By Josie Stern (‘19)
This month, Senator Mitch Holmes (R-Kansas) imposed a strict dress code on female legislators who testify in front of his committee. Holmes issued the dress code to deter women from distracting the committee by wearing clothing he deemed “revealing.” Holmes claims, “Put it out there and let people know we’re really looking for you to be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself.” Specifically, the Senator’s dress code for women prohibits those who are testifying on bills from wearing low-cut necklines and miniskirts. However, he did not specify what was considered a low-cut blouse or miniskirt. Reports indicate that Holmes considered issuing another dress code specific to male testifiers, but decided that men were able to dress themselves without guidance. Female senators, his own colleagues, were rightfully outraged at Holmes’ guidelines. Senator Carolyn McGinn (R-Kansas) claims, “I am more interested in what they have to say about the direction our state should go than what they’re wearing that day.” Subsequently, Holmes apologized for his demeaning language, saying, “My failure to clearly specify that all conferees, regardless of gender, should strive to present themselves professionally is unacceptable.” However, it is unacceptable on probably more levels than he had intended.
Today’s culture is caught up in the idea of what constitutes a “professional woman.” By proclaiming that a woman’s outfit is “too distracting,” Holmes, like much of society, is putting the blame on the women, rather than those who are supposedly “distracted.” That being “said,” dressing “professionally” in a workplace does influence the way a colleague views a co-worker. However, this dress code, like ones enforced at schools and workplaces, tells women to cover up in order to not be subject to male gaze, but refuses to hold men and boys accountable. The dress code supposes that women are not able to determine for themselves what acceptable, professional dress is. On another level, it is interesting how Holmes’ apology failed to acknowledge that women are often considered subordinate to men. Along these lines, in “Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams,” Laurie Ouellette problematizes this subordination when she claims, Helen Gurley Brown, Editor-in-Chief for Cosmopolitan from 1965-1997, “clearly understood women’s subordination in the office, but she did not directly challenge it because in an ideal world, we might move onward and upward by using only our brains and talent, but since this is an imperfect world, a certain amount of listening, giggling, wriggling, smiling, winking, flirting and fainting is required in our rise from the mailroom” (267). Perhaps the women who testified in “revealing” clothing felt that, like Brown, the world in which we exist does not allow for them to only use their brains and talent to be heard and taken seriously. Perhaps they thought that they must also use their sexuality to advance and have their thoughts and ideas heard.
Dress codes allow for women to be objectified and not taken seriously, if they are not dressed in what men see as socially and professionally acceptable. Dress codes like this give women the idea that how they dress is how they are going to be perceived in the professional world. However, men do not have to deal with this type of control. There is a lack of consistency between the guidelines for men and women. As Jane Caputi points out in “The Pornography of Everyday Life,” “Patriarchal cultures such as our own also associate nakedness and sex with shame and sin, and identify women with the essence of sex” while men are seen as above this negative identification” (374). This double standard in our culture opens the door for a flurry of negative associations with regards to the choices women make in this case with regards to appearance. Women wearing short skirts and low-neckline blouses are automatically assumed to be purely sexual beings and not serious in their work. This assumption is further troubling, because it completely objectifies the wearer of “provocative” clothing. In short, Caputi claims, “Men can be viewed as sexual but are seen as having other attributes as well, such as intelligence” (374). Women, like objects, cannot possibly have other attributes, right? Not in my opinion.