Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Up in arms over Lisa Hanna’s dress

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Is nothing but bad-mind and grudgeful. Lisa Hanna's toned arms are an offence to women with Jello underarms. It's as simple as that. And I'm certainly not throwing words at Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, St Andrew West Rural MP, who accused Lisa Hanna of wearing an "attention-seeking" dress. As an elite athlete, Juliet has muscular arms that compare very favourably with Lisa's.

The issue is obviously more complicated than just plain bad-mind and grudgeful. Why is Juliet dissing Lisa? Because she's breaking the rules? If so, why the jab about seeking attention? As a former beauty queen, Lisa Hanna has been exposed to lots of attention. She probably wants less than more. Why are there all these rules against women's bare arms in certain public places such as Parliament, government offices, hospitals, etc? What is it, exactly, about women's arms that provokes such a fuss?

It's the proximity of arms to breasts. That's the big issue. According to the Healthline website, "The major muscle in the chest is the pectoralis major. This large fan-shaped muscle stretches from the armpit up to the collarbone and down across the lower chest region on both sides of the chest. The two sides connect at the sternum, or breastbone."

And what's above the breastbone? Breasts! So there you have it: A straight line from bare arms to bare breasts! And the story gets even more erotic. Underarm hair mimics pubic hair. It seems as if men (and some women) can't control their sexual urges when they see a woman's bare arms. All those rules against women's sleeveless arms seem to originate in a deep-seated fear of female sexiness.


Pearnel Charles, speaker of the House, actually wrote to Lisa Hanna to reprimand her for wearing a sleeveless dress to Parliament. But it wasn't exactly sleeveless. The dress had a cap sleeve. Admittedly, this kind of sleeve is rather short and just barely hangs over the shoulder without going all the way down to cover the arms. So it's case of submitting to the letter of the law while revolting against its repressive spirit.

So what, exactly, is the dress code for Parliament? Standing Order 84A declares:

"1. The dress of members and other users of the House must at all times reflect sobriety in order to maintain the dignity and decorum of the House.

2. There shall be strict adherence to the rules.

3. Members' dress for meetings of the House or Committees should consist of a business suit and necktie for men, and a sleeved business dress or skirt suit of modest length, or pant suit for women."

These rules are, obviously, a hangover from colonial times. Why mandatory neckties for men? Ironically, the House of Commons in the UK Parliament dropped the tie from its dress code earlier this year. But we are still hanging on to this flimsy symbol. Dignity, decorum and sobriety have very little to do with dress. It's the substance of one's behaviour that matters far more.

And it's not just a local issue. In Kenya, a former MP, Koigi wa Wamwere, has resisted the suit-and-tie dress code since the 1970s. He wears a 'Kaunda' suit, with a short-sleeved jacket, that was made famous by the former president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. The Daily Nation quoted wa Wamwere in an article published soon after the change of UK parliamentary dress policy: "We congratulate the British for liberating themselves and call upon our Kenyan brothers and sisters in Parliament to follow suit - unless, of course, they want to exhibit more British mannerisms that the British themselves."


In the US, 30 congresswomen from both sides of the aisle staged a sleeveless protest in July this year. According to a CNN Politics report, "The lawmakers were protesting the dress code in the speaker's lobby, a room bordering the House chamber where lawmakers congregate between votes and where reporters conduct interviews. The dress code for the room has required women - reporters and lawmakers - to wear dresses and blouses with sleeves if they want to enter. The rule also requires men to wear jackets and ties."

Instead of asserting that Lisa Hanna's bare arms are an attention-grabbing stunt, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn should join forces with her across the aisle to protest against a very backward dress code. In a tropical country, it is ridiculous to insist that men must tie themselves up in knots. And women must trap themselves in garments with sleeves - even when we are suffering from hot flashes!

A few years ago, I went to the Ministry of Finance to do business. I was alarmed to be told that, because I was wearing a sleeveless dress, I couldn't go beyond the lobby. Fortunately, it was Independence time and the lobby was being decorated with fabric. I borrowed a piece and turned it into a makeshift shawl. And I was able to get past the security guards. Women shouldn't have to resort to such measures in order to be comfortable in our skin. We must emancipate ourselves from sartorial slavery.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and