When I was very young in the 1960s and lived with my parents and brother in a small Midlands town in the United Kingdom, I remember my mother announcing one day that a man had been arrested in the town for wearing women’s clothes. It was an astonishing idea. Why would any man do such a thing? It could hardly be an accident, the result of dressing in the dark. The idea seemed to tear at the very fabric of the universe, and challenge the logic on which the whole of human life was built. It was as challenging to convention as the suggestion that 2 and 2 might equal 5. Perhaps that was the moment when I realised the world was not as simple as it seemed, or as society would have us believe. Tragic moment.
Those were the days when ‘confirmed bachelor’ wasn’t a euphemism. The surface of life was simple and binary, and if there was turbulence down below, it rarely ruffled the surface. Men were men, wore trousers and went to work. Women were women and wore skirts, stockings, and suspender belts, and mostly stayed at home. There was nothing beneath the surface to threaten the natural order of propriety.
I wondered, though, even then, why the man had been arrested, and I wonder to this day whether he was charged with a crime. Perhaps he fell foul of that cruel catch-all that panders to public or police prejudice – ‘behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.’ I wonder still if he was doing it for a laugh, or for a dare, or whether he was the town’s only brave transvestite. Or perhaps it’s all a false memory, or wishful thinking on my part.
As far as I can remember, my mother’s tone wasn’t particularly condemnatory. I think she shared my astonishment and knew as little about the outer peripheries of human need as I did at the time. I also remember thinking about what ‘women’s clothes’ meant, and how you might define what women should wear and what men should wear. Perhaps that quandary sowed the seeds of my interest in philosophy. I’ve ever since been asking, even as a consultant in business systems, ‘What do you mean by so-and-so?’
Curious though one might be as to why someone should wear a particular garment, that’s not the greatest obstacle in telling people what to wear, or what not to wear. Apart from the problem of definition, there’s the massive problem of justification. What harm was this hapless Midlands transvestite doing to anyone by putting on a frock? What harm does anyone do, by wearing a hijab, a burka, a tutu, a mini skirt, a wetsuit, a space suit, on the beach, or in the office? Behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace? Well, only if the wider population is bigoted and prejudiced and enjoys a good lynching.
I’m afraid I take a liberal view. I don’t care what people do or don’t wear. I believe that we should be sensitive to local culture, but as far as I know that’s always been a matter of not baring the flesh; it has nothing at all to do with covering it up. I’m not religious, and I would actually welcome a uniformly liberal world where nudity goes as unnoticed and unremarked on the beach at Dubai as it does in Western Europe, but that’s not something I can yet impose. But I also believe that being able to see the face is an essential aspect of education, and in order that children should grow into adults who are capable of relatively free choice, children MUST be educated. So, just sometimes, the calculation of rights is a little more tricky. But I presume in favour of freedom if no harm is done.
In the adult world we should be entirely free to wear what we like, however silly, however dull, however fashionable, however scruffy, as long as we do no harm. I no longer care what my colleagues wear in the office, though I do believe that we must wear suits when we meet our clients, though only because we might lose business if we didn’t. Why should we wear Black Tie at Glyndebourne? Why should we wear top hats at Ascot? If I ruled the world I would banish all such conventions and let anyone wear as much or as little as they like, wherever and whenever they wish, as long as they do no harm, and I would limit the concept of harm to cover only such offences as obscenity or the undermining of public health.
Prague is the stag-night capital of the world and I often see groups of merry young men staggering off flights from London. I saw one man, some years ago, dressed for the London Marathon rather than for easyJet, wearing a wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel. He removed the mask at passport control, and the immigration officer didn’t turn a hair. Why should he? Silliness rarely does harm to the spectator.
By contrast, France’s rules against the burka and the burkini do much more harm than good. They stoke resentment and exacerbate the problems they seek to solve. I happen to think that the burkini is as silly as the ‘bathing machines’ of the Victorian era. These were huts that were hauled down to the water’s edge by donkeys, and they more or less concealed bathers from public view, but their bathing clothes did that too.
But, silly or not, I would defend a woman’s right to wear a burkini and if there’s a Midlands man who’d like to wear one too, then why not? Feel free.