Codes of Dress: Inclusionary or Exclusionary?

As most fashion historians (and, I would wager, even most non-fashion historians) accept, clothing is a clear way of identifying oneself as part of a culture, a sub-culture, a tribe. Most of the time, we think of these tribes as unifying, identifying people who listen to similar music, hang out in similar venues, perhaps come from a specific culture or adopting a particular way of life…. For example, Scottish tartans and British coats of arms are signifiers of belonging to specific clans; in clan scuffles, this was necessary to distinguish your family from your enemy. Or, in an urban setting, Alexander McQueen’s family tartan (which he used in multiple collections) advertises his Scottish pride, and unites the wearer of the McQueen plaid with McQueen himself, as with Sarah Jessica Parker as his date for the Costume Institute’s gala (whose “Anglomania” theme was cheekily undercut by the Scottish print):

Alexander McQueen and Sarah Jessica Parker in tartan, Met Gala 2006

But there is an opposite exclusion that occurs simultaneously, as exemplified by this NY Times article on dress codes in New York venues. Makeover stories like Cinderella, Gigi, and My Fair Lady all extol the struggle and ultimate satisfaction derived from studying and adopting a class or life station that one aspires to, often related to economic class and/or social status. High school movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless address this transformation theme by making the apt comparison between class and teenage social cliques (watch 3:28 – 4:30 for a hilarious summary of these castes that includes Audio-Visual Geeks, Basic Beautiful People, Coffee Kids, White Rastas, Cowboys, Future MBAs.)

Uniforms are similarly meant to integrate those who belong to a school, an army, a job, a prison, and necessarily distinguish those wearing the uniforms from those not (the latter are marked as enemies). In the case of military uniforms, they need to appear, well, uniform, from a distance while having enough variation to advertise differences in rank:

 

ACU Digital Camo Military Rank Insignia US Army Patch

Though there are logical motivations, some natural and some imposed, for blending in sartorially, as the Times article pointed out, sometimes those reasons for imposing dress codes are racially discriminatory: “the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation (still in progress) into the Continental, a sports bar in the East Village on Third Avenue, for its “no baggy jeans or bling” policy, which civil rights groups called a barely concealed ploy to keep out blacks.” The anti-baggy pants campaign that some politicians and citizens (Bill Cosby) have taken up is irretrievably racial, however good-intentioned the sentiment, as exemplified by NY State Senator Eric Adams’ billboards:

 

"Stop the Sag" campaign

This racial profiling shares many elements with France’s recent ban on veils that conceal the face– which is almost always referred to as the “ban on the burqa” because it is understood that female Muslims are the target, though the word “burqa,” “hijab” nor “niquab” are specified in the law. Other examples of misguided dress codes are corporations that insist female employees wear makeup and heels; schools that forbid boys from wearing skirts if they want to (see my previous post on this). Though I may not want to wear saggy jeans or face veils myself (and I can even see how people interpret these styles as indicative of perceived social / political problems), I nonetheless view sartorial persecution as thinly veiled racism / sexism / homophobic, weather that it anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-man, or anti-gay. Attempting to exercise control over the clothes of another adult is inevitably more damaging to social harmony than attempting to address the underlying problems (which are admittedly huge in scope). The New York club dress codes may not seem like a huge problem in and of itself, but it is indicative of wider-scale intolerance.

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1 Comment

  • EmilyKennedy August 02, 2011 06.48 pm

    Jessica at GoFugYourself.com said in response to the Quenqua NY Times article, “It makes me just want to sit on one of your fire escapes and drink beer out of a cooler.” When dress codes produce so much anxiety that they make club patrons want to opt out rather than opt in, they are elevating exclusion at a steep expense.

    The wikipedia entry on “definition” notes: A definition should not be negative where it can be positive. Totally agreed.

     

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