There is always an inherent danger in trying to tell other people how to dress.
Not only do fashion norms change overtime, but what passes as appropriate dress is very much a matter of personal perception.
For example, the de rigueur coat-and-tie business uniform that was required for officewear as recently as the early 2000s, has been slowly replaced by more informal attire, first on Casual Fridays, and then as a weeklong standard.
Saudi Arabia — where women are still not allowed to drive and where all females are expected to cover themselves in long, loose garments (Saudi women must also cover their hair in accordance with strict Islamic law) — recently suffered the wrath of an international public relations firestorm when it dared to arrest a foreign woman who was inadvertently videoed in a miniskirt in the historic town of Ushayqir.
International public pressure and the desire to appear more liberal to the outside world despite its rigid chauvinistic policies eventually forced the Saudis to release the woman.
In the United States, the debate over appropriate attire became a political flashpoint in July when a reporter in a sleeveless dress was banned from entering the congressional speaker’s lobby (the area outside the House chamber where lawmakers and reporters gather) by the sergeant-at-arms during a swelteringly humid afternoon, even though First Lady Melania Trump and First Daughter Ivanka Trump frequently attend official events in similar garb.
A congress-wide campaign to defend women’s “right to bare arms” was soon launched, and the U.S. House is currently reviewing a revamping of its antiquated dress code rules.
In staunchly conservative England, a female temp worker who was sent home from her job without pay last year because she dared to show up in flats stirred so much social media outrage that the matter led to two separate government inquiries overseen by two parliamentary committees.
And, lest we forget, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) found itself in a serious sand trap last month when it tried to impose stricter dress regulations for competitors.
The clothes police have always been around, and, no matter how they try, they usually end up putting their wingtip toe leather oxford shoes in their mouth.
When I was in high school (I attended a very conservative private international school in Bangkok, Thailand), I was repeated called on the carpet by the headmaster during my senior year for daring to expose my knees (yeah, I loved wearing miniskirts).
I was given several warning to comply with the school’s ordinance that all skirts must be no more than two centimeters above the ground when measured while the wearer was on bended knees.
Since pretty much all the skirts and dresses in my wardrobe did not comply with those rules, I was finally suspended from school for three days during midterms.
My teachers, who, for the most part, sided with me, gave my automatic As for my missed exams, and when I went back to school after my suspension for indecent exposure of my kneecaps, my case was taken to student court, where the son of the Chinese Ambassador served as my advocate, pointing out that, since I was taller than most girls, the subjective two-centimeter rule was unfair because the percentage of thigh I exposed was proportionately less than a shorter girl subject to the same criteria.
In the end, I won my case and was allowed to spend the rest of my senior year blissfully brandishing my knees for all to see.
(I also set a precedence for a male dress-code revolt at the school, where boys were not allowed to have hair that touched their ears or collar, and, again, the rebellious students won out over the straight-laced administrators.)
The point is that fashion is organic and regulations as to appropriate attire are constantly evolving.
There are, of course, limits, and individuals should police their own dress in accordance with the other people around them, be it in the office or at family gatherings.
Common sense (that most uncommon of human traits) should dictate what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.
Unless you work as a lifeguard at a swimming pool or are a member of the “Baywatch” cast, swimwear should not be included in your work attire.
But if you happen to be working for a tech startup company in the Silicon Valley, that well-tailored Brooks Brothers suit that would win you’re a nod of approval on Wall Street is going to look extremely out of sync with your fellow worker’s wardrobe.
Outrageous and rule-breaking garb is not suitable for a job in a corporate office, but, should you work in the fashion industry, it is pretty much excepted dress.
The best rule of thumb when it comes to knowing what to wear in any given situation is to take a cue from the other people around you.
What you have on should not make either you or them feel uncomfortable.
Of course, these guidelines are always blurred and subject to redefinition.
But if you are planning to flaunt the unwritten rules of appropriate dress, you, like the poor reporter at the congressional speaker’s lobby, risk the possibility of being banned from entry by the relevant “sergeant-at-arms” of wherever it is you were planning to go.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].