From the Muslim woman wearing a hijab, the Hollywood star wearing a see-through gown, the “modesty” programs of the Catholic Church for young women, the “shoulders covered” policy for reporters at the House of Representatives, or proper make up for aspiring corporate leaders, women continue to be bombarded with opinions on what is appropriate or inappropriate attire. This insistence upon the “correct” forms of female dress and make up is an example of the continued subjugation of women in the public arena.

Over many years and within many cultures insistence that women and girls dress “appropriately” has been a way to control women’s behavior in both the public and private spheres. Imagine trying to run from danger with bound feet, exercising in a hoopskirt, or speaking publicly while half-suffocated by a corset. Nineteenth century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the connection thus: “Her tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom.”

What is more, focusing on a woman’s appearance or dress is a time-honored way of diminishing her credibility. For example, in the 1850s Amelia Bloomer promoted an outfit that later was named after her. The “bloomers” form of dress was basically pantaloons under a dress, so women could wear shorter skirts and move about more freely. While some praised the outfit as being healthy and practical, the wider society rejected it as a “usurpation of the rights of man,” in other words, incompatible with proper women’s roles in nineteenth century society. Eventually, bloomers became associated with the women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists were early adopters, but Stanton quickly abandoned it, as it provoked much public derision and she felt it was distracting from her message.

Things are much the same in the twenty-first century. We have recently observed much public discourse over appropriate and inappropriate forms of dress for women in the United States in the political, corporate, religious, and celebrity media cultures.

In the political realm, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits, and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin wore skirts.  Clinton was criticized for dressing in a “masculine” style and Palin was made into a quasi sex symbol for her attractive looks and more feminine clothing. Of course, Palin wasn’t immune to criticism either. The cost of her clothing and accessories  was scrutinized. Palin herself recognized the issue and was quoted as saying, " [It’s about] superficial things that they don't talk about with men, her wardrobe and her hairstyles. That's a bit of that double standard.”

Also, in the political realm, a news story recently highlighted the dress code for women covering the House of Representatives, where women were turned away from the “Speaker’s lobby” (a room designated for reporters) for wearing sleeveless dresses. It was considered inappropriate for shoulders to be uncovered, even in a hot and humid location like Washington, DC.

In the corporate arena, a recent issue of the St. Louis Business Journal proclaimed the advancement of women in St. Louis public companies. There were many laudatory articles on local women’s corporate advancement. However, in that same issue, an advertisement for a program on “Manners & Makeovers” offered to educate women on presenting a polished personal appearance, including the application of makeup for a professional daytime look.  The program was part of Maryville University’s “Women & Leadership” offering. Seriously? A University considering proper makeup part of women’s leadership?  Get your makeup right and you, too, can climb the corporate ladder?  Is Maryville’s sponsorship tantamount to agreeing that a woman should be judged by her looks? Or is it simply acknowledging how the world works and teaching women to cope with the (admittedly unfair) standards we are stuck with for the time being?

In exploring several religious areas, the “Manners & Makeovers” expert touts her involvement with a Catholic organization, Pure Fashion, which seeks to create a “fun, exciting and effective virtue formation program” for young girls.  The organization considers itself part of the “Modesty Movement” for women and girls. One of the core members of the Pure Fashion team, Brenda Shaman, shared her testimony of “her conversion to the Catholic Church, and how she invited Christ into her closet!”

Macy’s Department Stores recently discovered the lucrative Muslim market and have created a line of fashionable clothing incorporating the hijab. The hijab (headscarf) is somewhat controversial. Some see it as either positive or innocuous: a part of a religiously encouraged form of modesty, allowing women to be free from the lustful gazes of men. For other women, particularly American women, it is a symbol of oppression.

Looking at celebrities in the media, the female attendees at the Grammys and Golden Globes award shows are criticized for exposed cleavage, thighs and transparent gowns.

What does a modern woman choose—modesty or sexual objectification? How is the female political candidate to balance being likeable and exhibiting strength? Pants or short skirts?  Smiles or strong words? How is the Hollywood aspiring actress to pursue her need to be seen and appeal to casting directors? Is her sexual self-objectification necessary to procure publicity to advance her career?

Who constructs and maintains these dress codes?  Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives? Harvey Weinstein’s successors in Hollywood? The Catholic Church? Islam? A “Modesty and Manners” expert? If women hide their bodies, are they serving patriarchal interests?  Or if women flaunt their beautiful bodies and become sexual objects, who does that serve? I suggest both options serve men.

Do these conflicted attitudes about proper women’s attire mirror our cultural conflict about women as leaders?  Should women adopt the burqa so that our bodies are hidden and only our faces are visible? Or should we just take classes on the proper daytime professional makeup?  These are weighty questions to be considered with the utmost deliberation.   

A better question might be, why are women’s wardrobes being policed? Women have been oppressed by the continual and conflicting judgments of what is and what is not proper attire.    Who invited the patriarchy into our closets?  I don’t think he was invited, but he keeps elbowing his way in.