It’s Royal Ascot in Britain this week, a series of horse races that serves as an excuse for a very special fashion parade. It’s a very British thing, men wear morning dress: a long-tailed jacket, waistcoat and trousers, and a top hat! Women wear “formal day wear”. It’s a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity. There is something quite impressive yet slightly disturbing in seeing men dress in the same clothes their great-grandparents would have worn to the races 100 years ago, a sense of continuity but also a sense of dogged rigidity. The modernity comes from the women. Clearly they don’t show up in floor-length Edwardian dresses as they would have done to the races in the early years of the last century. Instead we get a very colorful and eye-catching take on what to wear to the races, particularly on your head, as hats are a must at Royal Ascot.
But there was a difference this year. The organizers were worried that standards were slipping and decided that the time had come to reinforce tradition. The dress code was redefined and a “style guide” was sent to those attending the races. Now a guide is a very good idea. It can be tricky knowing what to wear to an event, particularly if you are not used to that kind of thing. In the past, two or three words on an invitation would have been enough: “black tie”, “formal day wear”, “lounge suits” and you knew what to fish out from you wardrobe, though lounge suits always baffled me somewhat. But for Royal Ascot they went one step further and published a guide with photos of attractive young people dressed well. They also spelt out the dos and don’ts. So for instance, women may wear trouser suits so long as the trousers and the jacket are of the same color. They must wear hats and not fascinators, though “a headpiece which has a base of four inches or more in diameter is acceptable as an alternative to a hat”. What is more, they’ve employed stewards to enforce the dress codes, a kind of British version of a muttawah, checking women’s skirt lengths to ensure they are not too short!
The dress codes vary according to the enclosure, so those invited to the Royal Enclosure must wear the four-inch headpieces mentioned above, whereas those in the grandstands do not. There are even two sets of photos in the guide, interestingly showing rather short skirts in the suggested attire for women in the grandstands. The code of dress essentially becomes a code of class, wearing a short skirt or feathers on your head singles you out as not quite upper class. Also, presumably, if you were born an aristocrat you would not need to be told what to wear to the Royal Enclosure, though perhaps not, as younger members of the British Royal Family are rather fond of wearing fascinators and short skirts! But Royal Ascot is essentially a fun day out and all of this is rather amusing, as are the photographs of the hats worn on ladies’ day, a display of originality, creativity and in many cases sartorial humor.
Where it is less amusing is in the way dress codes are enforced in our day to day lives.
Dress codes generally anger me when they are used as a way to exclude people or to create a superficial veneer of class. Harrods in the time of Fayed famously introduced a dress code, you could no longer enter Harrods if you had a rip in your jeans. You could not enter the Ritz Hotel at all if you wore jeans, not even ripped jeans, just denim trousers! And yet these were customers, whatever happened to the customer is always right? There is a fine line between expecting people to be dressed appropriately and enforcing your ideas of what your clientele should look like. The dress code may have made the place “exclusive”, but did it make it classy?
But what I dislike most about dress codes is when they are used to push people toward conformity.
It is all well and good in places where a uniform must be worn to expect people to adhere to strict dress codes, but there is something distasteful about attempting to wipe out individual differences and imposing a uniform by another name. Again, there is a line between expecting people to adhere to societal standards of what is appropriate dress and forcing them to all look the same. Just like fashion, which is superficial and irritating when used as a dress code but engaging and creative when it is a sign of individual taste and expression, identity is multi-faceted and has room for both individual differences and symbols of tradition. Is telling people what to wear not just another form of dumbing down?
Imane Kurdi is a Saudi writer on European affairs. She can be reached at email@example.com.