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Editorial | Dressing sleeveless in Jamaica

Published:Friday | July 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM


The photograph of Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May wearing a sleeveless evening gown during the state visit of US President Donald Trump has reignited the debate over sleeveless clothing for women.

Some local social-media commentators drew attention to the fact that women in Jamaica could not dress like Mrs May to enter several government departments and agencies, including hospitals, prisons and schools.

Indeed, there are stories of distressed mothers clutching their sick babies being turned away from the hospital because they were wearing sleeveless clothing or of persons seeking to do business at the Registrar General's Department and the Companies Office of Jamaica who have been similarly denied entry.

Last year, UWI Professor Verene Shepherd questioned the origins of the rule after a security guard at a St Thomas school enquired about sleeveless clothing among her party.

This decorum rule forbidding women to expose their arms was handed down in tradition from the British, and today security guards are the fashion police as their job includes ensuring that the dress code is strictly observed by members of the public. But even the British are now challenging what appears to be an inconvenient fashion rule.

In these parts, soaring temperatures, which are consistently in the 90s, call for practical, comfortable attire that may include sleeveless garments.

Sensibly, some firms have now introduced 'casual' days when employees are allowed to dress down and sometimes they are asked to make a contribution to charity. This begs the question: If this can be done once a week, is there any valid reason why it cannot be done throughout the week?

Women of the 21st century have the iconic Michelle Obama, former US first lady, to thank for trampling these rules of fashion when she famously met Queen Elizabeth II in a sleeveless number. Noted for baring arms, she unabashedly went about her business with her shoulder uncovered. The debate that ensued demonstrated that there is, in fact, an ongoing cultural war between rules laid down historically and what is now considered acceptable.

And these antiquated rules are in force all over the world. A year ago, a CBS reporter was prevented from entering the Speaker's Lobby at the US Capitol because her sleeveless dress was considered inappropriate. There the rules say: Women are not allowed to wear sleeveless blouses or dresses, sneakers or open-toed shoes."


What does the law forbid?


Is there a law forbidding sleeveless garments in public? There certainly is a law against indecent exposure, but as far as sleeveless is concerned, this appears to be an arbitrary dress code established many years ago.

Many modern companies are moving away from traditional dress codes, instead focusing on creativity and performance, as they seek to improve their bottom line.

And in a bid to attract fresh, young talent, some companies have relaxed the rules, so, for example, fewer companies now require that men wear a tie.

This looks like as good a time as any for Jamaica to rethink the sleeveless dress code, especially as it relates to persons going about their day-to-day business. We believe the women in Parliament are best positioned to take on this issue, which specifically impacts women.

Last year, South East St Ann Member of Parliament Lisa Hanna boldly turned up for Parliament in a sleeveless dress. She was reprimanded by the House speaker, and some of her female colleagues were critical of her attire.

Ms Hanna was likely testing the waters as she invited her critics to bring up the matter in the House. It's worth another go, Ms Hanna. The smart thing to do next time is to get others on your side as you go out to the crease.