Editorial

Should people be free to dress as they like in public?

Sunday, August 12, 2018

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How people choose to dress is a matter of personal choice and that choice is governed by preference, taste, fashion, tradition, and pragmatism. What is practical depends on what a person can afford and the weather/climate.

Freedom to choose is, however, not absolute. It is limited by public standards and what private institutions are prepared to accept. Standards of dress in public are established by and enforced by the Government. The Government does this based on what it perceives to be the society's consensus or that of the majority of citizens.

The Government has set certain standards, some of which are enforced by the sanction of law and others by exclusion or prohibition. People are not allowed to go about naked, and if they do, they can be arrested for indecent exposure (exposure of genitals in public), which could lead to a fine or prison time.

A man without a shirt is not considered indecent, but a woman who is topless would be. Private institutions are allowed to prohibit entrance based on the enforcement of a dress code, which they are usually free to set.

Standards change over time. When Mr Michael Manley, in the early 1970s, decided to wear Kariba suits, many, including the Jamaica Labour Party, thought it improper and stuck to the three-piece suit. Parliament passed a law allowing the Kariba style of attire for official functions.

Proper dress and what is nakedness also have a class connotation. Those who can afford it shower behind closed doors in a private bathroom, making sure young children never see them nude. Many poor people have to bath naked in public at a stand-pipe or in a river, which is technically indecent exposure. It is these class differences that are avoided by the requirement of school uniforms which constitute a standard of dress enforceable by exclusion.

Now Jamaicans are debating whether to allow sleeveless dress in public places after controversies triggered by Mrs Michelle Obama, Lady Allen, and Mrs Lisa Hanna-Lake in Parliament. Private institutions can define and enforce their own dress code, and Government will do that for the society and public places. For the Government the question is the definition of sleeveless. It is easy to say no sleeveless attire because that means the top must cover the shoulders and top of the arm. But does sleeveless cover tank-tops and strapless tops; and how much cleavage is acceptable?

Modernisation, getting rid of antiquated rules and being practical, are all good. However, the contemplated changes must be carefully thought through and must not be changed merely for the sake of change.

As we decide on this divisive issue, we must bear in mind that not all traditions are bad, and if they are to be changed, we must be cognisant of the fact that attire is a symbol of the office held and the respect that is accorded the institution involved.

There must be some visible standards which do not have to be popular, convenient or fashionable. Because many people in Jamaica wear shorts, some very tight and skimpy, does not mean it is suitable for attending a court of law or the Parliament, or church for that matter.

Let the debate begin.

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