Dress code: no t-shirts (unless you want to go to jail)

Over the years I reckon we’ve all had our run-ins with dress code authoritarianism. Requirements to wear suits (“lounge suits”). Being told you’ve got to wear a shirt with a collar. Or a tie. The need to turn up in “smart” attire. Or footwear that isn’t a pair of trainers. Or trousers that aren’t tracksuit bottoms. Tops that aren’t football shirts ...

And on and on. Anyone would think we’re living in an uptight, rule-bound society ...

Of course it’s not generally so bad. Britain is, as they say, a more socially “relaxed” place than it was a few generations ago.

Toddle off to your local shopping centre and it’s all burly blokes in t-shirts, over-sized shorts and flip-flops (even when it’s about 14 degrees outdoors). Ditto the women. Ditto the children (more or less). It’s anything goes, which in practice means a kind of unisex, almost uniform Next/Stone Island/Fat Face-chic. By contrast, I’m personally clinging on to some kind of hand-me-down Savile Row style - half frayed-collar shirts from charity shops, half department store suits bought on holidays in Italy. It’s a killer look that absolutely nobody wants to imitate and ... er, that’s fine by me.

So, apart from small-minded, bouncer-patrolled nightclubs I don’t think we suffer much from clothing authoritarianism. Instead clothes are generally about status, not to mention convenient ways for manufacturers to ahem, fleece the insecure punter.

But there are places where clothing codes are far more significant. Most obviously there are the requirements over “modesty” for women in the more conservative Islam-majority countries - Saudi Arabia, Iran, most of the Gulf, Afghanistan, etc. Women in Riyadh or Tehran risk harassment or arrest if they fail to toe the line (loose-fitting abayas in Saudi Arabia, headscarves in Iran). Conversely, women in France or Belgium get fined for wearing a headscarf. Go figure ...

Two recent cases are also worth a mention, both concerning that humble garment - the t-shirt. In Egypt, a teenager called Mahmoud Hussein has been in jail for nearly a year and a half after wearing a t-shirt with “Nation Without Torture” written on it. And you guessed it - in detention he’s been tortured, including with electric shocks (you can take action on his case here). Meanwhile, in Belarus a man called Yuri Rubtsou has been jailed for wearing a t-shirt with a message that called for the president’s resignation - “Lukashenka leave!” He even appeared bare-chested at his trial because his supposedly offensive t-shirt was confiscated by the police.

Hmm, never knew a t-shirt could be so powerful. There was also that case from Gambia a few years ago: four men charged with treason for distributing t-shirts with a slogan calling for an end to dictatorship in the country. Just to prove how non-dictatorial they were, the Gambian authorities responded by … er, arresting the people involved.

Compared to all this, Britain’s obviously pretty easy-going about clothing, including t-shirts. Too easy-going if you ask me! We’ve had Primark flogging “rock and roll” t-shirts (Ramones or Public Image Limited ones) complete with excruciating “fact sheets” explaining to bemused shoppers who these bands actually are. In my music-obsessing other life I must admit I’ve - semi-jokingly - railed against the wearing of band t-shirts (any band t-shirts) on the grounds of … well, of a lack of imagination. That said - if David Beckham wants to wear a diamante-studded t-shirt which picks out the logo of ’77 anarcho-punk band Crass, who I am to stop him?

Final thought: if you’re thinking of investing in a nice t-shirt for the long, sweltering British summer you could do worse than this Pure Evil one for Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign. Except, perhaps don’t wear it on your holiday to Luxor … 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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