What not to wear

When I was very young in the 1960s and lived with my parents and brother in a small Midlands town in the United Kingdom, I remember my mother announcing one day that a man had been arrested in the town for wearing women’s clothes. It was an astonishing idea. Why would any man do such a thing? It could hardly be an accident, the result of dressing in the dark. The idea seemed to tear at the very fabric of the universe, and challenge the logic on which the whole of human life was built. It was as challenging to convention as the suggestion that 2 and 2 might equal 5. Perhaps that was the moment when I realised the world was not as simple as it seemed, or as society would have us believe. Tragic moment.

Those were the days when ‘confirmed bachelor’ wasn’t a euphemism. The surface of life was simple and binary, and if there was turbulence down below, it rarely ruffled the surface. Men were men, wore trousers and went to work. Women were women and wore skirts, stockings, and suspender belts, and mostly stayed at home. There was nothing beneath the surface to threaten the natural order of propriety.

I wondered, though, even then, why the man had been arrested, and I wonder to this day whether he was charged with a crime. Perhaps he fell foul of that cruel catch-all that panders to public or police prejudice – ‘behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.’ I wonder still if he was doing it for a laugh, or for a dare, or whether he was the town’s only brave transvestite. Or perhaps it’s all a false memory, or wishful thinking on my part.

As far as I can remember, my mother’s tone wasn’t particularly condemnatory. I think she shared my astonishment and knew as little about the outer peripheries of human need as I did at the time. I also remember thinking about what ‘women’s clothes’ meant, and how you might define what women should wear and what men should wear. Perhaps that quandary sowed the seeds of my interest in philosophy. I’ve ever since been asking, even as a consultant in business systems, ‘What do you mean by so-and-so?’

Curious though one might be as to why someone should wear a particular garment, that’s not the greatest obstacle in telling people what to wear, or what not to wear. Apart from the problem of definition, there’s the massive problem of justification. What harm was this hapless Midlands transvestite doing to anyone by putting on a frock? What harm does anyone do, by wearing a hijab, a burka, a tutu, a mini skirt, a wetsuit, a space suit, on the beach, or in the office? Behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace? Well, only if the wider population is bigoted and prejudiced and enjoys a good lynching.

I’m afraid I take a liberal view. I don’t care what people do or don’t wear. I believe that we should be sensitive to local culture, but as far as I know that’s always been a matter of not baring the flesh; it has nothing at all to do with covering it up. I’m not religious, and I would actually welcome a uniformly liberal world where nudity goes as unnoticed and unremarked on the beach at Dubai as it does in Western Europe, but that’s not something I can yet impose. But I also believe that being able to see the face is an essential aspect of education, and in order that children should grow into adults who are capable of relatively free choice, children MUST be educated. So, just sometimes, the calculation of rights is a little more tricky. But I presume in favour of freedom if no harm is done.

In the adult world we should be entirely free to wear what we like, however silly, however dull, however fashionable, however scruffy, as long as we do no harm. I no longer care what my colleagues wear in the office, though I do believe that we must wear suits when we meet our clients, though only because we might lose business if we didn’t. Why should we wear Black Tie at Glyndebourne? Why should we wear top hats at Ascot? If I ruled the world I would banish all such conventions and let anyone wear as much or as little as they like, wherever and whenever they wish, as long as they do no harm, and I would limit the concept of harm to cover only such offences as obscenity or the undermining of public health.


Prague is the stag-night capital of the world and I often see groups of merry young men staggering off flights from London. I saw one man, some years ago, dressed for the London Marathon rather than for easyJet, wearing a wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel. He removed the mask at passport control, and the immigration officer didn’t turn a hair. Why should he? Silliness rarely does harm to the spectator.

bathing machine

By contrast, France’s rules against the burka and the burkini do much more harm than good. They stoke resentment and exacerbate the problems they seek to solve. I happen to think that the burkini is as silly as the ‘bathing machines’ of the Victorian era. These were huts that were hauled down to the water’s edge by donkeys, and they more or less concealed bathers from public view, but their bathing clothes did that too.

But, silly or not, I would defend a woman’s right to wear a burkini and if there’s a Midlands man who’d like to wear one too, then why not? Feel free.


3 thoughts on “What not to wear

  1. Christians, secularism, morals and values | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

  2. Adam as far as dressing for the beach is concerned I previously argued with people on Harry’s Place blog alongside you.

    I actually took some heavy flack for it.

    But then I read an article yesterday that put the matter into another perspective that made me realise that perhaps my view was wrong.

    If you are interested I will give you a link to the entire essay but for now I will just pick on the point that swung it for me.

    The thousands of Moroccans and Algerians who moved to France in the 1960’s and 70’s did not wear “ethnic clothing” in fact one of their reasons for coming to France was to get away from intrusive religion doctrine.

    It was only in the late 1980’s that ultra conservative imams started arriving in those countries and started trying to impose a more radical version of Islam which apart from being supremist, was virulently antisemitic and disdainful of the right of women to dress how they wanted or show their “form”

    The Koran does not require it and pictures of women in Afghanistan and Iran shows women dressing like we did in Europe and the US – including mini skirts.

    After a while these imams started to descend on the French Arabs and tried to impose on them this form of 7th century Islam they advocated and with some it resonated

    In a series of court actions in France the discussions on both sides went on at great length.

    In the end and with both sides arguing with good points that were in many cases unanswerable, the decision came down in favour of banning religious wear in schools because so many Muslim girls expressed their anxiety at being bullied by those girls who wore Middle Eastern garb.

    The bullying came from only one side. The religious.

    This was enough for the originators of French Republicanism which separates Church from State to come down in favour of those who put French secular law ahead of religious law.

    So the school ban was passed and most French Muslims welcomed it.

    Now the battle for the heart and soul of French Republicanism is being moved to the beaches of France.

    This is not about whether a man or woman can wear drag.

    It is much deeper. The majority of
    European Muslims do not support this ultra conservative form of Islam.

    It’s these people we should be supporting in my opinion. Not the theocratic.


    • Well, Stephen, I agree with much of what you write, but not with your conclusion. In the end it is a matter for all of us to balance the principle of freedom (wear what you want) with the principle of protection (which you eloquently recommend). On balance I feel that freedom must prevail, especially since banning the burka and the burkini is both impractical and sometimes counterproductive.


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