What Not To Wear: The Strange & Scary History Of Women's Dress Codes

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There's a lot of back and forth when it comes to how women dress, but if there's one thing that the history of dress codes has taught us is that a woman's body is political, no matter how benign her closet is. Some, of course, would be quick to disagree. Who cares if a girl in high school can't wear a top with straps? Is it really that big of a deal if a woman gets sent home for showing up to the office without heels? Institutions have a right to dictate how they want their members to represent them, and some will even chime in and say they like dress codes, or just prefer to dress modestly in general. And that's perfectly fine — there's nothing wrong with tapping into a traditionally feminine aesthetic and rocking it for all its worth. If you want to wear pink taffeta dresses and trail perfume down the hallways, do it.

The problem comes in when you don't want to. Remember, just a few short decades ago women weren't allowed to wear pants while in Congress (the '90s!), and even their presence in marathons spurred men to shoulder check them to teach them their place. So while dress codes can seem innocent enough, the extra policing that women often experience when it comes to their uniforms signals at something a little more: It's not only about controlling how the person looks, but also how society sees the person. Below is the history of dress codes, and how they defined the women of their time, whether they liked it or not.

1Ancient Rome: The Rise Of Stolas

Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To the untrained eye, a quick glance at an ancient Roman mural might show that men and women alike wore pretty much the same outfits. However, the truth is that the way you draped fabrics in ancient Rome meant different things to different people. According to Dr. Alison Keith, a professor and the acting chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Toronto, women never really wore the toga unless they were in the working class, and that included a very specific type of woman.

"Indeed under the empire 'working girls' (i.e. prostitutes) were supposedly required to wear the toga. But the authorities were really only policing the dress of upper class women, and women with pretensions I suppose," Dr. Keith explains to Bustle. If you were a respectable woman, what you wore instead was a stola — a long tunic — and it was for a very interesting reason.

"I think this was mostly so that you could tell at a glance who was respectable (and so who couldn’t be assaulted) and who wasn’t (and so could be)," Dr. Keith shares. "Augustus was very interested in marking the dignity of the upper classes, and not letting them be subject to insult on the street. As a signifier of married feminine virtue, it was supposed to ensure the inviolability of respectable citizen wives." One wouldn't want to insult a man by coming onto his wife in public, and a woman didn't want her dignity violated or purity questioned, so the stola helped to keep the order.

2Ancient Greece: Mandatory Modest Clothing

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Greek women from the Hellenistic Greek kingdom also experienced a similar level of policing, up to the point where there were actual appointed male magistrates called "Controllers of Women," who were elected to make sure women didn't spend too much on clothing, looked appropriately chaste and sober in public, and made sure the right outfits were worn during festivals. While it might sound extreme to have a religious cop of sorts standing on town corners and confirming women were dressed modestly enough, it's interesting to note the way some men thought back in 100 AD — it has a lot to do why dress codes are placed on women in the first place.

At this time, many women "veiled," meaning they covered their faces with their veils. But as the Greek writer Plutarch pointed out in his essay Moralia, men will do whatever they can in order to peep at women, and it's up to the ladies to shoulder the brunt of their male actions and hide from their efforts. "We… cannot forbear prying into sedans and coaches or gazing at the windows or peeping under the balconies where women are," he claims. Which doesn't sound too far away from present day's version of "what am I supposed to do if your cleavage is right there?". It's not a new way of thinking.

3Middle Ages: Plain Garments

Albrecht Dürer

During the Middle Ages, dress codes weren't thought up inside Parliament chambers or Assembly floors. Rather they were divinely handed down, straight from God down to his Medieval followers. "As far as medieval Christians were concerned, the existing social hierarchy was divinely mandated. If God made you a lord living in a castle, your clothing should reflect that; the same applied if you were the wife of a wealthy town merchant or a leper. The more elaborate your clothing was, the more powerful a social status you were claiming," Yvonne Seale, assistant professor of medieval history at SUNY Geneseo shares in an interview with Bustle. Because of that, arguing against your given dress code was a hard thing to press — you'd be going against God's fashion sense. But while everyone was subject to a strict set of rules, women got the brunt of it.

"Of course, it was also believed that you shouldn’t be too showy — the Catholic Church stated that gluttony and pride were two of the seven deadly sins. Since the underlying assumption was that women were weak, extravagant, and pleasure-loving, dress codes were often aimed at reining in those tendencies," Seale explains.

Women were seen as something that needed to be controlled because of their natural character faults — and their laws mirrored that. "A 1433 sumptuary law passed in the city claimed that women needed to dress modestly and soberly because of their 'barbarous and irrepressible bestiality,'" Seale shares. In addition to putting checks on their clothing, women were also told to cover their hair — only unmarried girls and royalty could show their locks. "Flowing, loose hair was so intrinsically linked with sexuality in the Middle Ages that any other woman who did so would have been branded a prostitute. Appearing in public in such a manner would have done serious damage to a woman’s reputation and honor in the highly image-conscious Middle Ages," she pointed out. And because of that fear of reputation, women stayed put in the parameters given to them.

4Middle Ages: A Shift In Rules

Maria Portinari by Hans Memling

So when did these dress codes start to become more lax? According to Seale, while formal dress codes took a while to fall off the books, informal ones upheld by society took even longer. "Think of all the ways a 'good girl' doesn’t dress even now," she points out.

The changes finally occurred in part when more women began to learn how to read and write, and because of it, were able to claim more space in the public sphere. One example was Nicolosa Castellani Sanuti, a woman from 15th-century Bologna who challenged a dress code law issued by a Cardinal by writing a lengthy essay in defense of women’s fashion. "She said that since women couldn’t hold public office or be visible in public in the same way that men could, or receive the 'triumphs and spoils of war,' then clothing was one of the few ways for a woman to make a statement about who she was," said Seale. "Of course, the very fact that Nicolosa had the scope to publish such a treatise tells us that things were changing!"

5Victorian Times: Corsets

Toilette by Jules James Rougeron

If you went to a department store in the 1800s, you would see an obvious trend in display windows: total modesty.  "A woman of society would have to follow the rules of fashion, sometimes changing up eight times a day," Alexis Karl, perfumer and lecturer at Pratt Institute who's done extensive research on Victorian culture, tells Bustle. To dress in this way was to signal to the world that you came from money — ditch the corset, and the whole neighborhood might think otherwise.

"A woman of leisure was a woman of means. Pale skin, tight corsets, refined dresses of delicate fabrics, embroidered shoes, gloves — all of this would attest to not having to work, and thus having money," Karl explains. "A woman of means was expected to embrace fashion and beauty as her job: to adorn a room, to create a gentle atmosphere with her grace and charm."

The heavy dresses conditioned women to stay submissive and become ladies of leisure; there wasn't much you could do when you were wrapped in metal and yards of fabric. Elizabeth Cady Stanton — one of the OG suffragists — remarked on the ridiculousness of the department store options in 1857, summarizing the problem neatly: "Her tight waist and long, trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom of breadth and motion. No wonder man prescribes her sphere. She needs his aid at every turn. He must help her up stairs and down, in the carriage and out, on the horse, up the hill, over the ditch and fence, and thus teach her the poetry of dependence." To push against that, pants were brought up as an option.

Those who wanted to keep hoop skirts firmly in fashion, though, argued that the differences between the sexes would be obliterated with such a change. Such a change meant that women would be able to enjoy the same privileges and freedoms as men did, from controlling their own purse strings to having a say in local government. "Once you change the 'silhouette' you change the feminine ideal. When you change that feminine ideal, society, and a woman’s place within it, shifts. I think this possibility scared Victorian male society." That's to put it lightly.

6Victorian Times: More Shifts

Charles Dana Gibson

When some women decided to step out in bloomers and change the ideal for themselves, men were ready to push them back into place. "The women who dared to wear them were denounced by preachers and tormented by small boys, who threw pebbles at them when they ventured out in public," Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, shared in her book. "Susan B. Anthony had to be rescued by police in New York City after she was surrounded by a 'wall of men and boys' who jeered at her costume and refused to let her pass."

The pants were just too radical for Puritans. What followed in their place was a more relaxed uniform that didn't cinch and pinch quite as much. "Corsets changed during the Gibson Girl era as did the Feminine Ideal. There was a big shift away from the delicate, docile woman, to a healthy, athletic woman," Karl writes. "Tight corseting for athletics would be difficult to say the least, so they needed to be modified based on the new desire for physical movement.  The healthy, rosy glow of the Gibson Girl illustrations partaking in sports says it all: The identity shifted. With athletics comes strength. With strength comes recognition. Being outside, engaging in activities does put women in the public sphere." Not by coincidence, during this same exact time the Suffragette movement started gaining interest, and it was part of the reason why the women stopped pushing bloomers: They would rather get the vote than a new set of clothing, and they knew they wouldn't achieve it by shocking their male counterparts.

But whether in pants or a looser dress, the end result was the same: The difficulty of the restricted woman was recognized, and her paradigms changed, both physically and politically.

7The Wild West: Restrictive Skirts

Abe Books

When we think of the Gold Rush-era out West, we might think of overall-wearing gold diggers, dusty coal miners, and cowboys tying their horses to saloon fences — but are we picturing all those people as men? Tucked in between those bearded faces were a fair amount of women, and in the spirit of the Last Frontier, quite a few of them fought for their right to wear their breeches in peace.

Take the story of Mary Susie, for example. According to Catherine Smith, coauthor of Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls and Other Renegades, Mary was born into a poor family in France, and gathering the wages she made as a house servant, she booked a ticket over the Atlantic and made her trek out West. Not wanting to become a bar maid or a cowboy's wife, she dressed herself as a man and joined the stampeders at the gold mines. Wearing pants back then wasn't just a way to avoid getting heavy skirts in the way — for some it was a necessity. "Laws well into the twentieth century prohibited women from working in mines, so some women disguised themselves as men to avoid legal penalties," Smith explains.

In those San Francisco hills Mary found her fortune, which she used to start a winery and a store carrying her vintage in Nevada. But even though she was a self-made woman, she still got harassed for wearing her preferred trousers.

But on Oct. 13, 1870, The Sibyl reported that she took a stand. "She requested from authorities in Nevada the right to wear pants, as she had done for the previous 20 years working alongside men in the mines. The Sibyl article commentary goes on to state: 'This is only one of many instances where women, who have been obliged by circumstances to earn their own living, have found their sex such an obstacle that they have been forced to disguise themselves in male attire,'" Smith shares. It's interesting to note that in the late 1800s people were well aware just how limiting it was to even look like a female. Ain't that usually the case?

8The Shift In The Wild West

JoAnn Levy

Mary Susie wasn't the only one that felt like her skirts would stop her from finding success. "Some western women on cattle drives, for instance, would change out of their pants when they neared a town. Women who did wear trousers were heckled, snubbed, arrested, or fined. Cowgirl performers like Annie Oakley wore skirts into the second decade of the twentieth century," Smith pointed out. In fact, people hated the idea so much that there was even a case out in mid-19th-century Michigan where a Mormon leader who was pro-bloomers met his fall for his beliefs. "James Strang was shot by an irate husband who didn’t want his wife to wear pants," Smith explained, highlighting just how much people hated seeing women outside of their dress codes.

Why so much hate for a pair of slacks? It helped make sure the status quo didn't shift too far left. "My take is that a strict delineation of the sexes was required because laws favored men to the disadvantage of women in inheritance, property, custody and voting laws. As laws have become more equal, fluid gender identities have become more widely acceptable," Smith offered. In order to make sure women didn't gain more ground and eventually push for total equality, limiting their attire was a way to reinforce the shutdown. But in the end it turned out to be too little to late: The West was the first territory in the country that gave women the vote before the 19th Amendment was even passed. It started with Wyoming and Colorado, moved to Utah and Idaho, then Washington, California, and Oregon — proving the West really was a New World.

9The 1970s: No Pants

It was the decade where job hunters finally saw the end of "Help Wanted —Male" and "Help Wanted — Female" ads, but even though women were gaining room in male-only professions, that didn't mean they could wear the pants yet. Literally.

Manhattan socialite Nan Kampner found that out first hand when she showed up at the doors of La Côte Basque in a Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit — the first female tuxedo. The maître d’ stopped her at the door and discreetly told her she wasn't allowed in while wearing something as jarring as trousers. Instead of leaving, she stripped out of the immaculate pleats and asked to be shown to her seat wearing nothing but a blazer. To which the maître d’ grabbed the menus and walked her to her table — because a thigh grazing tuxedo-jacket-turned-mini was more acceptable than a woman in pants.

This seems like something to be expected in the '30s — when it was rumored that actress Marlene Dietrich was ushered off the boulevards of Paris by the chief of police for wearing her pants in public — but not something in the '70s. But as we'll see, the fear of the female pleat will follow women well into the 21st century.

10The 1980s: Power Suits

Ralph Lauren

When women started to pull up seats at boardroom meetings, there was a reason their outfits didn't mimic the feminine silhouettes of, say, '50s-era secretaries. It wasn't so much that a dress was seen as "unprofessional," it was that co-workers and bosses couldn't necessarily adjust to women taking up more of the workforce. The president himself even touched on it, where in Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address, he went as far as blaming the growing unemployment rate on the rise of women in the workforce. "Part of the unemployment is not as much recession as it is the great increase of  people going out into the job market and — ladies, I’m not picking on anyone — because of the increase in women who are working today and two-worker families and so forth."

Dressing more masculine let a woman join her office with less of a push-back. For example, a study in 1985 found that female interview candidates that dressed more masculine were significantly viewed as better for the position. More masculine clothing portrayed a more masculine position — meaning, they looked like they could fill the role like a man could, with traditional qualities like assertiveness, leadership, and stamina.

But here's the tricky part — while she had to dress authoritative, she still had to dress womanly. As John Molloy wrote in his 1977 book, The Woman's Dress for Success Book, dressing like too much of a man was kind of like “a small boy who dresses up in his father’s clothing. He is cute, not authoritative." Why? Because she was pretending — she didn't actually hold the power of a man, so trying to dress like she did invalidated her.  “My research indicates that a three-piece pinstriped suit not only does not add to a woman’s authority, it destroys it. It makes her look like an ‘imitation man,'" Molloy concluded. He argued that her femininity was only more highlighted when she veered too far into masculine clothes, and that destroyed her authority. So she had to balance the two.

As you can imagine, these dress codes were a way to keep women at a disadvantage (their clothes were constantly monitored rather than their work), but it also helped protect the male ego. By conforming to a man's way of dress, they were somewhat admitting that overly-female looks didn't belong in the workforce — and by not going full-bankers-pinstripe, women didn't make men feel like they'd be replaced. For example, take the makeup campaigns around that era. The campaign for Spring Fever — a cosmetics collection by Elizabth Arden — wrote, "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you're a man... En Jolie." It seemed like not many people were ready for this shifting female role.

11The 1990s: Feminine Work Clothes

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The shift in corporate fashion in the '90s was meant to hint at a changing attitude toward women being in seats of power — no longer did they need shoulder pads to add some testosterone to their pencil skirts and keep the men in the room at ease. In a 1990 article entitled "Dress for Success in the '90s Means Wearing a Little Dress," the Baltimore Sun reported, "Now the most feminine symbol, the dress, is back. And some say the change in style reflects a new, self-assured image of women in the corporate world." It looked like the centuries of dress code policing might have met its end — for about five minutes.

For example, no longer thinking she needed pants to reinforce her equality with male colleagues, Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, liked to wear dresses and not think too much about her clothing. But that didn't mean others didn't zoom in on her fashion choices. "I could give a speech on nuclear power and newspapers would write about why didn't I wear earrings," Schroeder tells Bustle in an interview. "I was very much into the substance of the job and frustrated by how they wanted to treat me superficially. For example, once I missed an event in Denver because of the plane, and the local commentator said, 'Her plaid dress must be at the cleaners, she didn't make it.'" Even in the '90s, women's clothes were being used derogatorily to define them and nudge them back into a previous ideal.

12The Shift In The 1990s

While we can't say this problem is a non-issue during present day (just think of how many times Hillary Clinton's pantsuits were mentioned during the 2016 elections), there was an interesting shift in 1992 that allowed our  female members of Congress to push back against their public image: They reached 10 percent in terms of demographics, and their male counterparts were forced to realize they weren't going anywhere.

And this lead to the pantsuit strike.

Pants weren't technically allowed on the Hill until the '90s — meaning that our female senators and congresswomen had a prohibition hanging over their heads that barred them from wearing trousers. But seeing how a memo from the Oval Office was issued in 2017 asking female employees to "dress like women," that might not be as surprising as we think. The rule was finally overturned when a group of female Democrats put together a pantsuit protest, recruiting their Senate staff to join, and taking it all the way to the upper chamber to have the outdated rule flipped. "We were all for pantsuits," Schroeder confirmed. "Some of us were on the floor before in them, but Barbara Mikulski and Hillary Clinton made it publicly OK." Women were carving out a new role for themselves — as serious politicians their states trusted to the point of election — and their new silhouette reflected that.

13Today: Not Too Much Has Changed

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While we might feel like we can wear everything and everything under the sun nowadays, you have to admit that there's an interesting ring of familiarity when reading about these dress codes from decades and centuries ago. Because the same basic ideas still hang over a lot of women's heads. From White House staffers being asked to dress a particular way to a London woman being sent home for not wearing heels to the office to the Cannes Film Festival turning away women in flats, there's still a strange amount of policing the femininity of women. Add into that the fact that often times school dress codes are put into place for "purity" reasons when it comes to girls, and how one of the first questions a woman hears after getting sexually assaulted is "what were you wearing?" and dress codes become a little less benign.

They might not always have ulterior, oppressive motives behind them, but every time a woman's body is sexualized, politicized, and maneuvered in order to fit a certain standard or definition that is outside of her own, then it's not merely just a dress code memo. It's a reiteration on how that society sees that woman's place — and it's just as weird now as it was back in the Middle Ages when anatomy dummies had to wear headdresses.

Hindsight is 20/20 after all.