My granddaughter, Marlowe, is a cute 11-year-old. She lives in a place in California where a lot of the townies could do with a shampoo. Marlowe dresses deliberately each day—with deliberate abandon, to be precise. She takes "delight in disorder" (borrowing a phrase from 17th century poet Robert Herrick). She eschews conventions of style, fashion, matching and accessorizing—you name it, she ignores it. Stripes with plaid? No problem. Wrinkled? So what? Red and purple? Who cares? Given the choice between socks that match and socks that don't, she favors the latter.
At the end of a weeklong visit, as we prepared for a farewell dinner, my wife suggested a wardrobe upgrade for a photo op at the restaurant. Such suggestions are usually directed at T-shirted me, but this nudge was for Marlowe. It was met with a shrug. "Do you want me to look like somebody I'm not?" she demurred. Her response pinned me like a butterfly in a display case. The only correct answer—credit Mr. Rogers—is: "I like you just the way you are." But the truth of the matter is that I would prefer her looking more like a page from a J. Crew catalog than a scene in Oliver Twist. I am not the first grandparent to admit that bias. In fact, unlike Mr. Rogers, many people are concerned about what other people wear. The institutional expression of that concern is the dress code. It is surprising to me how pervasive and finicky they are. The Ladies Professional Golf Association, for example, recently published a dress code banning décolleté tops, shorts that exposed too much of "the bottom area" and leggings. Leggings were the issue when two tweens were denied stand-by seats because of United Airlines' dress code. While leggings are not explicitly proscribed for jurors in the South Salt Lake Justice Court, a summons to jury duty instructs me on appropriate courtroom attire: "no shorts, tank tops, gym attire or uniforms." That a uniform is unwelcome gives me pause. Army uniforms are not unwelcome on the mean streets of Kandahar and Mosul, so why should they be barred from a jury box in Utah? Were I in the military, wearing Purple Heart and Bronze Star ribbons, I would be tempted to show up in my dress uniform just to make a point.
I did spend a few years wearing an Army uniform. No institution is more prescriptive when it comes to personal appearance. Words like "tradition" and "professional" are invoked in regulations that ban Fu Manchu mustaches, dyed hair, flared sideburns and long fingernails. When it comes to fashion trends, the Army is a decades-late adopter. It has only been recently that female soldiers have been allowed dreadlocks and cornrows, and not until this year could soldiers have beards, turbans and hijabs for religious reasons. Rules for tattoos have gradually become more permissive. "Society is changing its view of tattoos, and we have to change along with that," Gen. Ray Odierno said in 2015.
The LDS church has also recently announced dress-code changes. The church, which once required its female employees to wear pantyhose, is easing the clothing requirements for its large workforce. Men are now permitted to wear "light-colored shirts" instead of white ones, and women may come to work in dress pants.
We learned this summer that while women may wear pants in the House of Representatives, they may not wear sleeveless tops in the Speaker's Lobby. After "right to bare arms" protests by congresswomen, Speaker Paul Ryan defended the dress code in a press conference. "Decorum is important," he said. But he allowed that barring "otherwise accepted contemporary business attire" from the Speaker's Lobby was an antiquated practice.
Like Ryan, I find value in decorous behavior, especially when it comes to civil discourse, but dress codes are too often ambiguous and more often than not, sexist. Whether it's pantyhose in Salt Lake City, sleeves in Washington or high-heeled shoes in London, dress codes tend to regulate what women wear. None pass the common-sense test, especially when the standard is as elastic as "professional" or "decorous." This year's tennis matches at Wimbledon provided an amusing turnabout generated by the all-white dress code that applies to underwear "that either is or can be visible during play." Officials turned a blind eye to Venus Williams' pink bra while insisting that Jurij Rodionov change his blue underpants before taking the court.
"All-white" is definitive, but many dress codes are not. I once worked in a private high school with an unwritten dress code. The principal called it "casual smart." Although it was rarely discussed, students were expected to conform, and teachers were expected to send offenders to the office. No one paid much attention to it. Only the principal could discern which students did not measure up to the "casual smart" standard. I don't think that's uncommon. In the South Salt Lake Justice Court, I'll bet one person's leggings are another person's "gym attire."
On that day in California, Marlowe acquiesced and changed clothes. As she did, I considered my dilemma, stuck between what I should say to her and what I wanted to say. Like most grandparents, I wanted to engage her, to interrogate her motives, to explain to her that rightly or wrongly, books are often judged by their cover. But I couldn't. I couldn't come up with any good reason for her to change her clothes. In the end, I went with Mr. Rogers—Herrick, too, whose poem "Delight in Disorder" concludes that imperfection in dress has a "wild civility." And I said nothing.
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