Like every progressive in this country, and most in the world, I’m getting hard to shock. The Missouri legislature has shocked me, however, by adopting a dress code (introduced by a Republican woman legislator) that forbids women (including elected women) to appear on the legislative floor with bare arms.
You think immediately of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, or of Victorian fashions and dress codes, but it turns out that this isn’t a fictional or ancient issue; it’s been around for much of the current century. One of the focal points appears to be that dread symbol of women’s strength and confidence, our former first Lady, Michelle Obama. I don’t remember following this at the time, but Mrs. Obama appeared at formal events with bare arms, and that caused a minor news flurry. Here’s a CBS piece from 2009, President Obama’s first year in office:
Never before, surely, has a set of bare arms launched so much discussion than in the weeks since Mrs. Obama appeared sleeveless at her husband’s speech to Congress in chilly February. Certainly not in equally chilly January 1963, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of her many sleeveless outfits to her own husband’s State of the Union address.
Noveck goes into various fashion analyses of Mrs. Obama’s arms, including the theory that talking about them distracts from the work she was actually doing as first lady. Of course, one of the reasons that her arms got attention and Jackie Kennedy’s didn’t is that, unlike Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama is Black and thus subject to vastly more scrutiny and criticism. It’s also true that Jackie Kennedy was first lady before the 1970s feminist wave, and fewer people were nervous, scared, or hypercritical–emotions which always arise when women proclaim strength.
The problem arose again in Canada, in very similar terms to today’s issue in Missouri, in 2019. According to Tina Lovgren at CBC News, the British Columbia legislature enforced what they called a “conservative contemporary dress code” forbidding bare arms, and also chastizing women who weren’t wearing slips so you could see that they had two legs (!) under their dresses.
The Obama controversy seems to have been mostly short-lived, though it reared up again now and then through the 8 years of the Obama presidency. The British Columbia dress code appears to still be in force today. The Missouri code, however, is perhaps more likely to get longer-lasting attention, in part because it is one of dozens of examples of Republican over-reach. While they scream about governments having “no right” to control the use of natural gas (which causes very significant health effects), they delight in using government to control bodies: Black and brown people’s bodies, pregnant people’s bodies, trans people’s bodies, and now female legislators’ bodies. Forbidding bare arms may be one of the least life-threatening forms of bodily control … and it’s also emblematic of what they believe they have the right to do.
Throughout Western history, women’s fashion has been a battleground in culture wars, a tool to control women’s power, and a marker for moral panics. Dress codes are a way of tracking how these movements progress–and Missouri has just issued another giant red flag, which must not go unnoticed.
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