Admittedly, it would be disingenuous from me to tackle this subject without two big disclaimers. First, I come from a culture where openly commenting on what somebody is wearing is quite a taboo. One does not tell a person that her clothes are out of fashion, or that he is not dressed for the occasion, the reason being that you have no idea of this person’s circumstances. It may well be that he just does not own better clothes; or she could be too poor or too sick to spend time thinking about wardrobe. However, I am also an American. Here clothes make the man and, up to a certain point, I am willing to play with the rules of the game. The second major disclaimer is that those who know me personally will tell you that I am the kind of guy you see wearing Hawaiian shirts and noticeable large earrings to work, or that if we cross paths in the warmer season outside of work, I could be walking down the street in nice linen clothes but barefoot. It is the islander in me, what can I say. Nevertheless, I do know how to dress up in business suit or even in black tie. Knowing how, however, doesn’t mean that I accept it and even less that I like it.
Here you have three anecdotes so that you understand where I come from. First story: I was hired by some Jewish day school where I was supposed to teach music with an emphasis on Hebrew as vehicular language. It is the day before classes, so not a kid to be seen in the building yet. All the teachers are cleaning up classrooms, decorating, and preparing materials. It is a rather dusty environment so I am dressed comfortably, in a tie dye T-shirt and Thai pants. The principal calls me apart and comments on my attire: “That’s a beautiful shirt. Kids would love it… but from Monday on, please dress professionally.” Then she proceeds to inform me about their business casual dress code, which I ostensibly ignored for the rest of the year. Don’t get me wrong, during my tenure there, I was always correctly attired, but I wasn’t up for dressing boringly. Dress shoes and a tie do not make you more professional; they simply make you more conventional, and perhaps less threatening to the status quo. Second story: it happened to a friend but may as well had happen to me. He was invited to a local Pride fundraiser. A very committed activist for trans rights, he happens also to be a creative, rather unconventional fellow, so he arrived to the event wearing a tuxedo but barefoot, as he just never wear shoes. At this LGBTQ event celebrating diversity, mind you, the organizers were narrow-minded enough to deny him admission even after paying an outrageously expensive ticket for his dinner. His being a barefooter did not fit the mold of normalcy they aimed for. It makes one question when did queer identity become framed in such a narrow cage. Third and final anecdote: it is one of my first Shabbats at an unnamed synagogue. I was partnered with the rabbi, I am ordained myself, and yet I was working there as a volunteer, no salary; that is, I am offering for free services that in any other circumstances I would be well paid for. I am wearing dress pants, a nice silk shirt and leather sandals. A shul-lady wearing a sleeveless top looks me from head to toe with disapproval. Then she comments to the president of the synagogue: “I thought sandals for men were not allowed on the bimah.” Something tells me that if we were to abide by traditional tzeniut (and I do not advocate for that at all), a sleeveless woman would be slightly more objectionable than a guy in sandals.
Dress codes are about eliminating uniqueness and individuality. The concept of dress code often raises in us images of a necessary evil. People chose to believe that it is all in the name of professionality; that whenever there is no dress code, chaos and excess ensue; or even that we wouldn’t need dress codes if people were better educated regarding what is appropriate or not. In reality, dress codes are usually repressive and arbitrary rules with a single purpose: uniformizing and even depersonalizing people. The aim of the most strict dress codes (such as the army’s or that of dictatorial regimes) is to kill individuality so that we become a mass of anonymous peons, pieces of a well oiled machine. Furthermore, be it political oppression or company policy, dress codes operate on the assumption that the higher-ups know better and individuals do not know how to act. At its best, they are patronizing if not blatantly oppressive.
Dress codes are heteronormative (or, if you allow me, cisgender-normative). In our times, the general understanding of gender equality has remarkably improved, compared to that of previous generations. Nevertheless, we still have a lot to learn regarding the construction of gender and the full spectrum of gender embodiment. Dress codes are often a heteronormative relique. For instance, think of business casual and gender equality: while males are severely limited to dark suit and tie, women have a wider range of models and colors. If we add queer people and gender-bending individuals to the equation, dress codes force us to wear whatever is “appropriate” to the gender written in our IDs and to its conventions, no matter if it accurately represents who we are. In one of the schools I graduated from people did not wear academic gowns, but gender-specific attire. The unwritten dress code consisted of suits for men and whatever-is-dressy for women. I insisted on wearing a nice, colorful Indian shirt and dress pants. And yet, I was not dressed as a hippy because I am lazy. I was expressing my creativity and my identity as a queer man. In any way I was less elegant or respectful than my female classmates.
In fact, it is my opinion that we should all be as proactive on denouncing this heteronormativity as the boys who wore dresses to school in order to protest an unnecessary and restrictive dress code policy whose aim was avoiding that guys had long hair or earrings.
Dress codes limit creativity and self-expression. If the principal agreed that “the kids would love” my colorful shirts, and if I am supposed to teach them music, art, self-expression, how on earth is it going to help this purpose if I wear anodyne business casual stuff? Would that make me any closer to the young students? Schools and religious institutions are particularly fond of this paradox. We want people to feel connected with Spirit, to daven in a holistic, embodied way, to feel at home in their spiritual community, and yet we expect the clergy (or even the congregants) to dress like they are going to a board meeting. We want kids to fully develop their creativity and explore their artistic site, and yet we tell them open toe shoes and pink hair are a reason to be sent home with a note to their parents.
Dress codes are culturally homogenizing. Western world standards for dress code do not necessarily agree with what is expected in other cultures. Our work environment is diverse and multicultural, but we still think that there is only one way of correctness. Why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian lady to wear an elegant sari to a work conference? What if males of a particular culture dress up by wearing kilts, dishdasha, or a Boukharian kippah? In what ways would you consider this or this to be underdressed for business or academic purposes? Inforcing westernized random dress codes may reveal a lack of sensibility to cultural diversity.
Dress codes are a not a Jewish value. Many of you will not agree with me in this. My idea is that as Jews we value diversity and individual expression. We value chidur, beauty, and art as a form of worship. We value equality, and we are called not to judge anybody by the price tag of their clothes, by the wealth, or by their appearance. We are challenged to treat everybody as equally worthy. It is true that some segments of our community seem rather obsessed with particular attires. I feel often rather concerned when people bring up tzeniut as a set of rules to be enforced, poorly hiding their sexism. Once one of my classmates –a guy who identified as modern Orthodox, and wore kippah and tsitsit– was ranting about tzeniut and how the school should offer advice to “non-observant” female students of what is appropriate to wear to class (of course by “non-observant” he meant “non-observant the exact way I observe”!). While I don’t share his view, I respect this tradition. The problem was that this fellow had a half open shirt and rather short cut-offs. It made me think that there is way too much written about female tzeniut and a lot less about men’s. Modesty in dress, as a value, has nothing to do with the length of your sleeves, but with your self-respect, and your demeanor.
Can we reconstruct a social use of dress code that is diversity affirming and educational? And, in a Jewish context, is it everything about dress codes, about tzeniut norms ultimately negative? Is there anything redeemable, something we can learn from it? In my opinion, strict, one-size-fits-all norms are a mistake. Instead of norms, we should aim at teaching values. Both in the Jewish community and in broader society, the values we want to sponsor are diversity, self-expression in respect to other people, and positive embodiment. I think there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating the human body and its beauty. However, there is something alarming at the way we voluntarily sexualize the body, and this is even worse when we objectivize women or when, chas ve-shalom, we sexualize children. If you have ever been to a bar mitzvah where the kid in question wears an alarmingly short skirt and a skimpy dress badly covered by her talit, ‘nuff said.