Tag Archives: dress codes

The Threat Posed by Women’s Bare Arms

Michelle Obama in front of an American flag, in a simple black dress with bare arms

Debbie says:

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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Alameda Schools: Students Can Wear (a Lot More of) What They Want


Laurie and Debbie say:

Before we get to anything, wow, are we glad to be blogging together again! It’s been way too long.

What caught our eyes this week is last month’s announcement by the City of Alameda School District that students can basically wear whatever they want to, with just a few limitations. They are required to wear “clothing that covers specific body parts (genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples) with opaque material.”  This is, by the way, almost identical to the City of San Francisco’s public dress code, except that men in San Francisco can show their nipples.

The policy is clear and concise, unlike most high-school dress codes, which call for teachers and staff to constantly engage in arbitrary judgment calls: a situation which is unfair to every student, and disproportionately unfair to students of color. The Alameda policy lists what students can wear, and what they can’t wear:

Students may wear pajamas, ripped jeans, halter tops, fitted pants and athletic wear, and hats and hoodies over their heads, among other items.

Students cannot wear clothing that has violent language or images, hate speech, profanity or pornography. They also can’t wear bathing suits or have visible underwear, except for waistbands. Headgear can’t obscure their faces unless for religious reasons.

This radical change will affect high-school girls, and people whose dress is female-identified, much more than high-school boys and male-identified dressers, although some rules, including “heads covered by hoodies are okay as long as faces are showing” and “underwear can be visible over waistbands” may affect everyone.

According to the article linked above, high-school dress codes are being re-evaluated around the country, this one is based on a model published by the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women, and is gaining ground in schools from Portland, Oregon to Evanston, Illinois. The changes are largely fueled by student pressure. Oregon NOW adopted the policy in part because they were hearing from girls that it felt like their bodies mattered more than their education: so Alameda’s action sends a clear new message: Your education matters more than how you adorn your body.  “We’re not about policing students’ bodies,” said the district academic officer.

The other side of this coin is a message to boys: when girls are allowed to show a bra strap or the top of their cleavage, boys are expected to continue on about their business. The centuries-old assumption that women have to dress “appropriately” because men cannot control themselves is being challenged–and the challenge is coming from teenagers. Even one school choosing not to take responsibility for how girls “distract” men is a step towards a kind of equity in school expectations that we have literally never seen: “Dress how you want to, and if someone else doesn’t behave, that’s their fault, not yours” is an extremely radical message, especially to girls and genderqueer or genderfluid students.

If this sounds like a response to #metoo at the high-school level, we think it is. If it sounds like a trend in which people are demanding (and getting) the right to making decisions about their own lives, we think it is. And if it sounds like a refreshing change for high school students, Abby Rose thinks it is: One of the organizers who got the policy changed, Rosee can wear her favorite ripped jeans to school and not be sent home.

“They used to pull me out of class which is not okay,” she said. Another organizer, Kristen Wong says, “If I wear shorts, no one is measuring them.”

Follow Debbie @spicejardebbie on Twitter.