Politics and Fashion

professional showing tattoos

Every large society and social group develops a system of social control or polity that is shared by the members of the group and relates in some way to their system of dress. The power to address diverse problems and needs of a society is invested in people who become specialists in delivery of the services of social control. Only those individuals so designated and recognized have the right to power and authority over group members. This system of control or government is reflected in the rules of the organization and evolves from the normative order and moral beliefs of the group. The moral ideas of a group both mold and reflect the group's beliefs concerning what is right or wrong behavior for members. Developing expectations for appearance, dress, and the extent to which one participates in fashion (defined here as the accepted way of behaving of the majority of individuals at a specific time and place) are social behaviors that are frequently subject to control by social organizations.

Control over dress and fashion participation is exercised both informally and formally through the political structure of an organization and its power. The governing body serves several functions, including: (a) developing, delineating, and assessing rules and regulations so that the beliefs of the organization are molded by and reflected in them; (b) establishing a framework regarding the rights and responsibilities of members of the group; and (c) developing a process for applying and enforcing the rules for all members. A process for adding new regulations and a method to dispute existing regulations can be developed along with penalties and sanctions for violations of these rules. The court system in Western societies is an example of a process used to manage power in interpreting and applying regulations, which may prohibit members from participation in some activities as well as prescribe participation in others. Government also has power over relations with other societies in matters that involve group interests including mobilizing legitimate use of force to defend the group against infringement of others. Government also involves relationships with other societies in the form of trade agreements and regulations. For example, when foreign manufacturers can produce apparel products at a lower cost than domestic manufacturers, the domestic industries are threatened. Governments may make regulations to control the flow of foreign-produced products into domestic markets to force consumers to purchase domestic products and maintain domestic industries.

Another area related to dress where the government uses power is in developing regulations for consumer protection. Laws can be developed to protect consumers from unsafe or unhealthy apparel products as well as protect the environment from human exploitation. An example of the former are the laws that prohibit the use of flammable fabrics in apparel. An example of the latter are endangered species laws that prohibit the use of skin and furs of specific animals in apparel.

Examples of power conveyed through dress are common in all societies. Topics frequently addressed through formal and informal regulations include body exposure and gender differences. Societies have regulations concerning under what circumstances, if any, different aspects of both male and female bodies can appear uncovered or covered. The amount or type of skin exposed tends to be interpreted as symbolic of certain sexual behaviors. General societal efforts to control sexual behavior may include regulations regarding appearing naked in public, exposure of genitals, appearing in clothing associated with the opposite sex (cross-dressing), or the separation of the sexes (such as governmentmandated separate swimming pools or even separate cash register lines for men and women). These regulations may be formal, as in the case of health laws concerning body exposure and food service (no shoes, no shirt, no service), or informal, as in the case of amount of body exposure on public beaches. Informal regulations often vary depending on the situation. For example, a brassiere and briefs worn by a female can offer as much if not more body coverage than a swimsuit. However, a garment defined as a swimsuit is acceptable at locations like the beach or swimming pool, while a brassiere and briefs in the same place would be considered inappropriate.

Rules and regulations of social organizations vary in their degree of importance, in how they came into being, in the degree of emotional response that violating regulations might evoke, and the type of sanctions that might be applied to individuals who violate them. There are both positive and negative sanctions associated with engaging in or failing to participate in fashion. Positive sanctions such as praise or emulation reinforce behaviors perceived as correct. In contrast, a continuum in scope and intensity of negative sanctions can apply to individuals who fail to comply with the expectations of the group or group norms concerning dress and participation in fashion.

The type of negative sanction that results when individuals violate group norms for dress are tied to the degree of emotional response evoked. If the violation evoked a low degree of emotional response, concern is with violating a customary dress practice of the group. Violation of a customary practice generally does not create a great disturbance in the social organization of the group. If a sanction is applied by members of the group to influence the individual to change their behavior in keeping with the existing norm, the sanction may be in the form of gossip or teasing. In small organizations or societies where all members are known to each other, a negative sanction like gossip is probably all that is needed to force compliance with the expectations of group members. It is also possible that a mild sanction may result where a slight deviation from the group norm is tolerated if not accepted as only a minor deviation.

If the violation of the expectation for dress evokes a strong emotional response from group members, the violation is concerned with a moral standard of the group. Moral standards may be informally controlled, as is the case with customs concerning dress. Customs are associated with a history of practice, and violations may meet with negative sanctions from the group in the form of ridicule, avoidance, or ostracism. Moral standards concerning dress may also become codified into laws and formally controlled. Negative sanctions for violating laws concerning dress can include arrest, incarceration, or death.

Muslim family

Development of power through the rules of an organization or society do not guarantee that the rules equally reflect all members' interests. Whether the interests of men are favored over the interests of women was at issue in Terengganu, Malaysia, where the state government was said to have supported gender-based discrimination through dress codes as well as other practices. According to Endaya (2002), the government supported Islamic law as dress codes were developed that barred women from wearing bikinis and other clothing that exposed their bodies. Other dress codes that imposed restrictions based on gender included a requirement for young Muslim women to cover their heads. Laws of this kind have become commonplace in the contemporary Islamic world. Another dress code exemplifying promotion of the interests of one group over another was a decree in 2002 made by King Mswati III of Swasiland, in southern Africa, who banned women from wearing trousers in the capital of Mbabane because the practice "violated the country's traditions" (Familara 2002, p 4).

Few laws exist in the United States that regulate appearance, dress, or fashion in the workplace or in schools. However, dress codes are used to regulate appearances in the workplace as well as in schools, and judicial decisions (case laws) have developed concerning dress. In general, most courts uphold an employer's right to set appearance standards through dress codes as long as the codes are related to a legitimate business interest, government interest, or for health and sanitation reasons (Rothstein et al, 1994). As a result, few complaints brought forward by employees have been upheld in the courts unless the dress code differs between men and women, the code is demeaning, or is more costly to one sex versus the other (Lennon, Schultz, and Johnson 1999).

The courts have also held that students retain their constitutional rights when they enter the school building, although student conduct, including their appearance, can be regulated. Dress codes in schools are generally considered valid if they promote safety or if they prevent disruption or distraction of peers (Alexander and Alexander 1984). Since dress is a form of communication, students in the United States have voiced the complaint that some school dress codes violate their constitutional right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment (Lennon, Schultz, and Johnson 1999). Lewin (2003) reported on a student that was sent home from school for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of President Bush and the words "international terrorist." The high school junior wore the T-shirt to express his antiwar sentiment and believed his right to express his political beliefs were violated when he was sent home from school. In this case, the school would have to prove that the student's T-shirt was so different and disruptive that it detracted from the educational process.

The classic case concerning dress codes and students' freedom of speech in the United States is Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District (1969). The Tinker case involved a plan by students to wear black armbands to school to symbolize their opposition to the Vietnam War. Officials of the school learned of the students' decision two days before it happened and implemented a special dress code banning armbands in school. The U.S. Supreme Court held that wearing armbands constituted a form of speech protected by the constitution. The court held that for student activity to be prohibited, school officials must reasonably forecast disruption in the school and must have some evidence to support their forecast. The courts also ruled that the predicted disruption must be substantial, and judged to be physical and damaging to the learning environment at school (Alexander and Alexander 1984).

Regulations of an organization, such as dress codes, can shape the dress of its members. Dress can also serve as a platform for protest against such regulations. In 2001, King Mswati III of Swaziland also revived an old law requiring girls to wear chastity belts with tassels. The belts, according to the king, would not only preserve a young girl's virginity but also prevent HIV-AIDS. Subsequently, Swazi women protested and showed defiance against the law by dropping tassels in front of the royal palace (Familara 2002).

Freedom of Expression in Dress

While the right to express a political opinion through dress may be protected by the constitution, customs concerning appropriate dress based upon gender may not be protected. In the United States, a reported case where clothing was disruptive of the learning process occurred when a young man was suspended from school for wearing a long peasant dress with a plunging neckline (Rabinovotz 1998). The issue was not only that the young man appeared in clothing customarily associated with young women, but that he stuffed tissue paper down the front. School officials noted that they did not want to create "a carnival-like atmosphere in the school" (p. B5).

Interpersonal Social Power and Dress

Chinese military

While the government of a society is involved in regulations concerning dress, customs concerning dress often involve the use of dress as a symbol to communicate interpersonal social power. Interpersonal social power is defined as the potential to have social influence (French and Raven 1959). Social influence refers to a change in the behavior or belief of a person as a result of the action or presence of another person (Raven 1992). A typology originally developed by French and Raven and subsequently refined by Raven (1992; 1993) outlines six sources of social power that an influencing agent can draw upon to effect change in another person: legitimate power, reward power, coercion power, expert power, referent power, and the power of information. These sources of social power can be either formal or informal and can be communicated through dress.

Legitimate power is influence that is based on a social position or rank within the organization. This is power that is assigned to a position by the group to enforce the rules of the group (described previously as government). Symbolic of legitimate power is the uniform of an officer in the military or the robes of a judge. Reward power is influence derived from the ability to provide social approval or some form of compensation. Fashion editors and other arbiters of taste may exercise reward power as they name individuals to best-dressed lists or feature individuals repeatedly on the cover of magazines. A woman's beauty may also yield reward power as many men consider physical attractiveness in women to be highly desirable (Buss 1989). A woman's attractiveness may be rewarding to a man who is seen with her. Coercive power is reflective of influence that is achieved as a result of threats of punishment or rejection. Symbolic of coercive power is the uniform of a police officer because of their power to deter, detain, and arrest citizens. Expert power is influence stemming from knowledge or experience. Symbolic of this type of influence are the cap and gown of the academic or the lab coats of scientists and physicians. These individuals offer recommendations that are followed because individuals' believe in their expertise. Referent power is influence derived from the desire to identify with someone. Fashion models and movie stars wield referent power when individuals copy their dress. Information power is influence that is based on a logical presentation of information by the influencing agent, which persuades the individual to comply. Lennon (1999) noted that to Catholics the white clothing of the pope might represent informational power as a result of the belief that the pope has direct communication with God. Fashion is shaped by each of these types of social power.

As noted, legitimate power over fashion is in evidence when societies develop regulations concerning dress. Sumptuary laws have been used to maintain class and gender distinctions by disallowing certain individuals to wear certain styles or colors of clothing as well as requiring certain individuals to wear specific forms of dress. When the communist party came into power in China, coercive power became evident. According to Scott (1958), communists developed a standardization of dress that made no distinction between the sexes or on the basis of rank. The military uniform of the communists consisted of a high-collared tunic, trousers with puttees, and Chinese shoes or rubber boots. After troops occupied the cities, the industrial workers adopted dress styled more or less identical to the military uniform except the color differed. Soon afterward, students, clerical workers, and manual workers adopted the party uniform. According to Scott, no one issued directives but citizens tacitly understood that clothes other than the uniform seemed unpatriotic, and those not adopting the new style were publicly reprimanded or lectured.

The effect of reward power on fashion becomes evident through the practice of naming certain highly visible individuals to "best dressed" lists. Other individuals emulate the appearance of those named to the list and fuel fashion change in terms of speeding the diffusion of a style as well as providing an impetus for change. The impact of expert power and information power on the direction of fashion comes from numerous fashion magazines sharing perspectives on what styles comprise the fashion of a time or place. From all the styles made available by designers and manufacturers, fashion editors select and feature those styles they believe will appeal to the readers of their publications. In this way, they weld their knowledge and expertise and hence attempt to shape fashion. Newspapers feature advice columnists who answer questions about what is appropriate dress for specific social events, and subsequently impact their readers about what styles are acceptable for a given time and place (and what is the current fashion).

See also Dress Codes; Military Style; Religion and Dress.


Alexander, K., and M. D. Alexander. The Law of School, Students, and Teachers in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1984.

Buss, D. M. "Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences: Evolutionary Hypotheses Tested in 37 Cultures." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12 (1989): 1-49.

French, J. R. P., and B. Raven. "The Bases of Social Power." In Studies in Social Power. Edited by D. Cartwright. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 1958, pp. 150-167.

Lennon, S. J. "Sex, Dress and Power in the Workplace: Star Trek, the Next Generation." In Appearance and Power, pp. 103-126. Edited by K. Johnson and S. Lennon. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Lennon, S. J., T. L. Schultz, and K. K. P. Johnson. "Forging Linkages Between Dress and the Law in the U.S., Part II: Dress Codes." Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 17, no. 3 (1999): 157-167.

Lewin, T. "High School Tells Student to Remove Antiwar Shirt." New York Times (23 February 2003): A12.

Raven, B. "A Power Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence: French and Raven Thirty Years Later." Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 7 (1992): 217-244.

--. "The Bases of Power: Origins and Recent Developments." Journal of Social Issues 49 (1993): 227-254.

Rothstein, M., C. B. Craver, E. P. Schroeder, E. W. Shoben, and L. S. Vandervelde. Employment Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1994.

Scott, A. C. Chinese Costume in Transition. New York: Theatre Arts, 1958.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independence Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 1969.

Internet Resources

Endaya, I. "Malaysian Government Reinforces Gender Segregation." We 19 (2002): 5. Available from http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/women/0,3320,00.html .

Familara, A. "Women Can't Wear Trousers, Orders Swazi King." We 20 (2002): 4. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa/newsid_206000/2062320.stm .

Politics and Fashion