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The Breakthrough Voice 15th September, 2020

How Dress Codes Enforce Patriarchy And The Gender Binary.

Gender-roles and patriarchy have trickled down into all parts of society, and they guide our thoughts and actions in ways that we ourselves don’t understand at times. We continue to follow and perpetuate these practices unconsciously, which warrants continuous education and introspection. 

‘Gender-based dress codes’ are social, and often legal norms (stated by companies and public organizations in policies and guidelines for their workforce) that dictate ‘acceptable’ outfits for individuals in a particular environment depending on their gender. They are the reasons why men and women wear different outfits and hence dictate what we wear according to our gender. In simple words, they allow us to identify each other’s genders according to the clothes we wear and have hence created binaries in the culture and practices surrounding clothing.

The most profound impact of this is experienced in workplaces and educational institutions, where they are used to straightjacket individuals into gender roles – which often contributes to their vulnerability at the hands of society. Women are expected and nudged to fit into feminine roles that often restrict their professional careers. In schools, they contribute to a culture of victim-shaming by establishing a premium on sexist ideals such as modesty. The media is used to further ground the idea of gender binaries to the extent that any challenge to them is perceived as a challenge to our social fabric.

Men’s attire is used to demonstrate social power, responsibility and achievement – whilst women’s clothing is designed to draw attention to moral and physical development.

Gender-based dress codes have existed in society for as long as patriarchy itself. Research suggests that historically dresses were designed to match social expectations from individuals according to their gender. These norms have crystallized into religious, cultural and political ideologies across the world. Men’s attire is used to demonstrate social power, responsibility and achievement – whilst women’s clothing is designed to draw attention to moral and physical development. Men and women continue to be held accountable to similar expectations despite their impact on gender-equality and their contribution to the socio-economic exploitation of women. 

A study conducted in Lincoln High School suggests that infraction rates of female students on the basis of dress codes is much higher than that of male students. This implies that female students’ attires are checked more often than those of the boys. This contributes to a culture of the sexualization of women’s bodies, which impacts people’s perceptions throughout their lives.

Dress codes perpetuate casual sexism and strengthen the glass ceiling in workplaces. Women in positions of power, ranging from Indra Nooyi to Mayawati and Angela Merkel keep their hair short. Competency and control are considered exclusive to men, which forces women in positions of power to adopt less feminine outfits and appearances. The association of long hair and with beauty and the sexualization of feminine outfits enforces an artificial binary between femininity and professionalism.

Forcing women to adopt femininity or disassociate from it is a direct infringement on fundamental rights, and is an active barrier to self-actualization and leading a healthier life.

There is obviously nothing wrong with women wearing pant-suits or having short hair, but such a consistency amongst top management levels in business and politics, combined with the increasing level of sexual assault allegations in workplaces during the #MeToo movement alludes to the existence of a deeply-rooted misogynist culture. Media, which is nothing more than a reflection of society – does its fair share of promoting gender stereotypes, with popular sitcoms including Mad Men and Gossip Girl enforcing regressive narratives with professional and educational cultures respectively. 

Image source: Bitch Flicks

Regressive dress codes impact women throughout their lives. The sexualization and policing of women’s clothes in schools leads to significant psychological problems – ranging from mental health issues to the creation of a culture of self-blaming in instances of assault. Forcing women to adopt femininity or disassociate from it is a direct infringement on fundamental rights, and is an active barrier to self-actualization and leading a healthier life. The general acceptance of dress codes as a ‘norm’ makes it one of the most subtle methods of perpetuating oppression against women. The subtlety of dress codes makes it difficult for us to call them out and reform them. 

Countering narratives that have been prevalent for centuries, and are supported by institutions and policy is nothing short of a challenge. However, it can be achieved by reforming policies and practices. The former is a top-down approach (one that originates from the top management of a company and affects everyone through changes in policy) that involves introducing gender-neutral dress codes or doing away with the concept of dress codes as well. Awareness campaigns surrounding sexual harassment, sex education and the regressive impact of gender roles are equally important. Most importantly, we must all introspect and challenge our own assumptions surrounding gender stereotypes and educate ourselves about gender roles and their detrimental impact on the lives of women and gender minorities, in an attempt to make a just and fair society.

Also Read: The Good Woman Vs The Bad Woman: A Brief History


Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Dreams Time

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