Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Skirting the Law

I haven't posted a story in reference to the history of the skirt in a while, but this item is too good to pass up. Yesterday the mayor of Castellammare di Stabia, a southern Italian resort town, "has ordered police officers to fine women who wear short miniskirts or show too much cleavage, as part of a battle to raise what he describes as the level of public decorum," according to an article in the Guardian today.

Banning short skirts and arresting women for the length of their hemlines began long before the miniskirt was introduced in 1964, though Tunisia was the first country to ban the skirt altogether, soon followed by other African and Muslim nations, including Malawi, Madagascar and Swaziland. Twenty-six years later miniskirts were again outlawed in Swaziland in 2000 when it was believed that wearing them encouraged the spread of AIDS. Many men vocally defended the ban, vowing to rape any women they saw wearing miniskirts, saying, "They want to be raped and we're giving them what they want." The classic "they're asking for it" theory often comes up when a skirt ban is on the books. One example is from 2006, when then South African deputy president Jacob Zuma allegedly raped a 31-year-old AIDS activist because she crossed her legs in a knee-length skirt, signaling her desire to be raped, according to Zuma. "In Zulu culture you can't leave a woman when she is ready," he reasoned, explaining that to deny her sex at that point would have been tantamount to rape. (Zuma was acquitted a month after the woman pressed charges and was elected president of South Africa in 2009.)

At first glance, the Italian ban is more tame, with the mayor, Luigi Bobbio, arguing for new social standards, although a local priest chimed in his approval, saying the ban would probably cut down on sexual harassment. Bobbio says he has faith in his police officers to make "snap decisions" on the matter, saying that "one glance will be enough to judge," and issue a ticket for nearly $300. Naturally, the women in town are pissed.

There are countless instances of skirt bans throughout fashion history but one of my favorites is from 2006, when plucky 10-year-old Zoe Hinkle of Pennsylvania lobbied for her right to wear a hemline above her knees at school, after her principal announced that all skirts had to be knee-length or below. She organized a protest, carrying a sign that said, "Style is Freedom."

"I think I needed to say something about [the ban]," Hinkle said. "Freedom of expression should be the style you choose."

Only two of Zoe's friends showed up for her protest. The ban held.

Want to read more about the history of the skirt? You're in luck: I wrote a book on the subject!


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