Dress codes may broadly be defined as rules that regulate an individual’s appearance. Sociological variables—age, occupation, class, gender, religion, or ethnicity—stipulate what can and cannot be worn. However, most people probably have a narrower, more specifically modern understanding in mind of dress codes. This stricter definition is associated with a massive uniformization of populations that began in the early nineteenth century as workers and students were disciplined to meet the demands of capitalism, industrialization, and national state formation.
Dress codes, whether explicit or implicit, may apply to small groups (for example, school or company) or an entire nation (China’s “Mao suit”). Besides mandating what should be worn, dress codes dictate what should not be worn, and they can be better appreciated by conceptualizing a continuum of uniformity, ranging from strict integration into a politico-economic order to being free from its constraints. Some of the variations are as follows:
- highly standardized, group-dominated, clear hierarchy (military uniforms);
- standardized, group-oriented, hierarchy (occupational dress);
- nonstandardized, displays individuality, no hierarchy (casual dress); and
- anti-standardized, overly individualistic, anti-hierarchy (avant-garde fashion).
As an example of how politico-economic institutions regulate daily dress codes, consider how the life cycle of most individuals in Japan is characterized by uniformization, de-uniformization, and re-uniformization. During the first phase (ages 3-18), individuals begin to don school-specific uniforms that have been inspired by European military uniforms. Boys are outfitted in a blue or black jacket with brass buttons and stand-up collar. Girls often wear the sêrá-fuku (“sailor clothes”), modeled after the traditional English sailor suit. It consists of a sailor-type collar and a pleated skirt. During the second phase of de-uniformization (ages 18 – 22), the dress code is relaxed as students are allowed to dress casually while at university or other postsecondary schooling institutions. The final phase, re-uniformization (ages from 22), begins after leaving postsecondary schooling and entering the adult workforce.
Inducted into Japan’s corporate culture, individuals are required to adopt dress codes that reflect socioeconomic class and gender variables. White-collar male workers, or sararîman (“salary man”), are expected to don a white cutter shirt, red necktie, dark blue or gray suit, and black leather shoes. Hair should be short, preferably in the “seven-three part.” Facial hair is generally frowned upon. Accessories complete the picture: a briefcase (or shoulder bag or attaché case). Blue-collar workers are seen in uniforms with an open collar, large, functional pockets, and a tag with name or section on the breast pocket. Helmet, boots, work gloves, and safety belt complete the ensemble. Women, who are lower in the corporate pecking order, must adhere to more standardization. OLs (“office ladies”) or secretarial staff typically wear a company uniform of white blouse, vest with name tag, skirt (usually 1.9 in, 5 cm, below the knees), and high heels.
At some companies, dress codes are enforced by military-like morning inspections. Besides company loyalty and dedication to work, adhering to dress codes indicates an individual’s aspiration to work toward a middle-class lifestyle as well as commitment to Japan’s collective project of economic nationalism.
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McVeigh, Brian J. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling, and Self-Presentation in Japan. Oxford: Berg, 2000.
Rubinstein, Ruth P. Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.