How to make a dress code

Today is the last of this month; but before we move on to August, allow me to consider one last event in July. Earlier this month the Ministry of Public Service, Uganda released a circular in which it prescribed a dress code for the non-uniformed officers in the public service. Notable no nos were mini skirts, cleavage, and multicoloured nail polish for women and for men, there’d be no tight trousers, short sleeved shirts and open shoes except for medical reasons.

Now all these seemed fair to me until I heard the reactions from the civil servants and others concerned. Some said the rules were oppressive, others said they’d need a dressing allowance to cover the cost of buying new clothes (as if they were walking around naked before) and others thought the whole dress code thing was rather trivial.

When I was in high school, I ran for prefect. On the day of open campaigns, after I had embarrassed myself by dancing for the school badly, one of the teachers asked me, “What would you and your fellow prefects do about the improper dressing of the students?” Which was a bit unfair of him to ask me since I was not standing for Head Prefect but anyway I went on to answer.

Now I went to an international school for my final year of high school so the environment there was much unlike other local schools in the country. For a conservative, which I think the teacher was, the students’ dressing was anything but proper. To the liberal, which seemed to be the more influential group in the school, everything was fine. Actually, a few would say we were smart.

It appeared that I had three choices: go with the conservative and condemn a good number of the students, side with the more influential liberals and win the favour of the students or take a politically neutral standpoint and neither offend nor side with either group. I chose the third. I answered then as I would now that “Morals are not universal, but we as an institution have to set a standard by which we operate and my job would be to encourage my fellow prefects to set an example for the rest of the school by how they dress.” And the students cheered for me.

Now, of course, certain elements of our moral codes are so ubiquitous they seem to be universal and self-evident but the way in which they manifest practically is anything but universal. For example, we may all agree that one should not walk around naked but the length of one’s skirt is still debatable. But as an institution with a vision for the desired future and a reputation to create and protect, it would be wise for us to decide on which length of a skirt we shall allow our representatives to don. We must have had a dress policy at my high school but I don’t know whether it went as far as stating the length of one’s skirt relative to their anatomy.

But if and when you decide to have an institutional policy on how your members dress, I suggest from my inexperienced but good observational point of view that it satisfies at least two criteria. The first, it should be functional. There are many public servants doing all kinds of jobs. Some work indoors, outdoors, both in and out doors; some are more physical than others, some interact with people on a daily basis while others only interact with a few people rarely. And I think it is common sense that the rules not be so strict as to deter a person from properly carrying out their duties. Which is probably why it wasn’t mentioned in the circular that there are cases in which the prescribed dress code would not be functional.

Now I don’t know where exactly doctors fall, whether uniformed or non-uniformed officers but let me take them for an example. A doctor interacts with people on a daily basis so yes he/she should look professional but his/her work is so physical and long that the prescribed dress code is not functional. In the daily tropical heat of Uganda, wearing a vest or undershirt, a long sleeved shirt, neck tie and white coat and then standing on a ward round for four hours is neither necessary nor practical. Personally, I gave up on vests and undershirts altogether while at the hospital. The circular maybe should have implied or explicitly allowed for the dress code to be interpreted on a contextual basis to cater for the variety of posts in the public service.

Secondly, the institutional policy should not be seen to inadvertently promote useless prejudices that it should in fact actually be seeking to challenge and nullify. I was watching a female YouTuber go on about modesty talk in the church and she made a point that I’d like to paraphrase. Isn’t it a problem that a woman is told to dress for the benefit of the man. If she is smart, it is to please the man and if she is modest, it is so that the man is not stumbled in his walk of faith. Why can’t she do it for herself; look sexy for her confidence, be modest for her honour? Why is it always about the men?

And I get it, maybe most women that have been raped have been raped because they looked too appealing that their rapists had no choice but violate their rights but you’d have a hard time proving that. And now let me borrow something from the ex, why does a woman have to lose her femininity in order to be taken seriously in the work place? In her words, “We can be both sexy and serious at work.” An institutional policy on dress should not be seen to promote deleterious prejudices on the basis of religion, tribe, sex, and race and it especially shouldn’t promote sexism (misogyny).

I get it, these prejudices are so entrenched within the societal mindset that it’s almost futile to radically challenge them individually or as a singular institution. But rather than buy into and therefore promote them, we should nibble away at the edges of these prejudices with the hope of one day to have eventually eaten all of them away.

Featured image: The cast of Suits, a Law TV series



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