DARA E HEALY
ANGELA DAVIS, internationally renowned Black Power activist, is quoted as saying, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
As I looked at the image of a woman who resorted to covering her shoulders in a curtain to enter a government office, I had a thought. What would happen if every woman in the public service went to work in sleeveless tops, open-toe shoes and skirts above their knees? Would the entire public sector be shut down?
Of course, in this ultra-conservative (often hypocritical) society, the chances of such a radical action taking place are very slim, but you have to admit the thought is delicious.
It is not surprising that this question of female attire and work, particularly in the government service, keeps flaring up. In 2017, women in Jamaica and some of their Caribbean sisters agitated about a female parliamentarian who was berated for wearing a dress with short sleeves.
In 2018, a young female African model in TT was told to relax her natural hair to be more professional.
And this year, after some national debate, the Tobago House of Assembly dispensed with colonial-era rules of attire for visitors to government buildings.
Control of clothing by the State actually has a very long history. As early as 15th-century England, “The authorities asserted that an orderly society could not function without clear distinctions in ornamentation and dress within each social order.” During the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) wigs were deemed part of the attire for polite society, falling out of fashion by the 19th century, except for certain people such as bishops and lawyers.
The drab colours associated with office attire also have a history. Initially, bright colours tended to identify a person as part of the elite or well-off in society. In France during the 17th century, “One's position on the king's council was confirmed through the cut and colour of the ceremonial gown: the chancellor wore a long gown of crimson velvet; the councillors wore long violet gowns...and the secretaries wore short black gowns.”
Fabrics were important as aristocrats became associated with clothing made from fur, brocade and velvet.
Revolutions in France and the US created a shift in these attitudes. Rebellion and challenges to monarchy and excessive lifestyles impacted how people began to dress. The popular business suit of today evolved in the late 18th century.
“The standard components of male dress became trousers, waistcoat and jacket, with the shirt visible beneath, the neck covered with a cravat or tie.”
Colours became darker, cuts more streamlined. In modern times, even ties became thinner.
Soon enough, feminine style began to have political implications. After WWI, women preferred to have shorter hair and even trousers, undoubtedly as a result of the key roles they played during the conflict, whether as nurses, engineers or mechanics. Predictably, women’s desire for a freer type of attire was threatening.
“To French authorities these fashions were anti-maternal and a threat to the state.”
By the 1950s, their style of dress reflected an invented image of femininity, represented largely by hourglass figures and stiletto heels.
The revolutionary period of the 1960s and 1970s again shifted, to an extent, the perception of women at work. By the 80s women attempted to reclaim some power in the workplace with pantsuits, shoulder pads and even low heels.
But dismantling so-called glass ceilings will never be as simple as fashion choices.
The UN points out that the “vulnerabilities of women are intertwined with identities related to their ethnicity, race and/or indigeneity.”
This speaks directly to the realities of TT, where women are required to cover their bodies on the basis of rules that developed centuries ago, in different socio-cultural realities. Further, despite our multicultural nation, in many work environments we are still only allowed to dress in ethnic wear at the workplace on designated occasions, like a costume.
Fanon wrote that “independence does not bring a change of direction.”
Thus the discussion about curtains and clothing is not a frivolous one; it relates directly to our sense of identity and how far we are willing to go to challenge a system that was not established with our best interests at the core. As Angela would say, rules must work for us, not deny who we are.
So: what are you wearing to work on Monday?
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN