Belfast Telegraph

Dressing like Grace Kelly or Kim Kardashian is not a big issue compared to battles women must still fight

If these gems of style wisdom are misogynist assaults, then you'll read much worse in female mags

Kim Kardashian
Kim Kardashian
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Queen's University certainly hit the headlines for telling its female graduands to "think Grace Kelly, not Kim Kardashian" as regards what to wear for the big day. The old varsity also stood accused of banning displays of cleavage and short skirts, with the style memo declaring them "totally out of the question".

Cue howls of apparently justified outrage from commentators and some students about the sheer gall of anyone dictating how a woman should dress. It undermined women. It undermined their academic achievements. It undermined society.

The image created was very much one of doddery old dons telling bright young women what to do. It was an invitation to believe that rampant misogyny was stalking its way through the hallowed halls.

Except that when one takes a step back from the furore, one sees a rather more unsettling picture of people being rather trigger happy in their desire to condemn and to find maliciousness where none was intended. Worryingly, too, given those caught up in the debate, it also shows a reluctance to read things in context, to make nuanced judgements, to show some sense of perspective.

Before we get further into this, let me say that of course there are important issues surrounding personal freedom, dress and sexism. There is a debate to be had.

But not about this. This is just being a little bit too hasty about wanting to take offence.

First of all, this was not a formal proclamation from QUB. It wasn't a rule. It wasn't an order. It wasn't a threat. It wasn't even a request.

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In fact, it wasn't even by Queen's. No, rather it was a piece on the Queen's website written by Thom Dickerson, a former architecture graduate who now runs a private tailoring firm in Belfast. It was not entitled 'Achtung! Achtung!' but 'Style Tips for Graduation Week: Wear it Well'.

Let's be honest - while Mr Dickerson clearly believes people should dress appropriately for a formal occasion, this was a piece of light-hearted bumf not an official communique threatening to send students down if they disobeyed. I think the word 'Tips' give the game away.

It was, at worst, advice from someone with a legitimate business and personal interest in style, fashion and etiquette. While I think, of course, it would be wrong for anyone to dictate to women how to dress, what's wrong with a quick 'tip'? Or are we saying that men can never advise women how to dress? (And, if so, does this work the other way round? Is it okay for a woman to tell a man how to dress?).

Plus, what does it say about our ability to read in a wider context? Apart from the Grace, Kim (below), short skirt and cleavage comments, the most controversial thing in the article was the advice to build your look round your hood and gown and to be careful your colour palette is in tune with your collar. Male graduates are advised not to over do it with bow ties and to make sure their shoes are dark.

If Mr Dickerson's gems of wisdom are misogynist assaults on women's dress freedom everywhere, then I'm afraid that you can read identical - and much, much worse - attacks in Vogue, Grazia, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Look. Will those mags soon be removed from the bags of anyone entering QUB students' union?

The brutal truth is that no one really believes that you can or should have total clothes liberation when it comes to things like group and civic events like graduations. There are societal norms to be maintained, indeed treasured. If you can't say 'No' to Kim, can you say no to bikinis, or mankinis, or jeans or football boots or cropped shorts or stove pipe hats? And if so, on what grounds precisely?

Of course, many of these fashion items are absurd, but the point is served. The problem is that while we all agree on the need for a certain sense of formality, we can't quite agree what 'formal' is. The devil is in the detail.

Is Kim's look formal? Some women will say yes, some will say no but - in its trivial, completely unimportant way - it will be a subject of discussion. Not banning, discussion. And a discussion not primarily 'between' men and women but largely amongst women. For what it's worth, most women would probably give it the thumbs down.

Which was all Mr Dickerson - and by extension QUB - was doing, mulling over what is and isn't appropriate.

Indeed, some would argue that the Kim-look is a highly-sexualised view of the female form bordering on the parodic. Is that a good look considering graduating is supposed to be about brains and academic ability, not conforming to a non-challenging Barbie doll vision of what it means to be a woman? If we can't have an occasion where women are not presented primarily in sexual terms, what exactly are we saying?

Isn't the Kim look just a tacit surrender to the demands of the male gaze?

Perhaps we should be spending more time getting angry at a society which - both metaphorically and literally - seems determined to force women into basques and fishnets at every possible opportunity, that holds up Kim, Rihanna, Beyonce et al not only as symbols of how women should look but how they should behave. (To whit - be there for the male sexual urge while mumbling the usual platitudes about empowerment etc).

There are far more important battles in this area of dress to be fought than this storm in a teacup at QUB. We know them - arguments about how a woman dresses being some kind of justification for rape; women being forced into wearing high heels and other eroticised items of clothing for work; schoolgirls being forced to wear skirts on the coldest of winter days. (Why can't they wear trousers like the boys? Society will survive).

These are real issues.

Deciding whether to take advice to dress like Grace Kelly for a few hours while in the company of mum and dad in their Sunday best … well … isn't.

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