Authority, Fashion and Regulation

Although it may not seem obvious at first glance, the close association between clothing, fashion and regulation is interesting in relation to personal freedom, individuality and stereotypical roles within the modern social context.
It doesn’t take an extensive examination of society to observe that the more tightly regulated a community or society is, the more formal and restrictive the dress code is. In many instances the more heavily regulated a society is, the greater the pressure to morally conform. There are various examples within society that illustrate this phenomenon. One example would be that of the military which is highly regulated to the point that strict rules exist to dictate how military staff should dress at all times. At one level this is a rigid enforcement of discipline, aimed at producing a single cohesive unit that operates as directed without question, or individual expression.
It’s not difficult to identify other examples where clothing is a metaphor for authority, regulation and strict codes of conduct. An example of this can be seen in the business world, and the way in which gender roles are regulated through dress. In the vast majority of enterprise, executives are expected to dress in formal attire. A suit and tie, usually in uniform black or similarly dark colours. Clothes invariably reflect professional roles. Moreover, clothes often reflect the degree of regulation within an organisation. One example of this is the usually less formal attire permitted in smaller organisations, or those involved in professions that require more creative thought and free thinking.
Another interesting aspect of clothes, authority and regulation is revealed when one examines gender differences subtlety reinforced by fashion. By and large women have the opportunity to express their individuality and social liberty far more than men who are restricted to a very narrow band of socially acceptable attire. In many instances, long pants and a button up shirt are the minimum social standard men are permitted depending on their role. Usually the lower a male is on the socio-economic scale, the more casual they’re socially able to dress with a number of exceptions.
By comparison, women have a wide array of fashion available to them that not only permits expression of their individuality, but also allows quite daring exposure of their bodies. Exposed midriffs, bared arms, exposed thighs and significant cleavage. It’s often the case if a woman wishes to be taken seriously, a toning down of attire is required to align more with that of males in authority. Numerous exceptions would again exist, but in broad terms, this generally tends to be the case.
Often within organisations where men are required to dress to a particular standard, the same doesn’t apply to women. Upon closer examination, it will often be seen that women hold trivial roles within these organisations, or reduced levels of responsibility.
In terms of social values and the regulation of society, it’s not difficult to see that in societies where there are high levels of regulation, permitted dress is also tightly controlled. A clear illustration is the strict dress codes in many Muslim countries. Likewise in highly regulated states such as communist controlled countries, and conservative US states. One can observe the close relationship between socially accepted dress codes and levels of regulation.
At a subtle psychological level, this relationship between modes of attire and authority play a powerful role. It’s entirely possible for a male to wear flamboyant attire, perhaps even a skirt or dress if not long flowing shirts. Rarely if ever are such characters taken seriously. Almost anyone flamboyantly expressing their individuality is dismissed, and often by extension this is applied to women also based on their general attire.
At a subtle level men tend to conduct themselves with an air of authority, especially if they are dressed in business like attire, or minimally in trousers and button up shirt. By comparison it’s rare that women generally exude a similar air of authority unless they too are dressed in a business like manner.

Where all of this is ultimately leading is an examination of clothes and nakedness in this broad landscape of fashion, authority and regulation. Where clothes are a metaphor for authority, this more than any other factor dictates how comfortable individuals are likely to feel exercising any individual freedoms they might have.
As an example, it’s legal in the majority of westernised countries for males to be bare chested. Despite this freedom, how many would exercise this right around town? Would you go shopping in town without a top on? Would you walk shirtless around the town centre during your work lunch break? What level of intimidation would you feel exercising this right in a bustling town environment?
Many individuals will feel differently about the matter. It’s not uncommon to see shirtless men on hot summer days around shopping precincts. I would suggest in the majority of cases these men would be quite causally dressed at best, and quite likely lower on the socio-economic scale. Indeed, many might well view them as quite uncouth.
A subtle underlying point to all of this is how much regulation plays a role in the acceptability of nakedness. Prior to colonisation, many indigenous cultures had very relaxed attitudes to dress and nudity. Even if they didn’t conduct themselves naked per se, there is clear evidence that dress and strict regulation had a correlation. Compare this to the missionaries and colonists who not only had strict legal restraints, but also suffocating social restrictions that dictated how they must dress even in the hottest of climates. This level of regulation overrode any notions of good sense, comfort or even health and well being.
As things stand, this is what we have inherited. Dress codes that reinforce gender inequality, but more seriously, an almost direct correlation between degrees of regulation and acceptable dress code. Within this context, nakedness effectively represents anarchy with little to no regulation, let alone any kind of moral codes or values. Obviously nude advocates don’t see things this way, but this is the perspective many in society will have. More often than not when they examine those suggesting body freedom, rather than observing people they traditionally associate with authority, what they witness is a fringe element. People dwelling on the outer edges of normal.
This aspect of naked advocacy has dire consequences. One might consider the WNBR as an illustration. What people observe with this expression of nakedness, is people from all walks of life taking part based on personal conviction. What’s more these people are open and forthright not trying to hide their identities. They’re happy and vibrant celebrating a light hearted event with a serious message.
If one examines the phenomenon of naked charity calendars, again there is an openness and honesty not trying to conceal identity.
The point has been made numerous times, if ordinary people attempt to conceal their activities or identities, they will never been taken seriously, let alone accepted. Initially within the LBGT community it was arguably the further left, more flamboyant members who publicly risked their careers, reputation etc to defend their basic rights in the face of religious driven prejudices. Now it is common for leading figures, including executives such as Tom Cook of Apple to come out and declare their sexuality.
Given the close association of clothes and authority, regulation and individuality, if body freedom is to stand any chance of further progression, it can’t remain a guilty secret concealed by those bullied and shamed into concealment. A good dose of reality is also required. It’s quite likely that gender equality is the first stepping stone making campaigns like Free the Nipple essential to any progress. Given societies norms with regard to dress, expecting Urban Nudity is probably a bridge too far initially. Deregulating bans on nudity in wilderness areas, beaches etc is probably far more achievable. Nudity has to be accepted in at least one social context before it has any hope of being accepted in wider contexts. What seems to be somewhat more evident that a catalyst to this scenario is a reduction of strict regulations, and expansion of personal freedoms and rights. Without this important step occurring, it’s likely the close association between strict regulation of dress code is likely to prevail indefinitely.



8 thoughts on “Authority, Fashion and Regulation”

  1. Interesting observations, Shane. I'm not sure that I agree with everything you said though. Seems to me that Free the Nipple, and Urban Nudity campaigns are more effective in (liberal) cities than in (conservative) rural areas, as were the gay pride campaigns you use as an example.

    In many places its difficult to go with naked feet while otherwise fully dressed. Fashion police kick people out of stores and restaurants even though there are no laws or government regulations against bare feet.

    Your point about being willing to be public and demand acceptance is good. As long as gays hid they were not acceptable in public. It didn't take very long for gay to become legal and acceptable once many gays started demanding acceptance. In a like manner as long as nudists hide behind fences and protect our identity we will not be normal. It will take a small mob of us going public and demanding acceptance of our bodies in public to get the laws changed.

  2. I agree. All that you have said is true. Clothes are simultaneously instruments of power for the wearer as well as subjugation. There have always been those in power who wish to control others and personal freedoms run counter to that. The control of what people wear is part of controlling those people. With nakedness there is nothing to control, except the nakedness itself.

Leave a Comment

New Report