Shoshana Strykert was asked to cover up on a recent Jetstar flight while wearing pants and the top above. Picture: Jerad Williams
Shoshana Strykert was asked to cover up on a recent Jetstar flight while wearing pants and the top above. Picture: Jerad Williams

Love them or hate them, we need dress codes

While it's easy to dismiss so-called dress code infringements as a matter for the fashion police, there's sometimes cases where you get the feeling someone is deliberately undermining or disregarding sartorial guidelines and, when they do, they're chipping away at civic-mindedness and mutual respect as well.

There's been a few dress code stories making headlines in recent months.

Journalist Patricia Karvelas made the news herself after her removal from the public gallery at Parliament House last year for having bare arms.

Then last month it was Scott Morrison, declaring he's the "prime minister for standards" and that he wanted to ban thongs and board shorts from Australia Day citizenship ceremonies.

There was also drunk-driver Barbara Diana Vasconcellos Cardenas appearing in a NSW court in thigh-high denim shorts, and just last week we had Shoshana Strykert claiming she was "slut-shamed" (a term she may have misused in relation to this incident) by a Jetstar employee over her attire.

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Some of the cases show dress codes can be exploited or ignored or reinforced, to make a range of social, professional, gendered and political statements.

But somewhere in the middle of all this are those who neither intend to challenge the codes nor disregard them. The truth is they're either unaware of any rules or believe they're following them.

Karvelas and Strykert likely fall into that category, and certainly it's difficult to find anything offensive about what they were wearing.

 

They reflect the general confusion about what women should and shouldn't wear in certain places and spaces. It also highlights the definite double-standard that exists between the sexes.

As Jane Fynes-Clinton pointed out after the Karvelas brouhaha, "right or wrong, dress codes have always been different for men and women."

Schools have dress codes, places of work, RSLs, courts, pubs, night clubs, restaurants, Parliament House and even cruise ships.

Events, even when there are no written rules, have dress codes. Weddings, funerals, parties, dinner at a friends or relation's, a trip to the theatre, baptisms, church, there are a plethora of places and activities where certain kinds of clothing are deemed more fitting and respectful than others.

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As a child, I was always told that you dress to show respect for the people, event and place. Even visiting my grandmother's was an occasion - if only for the simple reason that we showed respect to her by donning our "good" clothes.

Likewise, going to the beach, playing in the backyard, a BBQ, lounging around at a friend's house, or attending a football match have their own appropriate and casual clothing options.

Increasingly, we're not only seeing a blurring of these (Hawaiian shirts and thongs - yes, I saw that - at a formal wedding) lines, but also the deliberate violation, and even breaking of dress codes.

Journalist Patricia Karvelas was removed from parliament for having bare arms. Picture: Gary Ramage
Journalist Patricia Karvelas was removed from parliament for having bare arms. Picture: Gary Ramage

Whether the motivation is indifference, financial, being obstinate, there's a sense in which it's both selfish and narcissistic. Regardless of others, it becomes all about you.

Often, if a person is pulled up for what they're wearing, evicted or turned away from entry to a venue, they cry "victim" and use social media (or just the media) to plead their case and accrue support.

Barbara Diana Vasconcello Cardenas attended court in denim cut offs. Picture: supplied
Barbara Diana Vasconcello Cardenas attended court in denim cut offs. Picture: supplied

But if we understand clothing to be not only be a mark of respect, but a visual billboard that swiftly tells others something about the wearer and their attitudes (to ourselves, others, politics, and the places and spaces we enter), then we can understand why people react the way they do when dress rules are broken or challenged. Do you want to befriend the person walking around with a "F - k You" T-shirt on?

People constantly make personal, social and political statements through clothing. Hence Morrison deemed thongs and T-shirts inappropriate, we read about the yellow-shirts in Paris, and female Democrats dressed in white at Trump's State of the Union address and even Julie Bishop's red shoes took on a meaning of their own.

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Starting a dress code and adhering to it can, as Assistant Professor of Fashion at Ryerson University Henry Navarro Delgado suggests, be symbolic and express a range of meanings "from conformity to rebellion". It can express unity to a corporation, workplace, purpose or be completely anti-social and disrespectful.

Is it a long bow to suggest that failing to acknowledge dress codes contributes to the erosion of not only authority, but respect and civility? It's easy to dismiss the notion, after all, it's just clothes we're talking about. But if it's all right to break one rule, why not others? Isn't it a slippery slope?

And why is okay for some people to break the guidelines but not others?

There's no doubt the fashion police can see crimes where none are committed, but it's also true that when it comes to lack of respect, sometimes the shoe fits.

Karen Brooks is a Courier-Mail columnist.

@KarenBrooksAU



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