Dress Restrictions: Equal Opportunity Offense

Chain (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

Yesterday I was denied entry into a building. I was there to attend a business event, peopled by serious professionals. The reason for my not being allowed admission is that I was wearing a dress.

I think the details of the dress are not important but anticipating debate on that, I’ll clarify. It was a printed dress, sleeveless, knee-length and loose-fitting: a summer dress. It was a Sunday after all, and a hot one. Of note, it was not the event organizers who blocked me but the college in which the event was being conducted. The college is a very reputed management college which also conducts other professional/postgraduate programs. I think it’s safe to say that the average age of a student there would be mid-twenties.

Back when I was a teenager, colleges tried to impose restrictions on our dressing. Hats/caps were not allowed. Any attire not full-length was restricted (leading to my being pulled up for wearing a pair of calf-length capris). Sleeveless was banned. Notice here that all these restrictions pretty much apply to female attire.

Over the years, the shorts/three-quarter culture got popular among men as well. I remember questioning why I was being pulled up when I could see boys/men around me showing off their knees. A few places now ban people of both genders from these. I don’t see this as progress, just equal opportunity offense.

I am not against the culture of uniforms in certain situations. There are merits to having school children in uniforms. It reduces, at least visually, the economic disparity in playground drama. It helps the authorities manage the children that they are responsible for, a little better. In the uniformed professions, especially defense & the police, it certainly helps the system and their purpose better to be identifiable with their roles. Similarly so, for nurses and other such caregivers in populous situations, where it is necessary to be able to distinguish caregiver from patient and visitors. And finally, prisoners for the same reason as schoolchildren – to be able to identify and manage better.

I cannot think of any other situation where a uniform would be necessary. Dress restrictions seem to be a milder form of uniforms, an attempt to impose control and homogeneity.

When I was studying for my management degree, there was talk of introducing a uniform dress code for the students. I was entirely surprised to find some of my classmates championing this. When I asked one of them why she believed we should be uniformly dressed, she said,

“Do you know they do this in such-and-such college? Think how bad it looks for our college when ‘corporates’ visit and see students in jeans and casual clothes.”

I didn’t buy that logic then and I still don’t. Having been a ‘corporate’ myself, I know I don’t judge a college by what its students are wearing to class. It would be important that they be appropriately dressed at interviews and later on, working situations. But those are loose norms and certainly not to be imposed on adults sitting in classrooms for lecture. On the contrary, I’d wonder about the kind of people who let themselves be sheep-herded into this kind of forced uniformity by an authority. Would they have the sense to question their surroundings? Would they have the courage and strength to make the kind of decisions a professional has to make, without succumbing to peer pressure?

I want to reiterate that I believe this imposition of dress code in situations other than the ones I listed above, has to do with society’s control over women. In places of worship and every other social setting, dress restrictions have always been imposed on women. You dress up on happy occasions, you wear Indian wear to the temple, you wear certain colours on certain days. And you don’t expose your knees, your arms or your cleavage. Why? Because it doesn’t show respect to the system. Which somehow magically translates to your being ‘bad’.

I don’t see this as any different from women being forced to wear burqas. In fact, it’s even presumptuous to force women to not wear burqas, if they want. After all, why should anybody have the right to tell an adult what they may or may not wear?

I expect to be treated like I know how to conduct myself in every situation. Wearing a dress might be inappropriate if I had the job of a firefighter or rock-climber. But it is perfectly suitable to an afternoon spent sitting in a classroom/boardroom environment. It might make me stand out but that’s my call and the consequences are mine to bear.

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...
Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soho area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Incidentally, I am also tickled by the notion that restaurants and pubs feel they can impose dress codes on their patrons. I found a pub last year which turned away men in shorts or open sandals. I did not think they were being progressive, especially since when I inquired if women were allowed, the bouncer gave me a broad grin, his eyes darting lasciviously to my legs and said,

“No ma’am. Women can dress in what they like.”

As far as such a place is concerned, if they are willing to turn away paying customers for the privilege of dictating what they wear, that’s their business. They won’t have any of mine.

I don’t see how it is progressive to extend these shackles (and make no mistake, that’s what they are) to men as well. Dress restrictions on adults are demeaning, in an equal-opportunity way and that does not make them okay. Tell me what you think in the comments.

Update: Buzzfeed carried this article titled ‘7 Insanely Rigid Dress Codes for Women‘ that essentially addresses the same thing.


  1. I went through my grad years in Xaviers with fines and other implications of not adhering to the dress code. In all fairness, the boys couldn’t get away with anything shorter than ankle length trousers either. Exceptions being, sports and Malhar (obv!)

    Regarding your second pt about dress codes, I don’t agree with you on that. I think it’s okay for a restaurant / pub/ bar to define dress codes…We’ve already been doing this for decades for occasions like festivals, weddings and funerals. For a ‘brand’, they want to be associated with a certain level of class of clientele…. if they turn away business on that basis, well, that’s their choice!

    Specifically on your picture, hooded jumpers and trainers have a different connotation in England…..that being of football fanatics and hooligans (or chavs!) … I guess it makes sense for restaurants to want to ‘avoid trouble’ (& these characters).

    On a personal level, it’s not someone’s (or your own!) house — respect their wants if you want to be there….and anyway, whats wrong in scrubbing up and dressing it up a little to go out?

    1. @Eccentricspeak: ๐Ÿ™‚ Indeed. I believe my post aligns with this article. Also, since I didn’t reply to your earlier comment before, here are my thoughts:

      ‘For a โ€˜brandโ€™, they want to be associated with a certain level of class of clienteleโ€ฆ. if they turn away business on that basis, well, thatโ€™s their choice! ‘
      – True. My personal opinion (and this is mine only) is that this behaviour indicates a class snobbery and on principle, even if I do fit into their required ‘class of clientele’, I’ll choose not to give them business to show my non-support. This stems not from a textbook definition of protest but the fact that I’ve seen stores & service staff be indifferent, even rude to family and friends who are dressed in Indian wear and/or not in full make-up & fashionable regalia. I don’t believe anybody, least of all an employee of a business that solicits the custom of people who can afford their services, has any place behaving this way. This is discrimination, which is just the uglier (and dare I say, more realistic) side of ‘class’ differentiation.

      ‘Specifically on your picture, hooded jumpers and trainers have a different connotation in Englandโ€ฆ..that being of football fanatics and hooligans (or chavs!) โ€ฆ I guess it makes sense for restaurants to want to โ€˜avoid troubleโ€™ (& these characters).’
      – The picture was an auto-suggestion and the one that fit best with the tone of the post. I guess I can see the logic there. On the other hand, doesn’t it also sound a lot like the attacks on turbanned people in the US, post the twin towers crash? It is discrimination to profile somebody based on what they wear. ‘Discrimination’ is treated as the ugly word it is but I’ll be the first to admit that it is an extremely grey area. If I were stranded alone in a strange place, I might be likelier to trust a person of a certain gender, age and dressed a certain way, than someone else. We make our judgements based on certain narrow experiences & associations from our past, not all of which are true or fair.

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