Fashion, identity, and regulation: Cayton explores the complex landscape of clothing norms
Cayton fashion regulation article
In liberal democratic countries, the idea of the government regulating what people should wear is abhorrent. But when it comes to choosing what we wear, are we as free as we think? In this Voices article, Harry Cayton explores the important influence of culture, society, and identity on clothing norms.

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The ‘morality police’ are back on the streets in Iran. They were withdrawn for a few months as a result of the mass national protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after her arrest for not wearing a hijab. The protests across the country lasted for months and shook Iran’s authoritarian government. One attempt to calm things was the temporary withdrawal of the despised morality police.

In July, Al Jazeera, the Arabic news service, reported the patrols had restarted and that the police are “warning women – and sometimes men – to correct the way they are dressed… Women deemed to be in breach of the rules could be arrested and taken to so-called re-education facilities run by the police.”

In liberal democratic countries, the idea of the police regulating what people, particularly women, should wear is abhorrent. But is regulating clothing quite so alien to our way of life as we think?

What people wear has always been part of their cultural and social identity; ‘national dress’ is widely recognized and celebrated. Many international conferences I have been to have encouraged people to ‘wear national dress’ at the conference dinner (a bit problematic, I have to say, if you are English – bowler hats or clogs?).

Clothing rules are strong in all religions. Religious leaders are set apart by their costumes; by their garments shall you know them. In Christianity an infinite hierarchy of costume separates cardinals from bishops, from clergy, from deacons, and from the many orders of nuns and monks. The multifaith assembly of religious leaders at King Charles III’s recent coronation was a cornucopia of prescribed costume and fascinating headwear.

The same applies less elaborately to religious adherents, too. When I was a child, I had to wear an uncomfortable ‘Sunday best’ suit going to church and my mother wouldn’t have dreamt of going without a hat. The police didn’t come to check, of course, but communal and parental disapproval was quite enforcing. In Italy and Spain, tourists are admonished for wearing shorts or skimpy tops when entering a cathedral because it is disrespectful. The regulation of religious costume distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a Rastafarian, or Amish. It expresses something that is of value to you and sets you apart from others.

And it’s not only religion. Uniforms distinguish the police, paramedics, airline pilots, nurses, and others, too.

Physicians’ uniforms are less obvious, but we all know doctors are identified by a visible stethoscope, either hanging around their neck or dangling casually from a pocket in their white coat. A friend of mine who was a distinguished psychiatrist always carried a stethoscope to show he was a doctor. I doubt he ever used it, but he feared, I think, that otherwise people wouldn’t know how important he was.

In the traditional London clubs, gentlemen must wear a jacket, tie, and proper shoes. Fail to do so and you will be refused entry. The door porters may not take you away for re-education, but their prohibition is just as certain. And it starts young; teenagers express their independence through clothes and hairstyles that are an irritation to their parents, although ironically, they are actually creating a new style for group identity. Schools force them into uniforms to impose an alternative uniformity.

It is the regulation of uniformity across a whole society that we object to – to the State enforcing clothing or hairstyles or gender distinctions. We think we are free to choose what we wear, but we are not as free as we imagine. Self-regulation of clothing may be voluntary, but it is enforced by family, custom, and practice and you face rejection if you don’t conform. Voluntary self-regulation of costume is as coercive in private as the morality police are in public.

Of course, in liberal democracies the rules are changing. The move from the office to working from home has already changed what is acceptable clothing for a business meeting. Dress down Friday has been replaced by dress down every day – although turning up to a video call in your pajamas or a onesie is probably still a step too far.

Of course, I’m not advocating that the police go around arresting us for wearing the wrong clothes. No, I am merely pointing out that culture and identity are powerful forces behind the self-regulation of what each of us chooses to wear and when to wear it. So, in practice when we conform with the cultural norms of clothing, there may be just a hint of the morality police in all of us.

Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend Voices contributor. 



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Harry Cayton
Written byHarry Cayton
Harry Cayton is a sought-after global authority on regulatory practices who created the PSA and pioneered right-touch regulation. He is a regular Ascend contributor.


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