that he was sexist and this was symptomatic of a community hostile to women.
This opinion hit the internet and many thousands of people decided it must be true. But it wasn’t: his friend, a seamstress called Elly Prizeman made the t-shirt for his birthday. As she says herself, there was no message. The t-shirt is not symptomatic of sexist community.
Sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder?
*The t-shirt in question featured cartoon women in tight or skimpy clothing, all wielding guns. Is that an example of sexualised imagery? From my perspective, I’ve run about in tight or skimpy clothing wielding toy guns, and I didn’t do it because I thought I’d look sexy; I did it because I thought I’d look cool.
*As for the scientist, I have no reason to think that he thought he was representing anyone but himself. The first I saw of him, he was showing off his probe tattoo on live international TV/streams. I would’ve hoped for discussion about his part in the science team. This was way before I even gave his shirt even a first thought (watching on a low-res, small display). Before I saw the shirt, I thought he was being unprofessional and drawing attention to himself rather than the mission. At least he apologised.
*Now this is just my preference here, but: just as a reporter shouldn’t be talking about the clothing/hair/makeup choices of a US Secretary of State, rather than foreign policy (for example), reporters shouldn’t be paying attention to the body art or dodgy clothing choices of a comet probe scientist. IMHO, of course. And yes, people should pay no more attention to women’s appearance than they do to men’s.
*As for the issue of women being under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths), it might’ve been more instructive to take a screenshot of the Rosetta control room, showing the ratio of men and women present. I think this would have made the point about women’s under-representation in STEM work far better (on the day, I think I spotted only two women). But the internet ran with a tacky shirt instead – not the best target, perhaps?
But reading your own messages in a garish t-shirt is trivial, and not just because of the ground-breaking space mission it took attention from. There are far more serious problems with the concept of reading messages in clothing.
For example, in a 1977 Wisconsin rape case, the judge considered the sixteen year old complainant’s clothing and sentenced the defendant to probation. The judge called for women to “stop teasing” and for a “restoration of modesty in dress.” Clothing was admissable evidence in Alabama, Georgia and Florida in the 1980s and 1990s, used to undermine a victim’s credibility. In February 2011, Manitoba judge Robert Dewar claimed a rape victim “was asking for it”, which ultimately prompted Slutwalks in cities around the world.
Attitudes in the UK were similar. It took until 2009 before plans were introduced for judges to issue instructions to rape trial juries to ignore common misconceptions about rape, including the victim’s mode of dress.
Our clothing choices are merely symptomatic of our personal tastes, and nobody should assume knowledge about us that they don’t have.
This is also true for cross-dressing. You cannot make assumptions about a man in a skirt beyond the fact he evidently wanted to put it on and probably thought he’d look or feel good wearing it.
Historically, cross-dressing was banned in a number of places (a brief history of such laws in the USA can be found here). I’d far rather live in a culture which, by law, allows freedom of expression.
It can only be a good thing, any time society recognises that cross-dressing is harmless, and not immoral – in fact, it is more moral to allow it (but, again, not to compel it).
There are all sorts of reasons why men cross-dress, but observers will come up with their own explanations instead, and this will probably have very little to do with the truth.
*Why do we wear what we wear?
*I think a distinction needs to be drawn between ‘external compulsion’ (law, culture, religion) and ‘internal compulsion’ (wanting to wear something because you think it looks/feels good). I’m simply arguing against the ‘external compulsion’ and went for the most obvious examples. I’ll deal with ‘internal’ ones in another post, soon.
*I cannot presume to know why someone wears what they do; if they say they’re happy to wear it, I must assume that’s true.
*Do I judge people by their clothes? Hell, yeah… but that doesn’t mean 1) that I’m right, nor 2) that I should.
“My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”
– Eve Ensler