Councillors have been advised to dress in a “culturally sensitive way”: are we missing the point?
On June 16th, Jo Cox was fatally attacked outside her constituency office. She was a mother, wife, a Member of Parliament, an advocate for human rights: all things that contributed to the narrative portrayed across media outlets at the time of her death.
Her murder was portrayed as tragic, unprovoked, and without reason. The mental state of the man who killed her, and his motive for doing so, has been at the centre of the investigation. A narrative that was not vocalised, however, was one that indicated Ms Cox’s behaviour or clothing did anything to motivate her attacker.
With that in mind, it makes Glasgow City Council’s response seem rather strange. An email was recently sent out to elected members containing a “Revised Personal Safety Guidance,” citing “the very recent and tragic attack on Jo Cox MP” as prompting the updated guidelines. The attached document includes revised procedures that elected members should follow to ensure their own security, but also included something akin to a dress code underneath the heading “Personal Safety Guidelines” in the update.
Here, councilors are advised that they should dress in a way that is “culturally sensitive” and “does not distract, cause embarrassment or give rise to misunderstanding.” Councillor Emma Gillian expressed her dismay at this section specifically. She also noted that some of the new procedural safety requirements would “be difficult for many to organise.”
Glasgow City Councillors now have a guide which purports to help them “deal with security and personal safety” which provides hard to follow procedure and a vague dress code: what on earth does it mean to dress in a culturally sensitive way? The guidance provided does not expand on what this phrase means. There is a troubling narrative surrounding dress codes which tends to focus on the impact that the outfits of women (and children) have on those around them. In the UK, uniforms are the norm in schools, but the contentious debate on dress codes is very much alive and kicking in schools across the United States.
In attempting to research the arguments in support of compulsory dress codes, I was instead faced with a number of critical articles asserting that they were “discriminatory and sexist”; that they “reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are dangerous”; and that they teach girls to be ashamed of their bodies. Even when trying to search for the positive effects of having a dress code, I couldn’t help but be bombarded with negatives. Every school has varying guidelines on dress but they all have common elements – “no spaghetti straps”, “no midriffs showing”, or “no shorts”, for example – which imply the sexual objectification of young girls and portray a victim blaming narrative.
Ex-high school teacher Esther Cepeda argued that the often-used point that it shouldn’t be a girl’s responsibility to “not distract boys” fails to acknowledge that some girls may feel intimidated or peer-pressured by their classmates’ inappropriate attire. The Personal Safety Guidance issued to councillors in Glasgow told elected members that their clothing should not distract or be discriminatory; it also said that clothing should be “absent of any political or otherwise contentious slogans.”
Jenny Evans of the Huffington Post took the view that very tight or exposing clothing may make some people uncomfortable, in the same way that a racial slur or offensive slogan on a top is disrespectful. Looking at it in this way, both are capable of offending – but is one justifiable?
Based on some of the incidents regarding dress code violations which have gone viral online, I would have to say yes. A recurring feature in these stories is students trying to dress comfortably in hot climates so that they can focus in class. If the point is being made that school is a place for learning or that work is a place to be professional, and therefore clothing should not be distracting, then the perspective of those trying to dress in a way that is comfortable for them cannot be swept aside. “These dress code incidents tell young women and men that what they are wearing is more important than their education,” Carey Burgess of South Carolina wrote in a social media post after being shamed for her skirt in front of her classmates.
Closer to home, suburban Glasgow high school St. Ninian’s was called out by pupils for “promoting rape culture” after a girl was told that her shorts were provocative. “Do you want the boys looking at you like that?” a female P.E. teacher allegedly asked. The implications of a comment like this go beyond a uniform policy. When figures of authority admonish children for being dressed in a “sexually provocative” way, they implicitly reinforce this culture of victim-blaming and objectification.
At a the national level, Members of Parliament are required to wear “fairly formal” business dress according to a Parliamentary document. However, the Speaker has either turned a blind eye or failed to enforce this standard on a number of occasions. In 2014, Labour MP Harriet Harman wore a t-shirt featuring the slogan “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” and received no reprimand. This piece of clothing would be frowned upon by Glasgow City Council’s guidelines – which seem to demand that political figures don’t get “political” with their clothing choices.
If an objectively vague piece of guidance suggests dressing in a “culturally sensitive” way, you could assume that there must be an obvious implication of non-adherence. This advice makes sense when applied to diplomats visiting countries with strongly held traditions with regards to dress. On the other hand, Glasgow is a multicultural city. So whose culture is to be respected specifically? If it is Scottish culture then should our councillors be forced to wear kilts and Harris Tweed? It is unclear whether an elected member’s clothing has ever been something which Glasgow constituents have taken issue with.
The worrying consequence of the issuance of the updated Personal Safety Guidance is concisely summarised by Emma Gillan who queried “should we expect to be blamed for any attack on our personal safety if we are not wearing a business suit?” Perhaps we should just let our elected members dress however they were dressing when the public chose to elect them.
Glasgow City Council Press Office did not respond to a request for comment.