BU shares the Jeff Cumberbatch Barbados Advocate column – Senior Lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies since 1983, a Columnist with the Barbados Advocate.
MUSINGS: […]On nearing fifty (ii)
”Style is a way of saying who you are¡ without having to speak.” -Rachel Zoe
This is the second in a proposed series of essays on miscellaneous topics pertaining to local matters as we approach the commencement of our 50th year of national sovereignty. The first essay, published a few weeks ago, treated the issue of unduly delayed justice in our courts, a matter on which the Caribbean Court of Justice has had cause on more than a few instances in the recent past to chasten the local judiciary primarily, and the entire court system on occasion. It is to be expected that appropriate and seasonable steps will be taken to remove this avoidable blot of unconstitutionality from the local judicial and curial landscape.
Another area of topical interest and one that surfaces periodically is the notion of appropriate public dress. If we are to listen to the frequent carping, whether from the churches, the schools, government offices, and the courts themselves, many Barbadians of all ages have seemingly forgotten or are ignorant of, in the first place, the rules of etiquette governing appropriate dress for a given occasion.
This phenomenon may be owed to a number of factors. First, perhaps through a cultural lack of self-confidence, there is, here, no concept of national dress; hence our idea of what is suitable (no pun) wear for men involves the mimicry of that which is considered to be acceptable in other jurisdictions with far more temperate climates.
It would be in vain to argue now for the displacement of this notion from the national consciousness, and it is, of course, a reality not peculiar to Barbados, but the idea of the wool-rich suit and a tie becoming de rigueur wear for males on most formal occasions ¨C church, Parliament, the courts ¨C in a country where temperatures may reach as high as 900F on some days does seem incongruous. In consequence, some have compromised and managed to force a reluctant social acceptance of the less formal and apparently more comfortable shirt-jac(ket) suit ¨C an outfit that may be better suited to our environment, provided it is made of a sufficiently cool material.
Nevertheless, the tradition of the lounge suit wearer being presumed to be ‘properly dressed’ has by now become hallowed by the passage of time and it is at least doubtful whether this ensemble will ever lose pride of place as the ultimate male costume for most significant occasions.
Second, many of the criticisms of the deportment of some of our women are based principally on our ostensible Victorian prudishness of regulating the public dress of the female, lest she might prove a distraction to the male. Thus, while it would be clearly impossible nowadays to require the local woman to cover her face, knees and ankles from public view ¨C a tradition that still obtains in some religions ¨C the various negative assessments of female wear as being too tight, too short, or too revealing are of much the same ilk.
Not that some of these criticisms are totally unfounded. Having been liberated by an emancipation that has served to remove them from an existence of being a mere appendage of the husband under the old law of coverture, some women now appear to hold the view that the greater exposure of their physical charms to public scrutiny is a consummation devoutly to be wished for. And while this may be connived at by a few prurient others and some of their escorts, perhaps as some evidence of the latter¡¯s power of sexual conquest, the official stance remains that conservative dress for women remains the acceptable standard in those places where the state is occupier and therefore free to restrict entry on prescribed terms as well as on those occasions similarly formal.
My musings this week on this potentially controversial matter were incited by the press report earlier this week that some primary school teachers had expressed discontent with the stipulations as to their form of dress on those occasions when the Governor-General may visit their particular school in his personal choice of scheduled visits. Naturally, given our innate reluctance to confront officialdom, no dissatisfied teacher chose to be named and there was, indeed, some doubt about whether such objections even existed.
However, it appears that there are in fact official dress stipulations emanating from Government House for an audience with the Governor-General. This is understandable since an audience with the constitutional representative of the Head of State may easily be categorised as an official occasion, although I should think that the prefatory passage to the statement of the code to the effect that Government House remains ‘one of the last bastions of good form, etiquette and protocol in the face of what can be perceived as a national decline in deference and decorum’ seems to overstate the case in some respects.
After all, while there may be arguably some regrettable faux pas in terms of what is considered acceptable dress on some occasions, it does not appear to me to have become a general pattern of behaviour among the majority of our citizens.
Nevertheless, as it may be with most codes in general and perhaps dress codes in particular, the best of intentions are not easily formulated into clear English. Thus we read from the code that the minimum standard for men is ‘a formal shirt’ and dress slacks with a tie. I suppose that the immediate intention was to exclude polo shirts and perhaps even short-sleeved buttoned shirts, and to refer to dress shirts, but the insistence on a formal shirt conjures up in my mind an hardly-intended one with a winged collar, studs and a pleated front. Other vague notions such as dreadlocks (sic) worn in a professional manner and shoes fitting the description of sober and free from ostentation may also be unhelpful indicators. Does this latter mean that shoes should be always laced? Are Guccis or Salvatore Ferragamos with snaffles across the instep acceptable? Would monk straps be deemed kosher?
All the same, as earlier asserted, the publication of the code is understandable to negate the probable embarrassment of those who may pay little regard to such matters. We should insist however, that the rules be enforced without any discrimination whatsoever. A cartoon in the Jamaica Observer on Monday illustrates this point. There, a male clad in a polo shirt is refused entry into the courtroom by a security guard who, in the next panel, is ushering into the same court a shapely female clad in a see-through shift exposing her fashionable underwear. The gist of the cartoon appears to be the ease with which one may mistake a transgender person for one born a female, but the finer point is that attributes such as attractiveness, race, or apparent wealth or status should play no part in the exclusion of lawful visitors from entry into official premises on the ground of inappropriate wear.