Stepping out of ‘archaic’ dress code

Dr Gabrielle Hosein -
Dr Gabrielle Hosein -


THESE DAYS, there’s nothing fresh like Farley. His leadership shames the PNM, like Dr Williams in the face of the Black Power movement in the 1970s, when a youthful generation was ready to transform our society faster than the party’s establishment politics would allow.

Such freshness will inevitably be challenged by toxic personalities and agendas, moribund institutions, careless waste, petty corruption and human imperfection, but for now I’m loving being led by a Chief Secretary used to going about in short pants and slippers in Tobago.

His latest move was to remove the “archaic” dress code required to access public services in Tobago. We’ve all seen bureaucratic ridiculousness occasioned by this rule. Men told to tuck in their shirts like recalcitrant secondary-school students. Women covered up with a shawl kept handy at the front desk for that very reason. Citizens denied services paid for by tax dollars for showing their knees. The THA’s decision seems so common-sense it shouldn’t be news in 2022.

In ending a history of such exclusionary governance in one fell swoop, the THA is following in the steps of Jamaica in August 2018 and Barbados in May 2021 when the policy of refusing access to public institutions to those sleeveless, in shorts and in slippers was recognised as colonial, discriminatory, unnecessary and without legal basis. In Estonia, nearly everything for which we are forced to go into a government office can instead be done online, in minutes, in your home clothes or nightie.

Our backwardness was only compounded by the tyranny of respectability that has long justified denial of basic human rights in our region, whether in relation to acceptance of dreadlocks in schools, legalisation of same-sex relationships that defy patriarchal ideals, or casting blame when raped or murdered women don’t make perfect victims. Even the Guyana Revenue Authority and Lands and Surveys Commission abandoned what they considered a foolish regulation in 2016.

In contrast, here in Trinidad, according to Public Administration Minister Allyson West, “There are just too many more important areas of focus for us to turn our attention to dress code at this time.” Mia Mottley’s government sent out a memo. Farley announced it just so. How hard can it be?

For decades, there’s been discussion about dress in relation to access to services, protection, justice and Parliament. Remember the woman who was prevented from entering the police station to which she fled, because she was naked? Across the region, women attorneys were banned from wearing pants in court until they protested. My friend Colin Robinson wrote repeatedly about the rules for those sitting in Parliament’s public gallery, which include not crossing your legs or resting your spectacles on your head or wearing capri pants which fall mid-calf, even though you can watch sittings at home in your underwear.

In 2017, Lisa Allen-Agostini took up the story of Jamaica’s Speaker writing to MP Lisa Hanna about her attire because she wore a dress without sleeves. One former civil servant, here in TT, outlined the greater challenge that “somebody will turn up at Licensing in pum-pum shorts, barefoot and in their string bikini top on their way to Maracas because they realised that morning that their permit expired.”

Yet I think we can agree that it shows law-abiding responsibility to get one’s permit renewed, rather than drive unlicensed in pum-pum shorts.

Enough people have been pointlessly inconvenienced or transacted their business in more sensible jurisdictions or recognise we live in a tropical country for the population to welcome Farley’s down-to-earth decisiveness and long-overdue common sense.

It’s possible that people also recognise the racist, classist and sexist origins and implications of state-agency dress codes. They make you show morality and decency to be treated as a citizen with rights. They keep those considered to lack respectability and civility outside. We are obsessed with these values because of our historical status as enslaved and indentured plantation workers who needed to improve to be considered deserving of humanity and recognition.

Like Monday’s fiery Beetham protests, this apparently trivial issue is another example of daily experiences of alienation by state administration, and its blithe callousness regarding exclusion. Bureaucracies may insist on regulations, processes and proper conduct, but citizens don’t care. They just want their needs met and are fed up, willing to burn tyres in their slippers, shorts, vests and short dress. Suddenly ministers jump and agencies hustle up, right? The smoke makes it clear. It never needed to matter what people wear.

Diary of a mothering worker

Entry 448


"Stepping out of ‘archaic’ dress code"

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