Dress reform

Glosswitch writes about school uniforms and stereotype threat and the trousers of power.

There’s a group in the UK, Trousers for All, that campaigns to allow girls to wear trousers as part of their school uniform.

As is the case with so many seemingly trivial points of differentiation between men and women, what matters is not the thing in itself, but what it signifies. If the right to wear trousers had no broader meaning, women would not have had to fight for it, but fight for it they have. Trousers are associated with male privilege and dominance (hence the question “who wears the trousers?”). Female politicians were not permitted to wear them on the US Senate floor until 1993. It was 2013 before an (ultimately rarely used) bylaw requiring women in Paris to ask permission from city authorities before “dressing as men” was finally revoked. Women in Malawi were not permitted to wear trousers at all between 1965 and 1994 and still face threats and attacks for doing so.

And Sudan. Women in Sudan are arrested and flogged for wearing trousers.

This is not about style or gender as play, but power, and it remains the case even if we are discussing something as seemingly minor and mundane as school uniform.

I actually don’t think it is minor. I was born too soon to have been allowed to wear trousers to school, and I badly wanted to. I wore them whenever I could, and school made a huge chunk of time when I couldn’t. I always found skirts dreadfully inhibiting, and I still do. Women in skirts still don’t move as freely and carelessly as people in trousers do. Skirts, like high heels, are a way of tamping down women’s activity and freedom.

Glossy cites another good reason though.

Numerous studies have shown that stereotype threat – a situation in which people feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes pertaining to their social group – matters a great deal when considering gender and education. Simply being reminded that one is the social construct “boy” or “girl”, as opposed to just “a pupil”, can affect an individual’s perception of his or her own ability and response to particular subject areas (eg “girls are no good at maths”, “boys don’t read books” etc). A school should be the last place where gendered codes which have already been broken down elsewhere are suddenly reintroduced. For a girl to have to wear a skirt in the classroom when she can wear trousers elsewhere sends a very particular message to her. She is not simply a learner; she is a girl-learner, confined by unspoken rules which limit her individual potential and constrain her social interactions.

She’s in that group that’s not allowed to run around freely.

But then what about the other direction? What about letting boys wear skirts? Since I hate skirts my reaction tends to be “why would anyone want to?” But that doesn’t dig deep enough.

What really bothers me, though, is the one-sidedness of the approach. Why just trousers? Why not skirts, too? Why is it that, yet again, whatever the boys are doing is seen as the default thing, to which the girls should necessarily aspire? Why not campaign for no differentiation whatsoever in school uniform requirements?

I think we all know the answer to this. We don’t want to see boys in skirts or dresses, demeaning themselves, being “girly”. Indeed, were we to see a boy in a dress, we’d probably assume he wasn’t a boy at all. The more we broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman or a girl, the more rigid and entrenched our understanding of boyhood and manhood becomes (even in David Walliams’ The Boy In The Dress, the main character’s continued inclusion in the category “male” seems to be justified by the fact that, dress or no dress, he’s still brilliant at football. Thank God for that!).

I’m all for trousers for all, but let’s have skirts and dresses for all, too. This seems to me far more revolutionary, given that the “no skirts for boys” rule applies far beyond the school gates, and the only reason for its existence seems to be to assuage male anxiety about being a “proper” man. As a fully paid-up member of Team Skirt, I say let’s deal with this nonsense once and for all.

Throw caution to the wind! Relish the freedom of having no superfluous fabric between your thighs! Come on, men. You have nothing to lose but your Corby trouser presses.

Dress your lower half however you want to! Choose the two tubes with the pelvic connector, or choose the bag with a waistband – and soar with the eagles!


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