Fashion Police

I have blogged about this topic before because I am fascinated by the interaction of fashion and the law.  We may think we are living in a world where fashion has few rules, but although nobody cares anymore whether white shoes are worn after Labour day, there still are rules, or should I say laws.

Right now, the province of Quebec is debating a ‘Charter of Values’ bill, following France’s lead to ban religious garb in government offices and schools – this would place the turban, yarmulke, hijab and crucifix, among other religious symbols and garb, on the banned list. I personally believe in the separation of church and state, which is why I also believe gay marriage is a legal, not a religious matter, but I am getting off topic…

In the history of fashion law, there is a long list of what has and hasn’t been controlled and allowed and a recent article by Brian Wheeler of the BBC News uncovers some of that history through his review of a new book on the topic that is definitely going on my ‘to-read’ pile:

9780521140041“…Of all the freedoms enjoyed by Westerners, the ability to wear what we like, without government interference, is probably the one we take for granted more than any other… “We do like to feel that when we get up in the morning and get dressed we are only limited by our closet,” says Ruthann Robson, a professor at City University New York. But, argues Robson in her new book Dressing Consitutionally: Heirarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes, there are far more restrictions than we might think. It all dates back to so-called sumptuary laws, used from the Middle Ages onwards to keep the lower orders in their place – or strengthen national identity – by dictating the style and quality of clothing citizens of every rank could wear.

An Englishman caught wearing a kilt during the Scottish uprisings could find themselves arrested and thrown on to the next boat to America… The 1732 Hat Act, banning American-made headgear, rendered colonists of the New World worse off than slaves… Things were infinitely worse for actual slaves, of course, who were banned from wearing good quality fabrics or accepting “hand-me-downs” from their masters.

Such was the obsession with clothing styles that a national dress code was almost included in the US Constitution. “People thought that would be good for the morals of the nation,” says Robson…

“It really harkens back to Tudor sumptuary laws… In 1463, for example, the English Parliament passed a law prohibiting men from wearing short coats and gowns that did not cover “privy members and buttocks”. In July 2013, Wildwood, a seaside resort in New Jersey, banned the wearing of trousers or swimming trunks that sink three inches below the hips, exposing bare skin or underwear… The by-law also prohibits bare feet and going shirtless after 8pm…

In 16th Century Ireland, Queen Elizabeth I passed laws banning native Irish dress requiring people to dress in the English style. In 1297, Englishmen in Ireland were banned from adopting Irish hairstyles. Now the state is more likely to enforce clothing regulations that encourage assimilation, as with attempts around the world to ban the Muslim full-face veil…”

I don’t like the Muslim full-face veil (niqab) because it’s anti-social, but I will defend the right of the religion that deems it to be a part of their garb because its none of my business to tell them otherwise, and Quebec is wrong in trying to force government fashion sanctions onto religious doctrines and traditions.