The continued genderisation of dress codes: What do dress codes mean and why do they matter?

16 October 2023 - 14:05
By Sandiso Ngubane
The EFF in their infamous regalia in parliament.
Image: Esa Alexander The EFF in their infamous regalia in parliament.

The US Senate recently relaxed its dress code, giving it a casual overhaul. This has been welcomed by some, while others are raising eyebrows and questioning whether this bodes well for the institution at a time when society is seeing a marked shift in traditionally accepted dress codes.

According to “Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer sent some lawmakers into an uproar ... when he told members that he was relaxing the Senate floor’s informal dress code, which previously required men to wear a suit and tie, and women to wear pantsuits or dresses. Now, senators have leeway to wear more casual clothing, including a T-shirt and jeans.”

In the case of one senator in particular — John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania — this would be his trademark shorts and hoodies.

US Senator John Fetterman in his unconventional dress style.
Image: Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images US Senator John Fetterman in his unconventional dress style.

While the change in the US Senate dress code is being debated on all sides, here in South Africa it’s a debate we’ve already had. Our parliamentarians are permitted to dress in ways they feel represents them the best, provided it is “appropriate”. But “appropriateness” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone.

When some in the ANC argued that the EFF should not be allowed to wear their trademark red overalls, hard hats and aprons, the party argued the attire, most commonly associated with mineworkers and domestic workers, was intended to represent the interests of workers. Those in opposition were quickly defeated.

So we were ahead of the curve. However, the changing of dress codes in the halls of power does beg the question: what do dress codes mean, and why do they matter, even though many would like to think they don’t?

Business attire as we’ve come to know it is a relic of patriarchal society, with the business suit taking shape in the late 18th century. According to Richard Thompson Ford, author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, it came about as a result of aristocratic men abandoning the conspicuous opulence of velvets, furs and brocades in favour of something more streamlined and practical.

“The suit came to represent the Enlightenment ideals of social equality and reason; the moral values of sobriety, thrift and modesty; and the civic virtues of industriousness and practicality.”

Such “equality”, “industriousness” and “practicality” were, of course, only a consideration for men; women’s emancipation had not yet come to pass.

In the latter part of last century, what we’ve come to know as “power dressing”, the acceptable business attire for women, began to take shape and it is quite obviously masculine-coded. It implies that women need to dress like men to be taken seriously.

Even though some women have tended to think of it as neutralising the male gaze, what it does is prop up masculinity while devaluing femininity.

A casualisation of business attire will provide no comfort for women, because while the Fettermans of this world can wear hoodies and shorts to work, imagine a woman rocking up to her job in parliament or an office block dressed in shorts and a tee. “Casual” might feel liberating to men, but for women? Not so much.

The DA's former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.
Image: GALLO IMAGES The DA's former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Remember when in 2013 members of the ANC played fashion police when former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko addressed the chamber in a paisley dress, ending above her knee, with black stockings and a red jacket? She was appropriately covered, I would say, but some took offence at her look, calling it “too casual”.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us working from home and wearing whatever felt comfortable, the return to the office has been marked by questions about the most appropriate attire. Fetterman’s words when asked about the debate on his casual dress sense in the halls of the US Congress were: “Aren’t there more important things we should discuss, rather than whether or not I dress like a slob?”

While on the surface this seems arbitrary — and I’m personally all for people wearing whatever they feel like — the masculine-coding of business attire that has been the norm for centuries means women don’t have the luxury of not worrying.