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Dressing Misogyny

I got very excited last week.

It doesn’t take much to be fair - I can thrill at the promise of a new ice cream flavour - but in these oh so troubling political times the news that the Republican lawmakers of Missouri had repealed the right to bear arms had me positively skipping down the street. There is hope after all I thought, all is not lost, my faith in humanity can be restored. Until of course I realized that it was in fact the right to bare arms - and specifically women’s bare arms - that had been revoked, nothing, sadly, more lethal than that.

And whilst sartorial considerations are of (almost) paramount importance to me, I could see this was not the win I had hoped for.

The good people of Missouri - that is to say their elected representatives – are fearless in the face of this tailoring minefield. Every two years – yup, that’s right, EVERY TWO YEARS - they re-examine the House of Representatives dress code and tweak it. Unsurprisingly, for a state that passed the abortion ban in 2019 fully restricting a woman’s right to choose, it is the women’s dress code that appears to need constant re-examination. Missouri men, or at the very least their clothes, are beyond scrutiny or criticism. The HOR dress code has apparently always required a second layer of clothing to be worn; this year’s amendment sought to increase the control and decrease the choice of what that second layer might actually be. For women that is, just in case you thought otherwise. Not since the 12th Century Battle of Crug Mawr, has a cardigan been quite so in demand. And this from a House of Representatives who refused to wear masks during the pandemic on the basis that it was not for the government to dictate what people should wear over their faces. Although I was of course not there I can imagine the smug nods around the room as they alluded, with contempt, to governments elsewhere in the world who do require people – women that is, just in case you thought otherwise. – to cover their faces. Not for them, these open minded, leaders of the free world, such derisive control. No. But telling women how many layers they have to wear over their shoulders, why that’s a horse of an entirely different colour.

Missouri is not alone in its antiquated prejudicial way of going on. As recently as 2017 the US Congress and the Senate required reporters and lawmakers - women that is, just in case you thought otherwise - to wear dresses and blouses with sleeves if they wanted to enter the House chamber. A group of bipartisan female lawmakers protested, prompting the Speakers office to concede that the dress code “could stand to be a bit modernized.” If anyone on the Hill, or anywhere else in the various halls of power, stops for just one moment to ask themselves how this chimes with the drive to embrace non binary gender inclusivity, one can only imagine their heads will explode.

Let me be clear. It is not that I think clothes don’t matter. That is a very long way from what I think. I believe clothes matter a great, great deal. I believe you can do your best work, be your best self when you are dressed authentically. And I believe absolutely in appropriate dressing. I think - I know - the silent message our clothes send out is both powerful and potent. Understanding how to harness that strength, control that message and its communication is what working with a good stylist teaches you.

Many years ago I was approached by a rapidly growing company to develop a dress code for their staff. I declined explaining that there had been a case some years earlier where a great deal of time, money and specificity had gone into creating a company dress code. Staff were given full information and a reasonable lead time to prepare. On the day of its implementation a senior manager had come to work wearing a Superman costume. The costume did not violate any of the rules the company had given but it didn’t take a stylist to realise how this had gone seriously wrong.

Fashion, the clothes on our back, moves with the times. It has always been the case and it continues to be so. Attempting to bolt people down by way of a controlling, constraining code can work for a day, maybe a week - any longer than that and it is destined to trip you up where you least expect it.

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