Fashion as a political method of control is not only restrictive but dangerous

Dress codes, from moderate to severe, can pose a risk to freedom, but, on a greater political scale, legally enforced rules to determine what one gender can and cannot wear represents a terrifying level of social control

Depending on your environment, what can be considered “appropriate” clothing varies enormously. Whether it’s a workplace dress code, school uniform, or religious attire, what we are required to wear to “keep up appearances” is based on differing rules and guidelines. At home, out of sight of the wider world, you can usually wear whatever you please. However, at work, they may ask you to don some office attire or branded uniform that fits the company’s desired corporate image. In certain places of worship, it is required to wear headscarves or more covered clothing for reasons of modesty. However, we must ask at what point are our clothing choices no longer ours to make? And does this apply equally to everyone?

“In overtly patriarchal cultures, male elites fostered rules for female clothing as a means of authoritarian exertion and control, then placed the responsibility of maintaining these rules squarely on women’s shoulders — imposing harsh consequences when they are not obeyed.”

As long as people have reasonable autonomy over what they wear, there is no problem. However, when certain clothing becomes regulated, it becomes an infringement of liberty. The severity of these restrictions can range from compulsory dress codes and uniforms up to the extent of strict clothing bans and laws instituted by autocratic governments. This is where harmful disparities begin to arise. As is evident throughout history, clothing rules have been primarily targeted at women. Even as early as Ancient Greece, documentation exists of a group of male magistrates called the gynaeconomi (translated to “controllers of women”) who were appointed to regulate women’s clothing. Clothing restrictions are one of countless manifestations of gender-based discrimination in patriarchal society. According to activist and author Kamla Bhasin, the word “patriarchy” refers to “male domination, to the power relationships by which men dominate women, and to characterise a system whereby women are kept subordinate in a number of ways.” In overtly patriarchal cultures, male elites fostered rules for female clothing as a means of authoritarian exertion and control, then placed the responsibility of maintaining these rules squarely on women’s shoulders — imposing harsh consequences when they are not obeyed.

“Iranian women have stood at the forefront of massive nationwide protests demanding the abolition of these oppressive laws and their violent enforcement.”

Throughout the world, government-sanctioned clothing regulations are lamentably widespread. The dress code of the United States Congress forbids women from wearing sleeveless tops. Up until 2019, women in Saudi Arabia were required by law to wear a head-to-toe garment called an “abaya” when in public. Currently, topical discourse centres around the hijab. The hijab is a traditional Islamic head-covering worn for reasons of modesty, a garment that has unfortunately been politicised for centuries. Since 1979, Iran has enforced the mandatory hijab law that requires women to wear the garment at all times when in public. Women who fail to comply face prison sentences. On 16th September 2022, a 22-year old woman named Mahsa Amini was beaten to death in custody, after being arrested by the country’s morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly. Her death has ignited global outrage, as Iranian women have stood at the forefront of massive nationwide protests demanding the abolition of these oppressive laws and their violent enforcement. The protestors believe that, whether or not women wear a hijab, their clothing should not be dictated in any way by government repression or legal enforcement. It must be an individual choice based on personal and religious freedom.  

Here in Ireland, we enjoy considerable liberty in relation to our clothing. What we wear is almost entirely up to ourselves, leaving room for creative, religious, and personal expression through means of dress. If you believe women in Iran should also enjoy this freedom, there is much you can do to help. Use social media (no matter the size of your platform) to raise awareness and spark conversations. Sign petitions and join protests here in Dublin to draw more attention to the movement, or donate to aid organisations. Small actions performed by many people can cause big change.