A society that imposes a dress code upon its citizens would be one we’d probably regard as far from democratic. The spectre of Peter the Great, the reforming early eighteenth century Tsar, hovers above sartorial legislation, banning the beard in order to drag his medieval nation closer in line with the Western Europe he was exposed to on his travels; and autocratic feudal Tsarist Russia would hardly constitute a democracy in anyone’s books.
Dress is so subjective that personal opinion could only ever render attempts to introduce laws censoring a particular item of clothing utterly biased. I imagine it’s easier to do so today than it would have been, say, forty years ago in that there is now a greater public consensus on dress; there remain tribal factions, but the so-called ‘alternative’ is as conservative in its mindset as the modest apparel of the masses, with anyone not adhering to the tattoo & piercing uniform mocked behind their backs. It goes without saying that there have always been a small and select few bucking every trend, but the gauntlet they have to run as a consequence is limited to insults on the street and, on occasions, the fist and feet of the mob. The law may not approve, but it does not effectively censure.
The images that appeared this week of armed policemen forcing a woman to disrobe on a French beach took sartorial legislation to a new level, however. Any dress code dictated by religion as opposed to State presents the State with a problem, particularly a secular State like France. For a country once so entwined with the Church of Rome, France post-1789 has consciously taken a step back from the severest edicts of Catholicism and perhaps earned its reputation as a far more easier-going and less uptight nation than its old enemy across the Channel. The convulsions of the Revolution for the traditional State religion were even more traumatic than the Reformation had been here, and Church and State were eventually formally separated in 1905. Secularism may be a choice in the UK, but in France it’s practically State policy. In order to maintain this, a faith with such strong visual insignias as Islam has given the laissez-faire attitude France revels in a genuine challenge. And one could argue France has made a bit of a mess of the whole business.
Personally, I find tracksuit bottoms or crop-tops far more offensive than the Burqa, but we’re back to subjective opinion again. The French Government thought differently when it decided to ban the Burqa five years ago.
Whenever ‘security’ is employed as a reason for any new law that concerns the individual rather than an institution, my suspicious hackles are raised, and France came to the conclusion that the face being covered in the name of religion constituted a security risk. Whilst naturally viewed as a law specifically relating to Muslim headgear primarily worn by women, this also extends to anyone whose face is covered in a public place – though obviously not on a motorcycle. Breaking the law can result in a fine and the threat of ‘Citizenship Education’ (how very Orwellian), and if anyone is found guilty of forcing another to cover their face against their will, a prison sentence of twelve months is on the cards.
Interestingly, this law came into being long before the Islamic terrorist attacks that have struck France over the past year or so, thus proving that exposing the faces of Muslim women in public since 2011 clearly worked as a security measure to prevent such acts. In the wake of recent events, France couldn’t really add to a ban that predated them, though that obnoxious, corrupt midget Nicolas Sarkozy has been stirring it again in his attempt to return to public office, exploiting the understandable paranoia surrounding Islam in a way that allies him with the likes of Marine Le Pen. In response to external pressures, the government of incumbent and under-fire President Francois Hollande has raised no objections to the controversial bans of the so-called Burkini by several French holiday resorts, resulting in this week’s images of police enforcing the ban by ensuring women wearing it remove it.
Ironically, a glance at photographs of late nineteenth and early twentieth century female bathing suits shows a distinct aesthetic connection between those and the Burkini. If a woman’s modesty was considered worthy of preserving on the beach a hundred years ago, why should a woman have to have everything on display in 2016? The problem with the Burkini is its close association with Islamic dress, which is evidently a delicate issue in France today, especially considering that Nice, one of the country’s top seaside resorts, suffered the most recent Islamic-related terrorist atrocity.
However, imposing a ban on an item of clothing that doesn’t even hide the face and therefore doesn’t contradict the Burqa ban of 2011, seems a rather ridiculous way to respond to a State of Emergency and appears even more ridiculous when one compares the Burkini to the virtually identical wetsuits worn by some members of the French Olympic swimming squad in Rio this summer. Context is apparently everything where clothing in France is concerned. And here’s me, a repressed Englishman, thinking the French, who gave the world Brigitte Bardot, were so much more laidback than that.
© The Editor