The title of this post is intentionally ambiguous. (I love playing with words.) But my aim here is serious, having to do with the old idea of social norms. A norm is a standard, pattern or rule in ordinary speech. Its origins are uncertain, but seem to come from the idea of a carpenter’s square – i.e. something that is fixed. Of course today people speak of the ‘New Normal’, which can mean almost anything, and so is essentially meaningless.
Perhaps I’m abnormal, being politically progressive, but religiously conservative. In regard to the latter, I believe that The Truth exists, is ultimately discoverable, and comes from above. Despite being socially liberal, I think our present society and culture would be better off if there were standards of behavior and dress in public. The only code I can see around me is ‘Look at Me (Here’s a lovely example). Standards might help build a sense of community, which is sorely lacking today. The main reason for this is plain old selfishness – common to every human. It needs to be changed by education and upbringing. Governments won’t, and can’t fix our moral character, let alone our innermost spirit.
Why do women dress the way they do? The question is too general to be useful. We need to know ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why?’ as the saying goes. Which women? How are they dressed? Where do they live? When is this seen? (Now – in this generation.) And especially what’s the motivation for their choice of clothing? These are complicated questions with many possible answers. (Some generalizing can be helpful.)
Psychologists and sociologists have various views about causes and effects of dress styles. Most agree it’s good to distinguish the goal of the dresser from its effects on observers. A 2021 article from Depauw U – Exposing Racism in Fashion – is too long (25 pp. PDF) but the abstract gives a useful summary: “Throughout American history, Black women have been treated as the most inferior group. Social status is dependent on race, gender, and economic status. These factors contribute to overall social hierarchies. Whiter skin tones are more desired than darker tones. The fashion industry perpetuates white desirability while also displaying Black women as undesirable and inferior. The fashion industry is dominated by white males, and white women are the representations within fashion. Fashion, therefore, is a reflection of the white male’s ideal world: desirable white women, submissive Black women, and very few Black men. Black women however are changing the narrative within the fashion industry and are creating new paths toward fashion. Fashion is a racist industry and uses visual media outlets to promote racist thought processes. Black women are exposing these ideas and shifting the definition of fashion.”
Men have always told women how to dress, from the Tang Dynasty’s crippling foot binding to the demands of contemporay Orthodox Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn New York, whose community center is Temple Beth El shown here.
I know it’s typical for old men to bemoan modernity, and wish for what used to be. But what we had in many was not better – for example medicine, transportation, communication, public safety and life span. In no way do I long for the good old days, though many of us foolishly wish for the strength of our younger bodies. But this post is about women and their dress styles.
I know men have some dress requirements, e.g. for business and social occasions, while a day at the beach is pretty unrestricted, barring nudity (at most beaches). I think men are more practical, although plenty are vain and compulsive, including me. It’s interesting that intergender ‘dress habits’ for animals are opposite to those for humans. Male animals are the show-offs. Roosters, Peacocks, Lions, Tigers, Deer, Moose (shown here) et al compete for the females’ attention, to assure their offspring carry the best genes.
Then there are the incredible Komodo Dragons – a real freak of nature! They inhabit a few Indonesian islands, including Komodo. At the top of the predatory pyramid, they rule the area. Average weight is 150 lbs and length is 10 ft, half of which is tail. To mate, they compete by fighting to submission (or eating the loser). But the winner doesn’t attract the female. She resists, and must be completely subdued for coitus to occur. Their diet is flesh, obtained by running fast, pouncing, and rapidly swallowing whole large animals, such as a goat! And if a female can’t find a mate, she can still reproduce by parthenogenesis!!
Returning to our topic of ‘dress codes’ for women, obviously they don’t exist today. I’m not saying they should be imposed, as the term ‘code’ suggests. I think people need the freedom to choose their appearance and manner in public and in their homes. But freedom and what’s best are often confused. It’s really a question of morality – i.e., what’s right or wrong. Long-standing maxims for this are the Golden Rule, and the (less demanding) Silver Rule. Treat your neighbor in the way you would like to be treated, if you were in her/his place. But the ultimate standard for what to wear and how to behave doesn’t come from community agreements, which I’ve been asking for, as important as they are. Those rules for loving our neighbor would have us accept and practice the best and happiest life we can imagine, offered by the Loving Divinity in Heaven.
Let’s truly love our neighbor, which involves all human kind!!