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Dress codes are written and, more often, unwritten rules with regard to clothing. Clothing like other aspects of human physical appearance has a social significance, with different rules and expectations being valid depending on circumstance and occasion. Even within a single day an individual may need to navigate between two or more dress codes, at a minimum these are those that apply at their place of work and those at home, usually this ability is a result of cultural acclimatization. Different societies and cultures will have different dress norms although Western styles are commonly accepted as valid.
The dress code has built in rules or signals indicating the message being given by a person's clothing and how it is worn. This message may include indications of the person's gender, income, occupation and social class, political, ethnic and religious affiliation, attitude and attitude towards comfort, fashion, traditions, gender expression, marital status, sexual availability, and sexual orientation, etc. Clothes convey other social messages including the stating or claiming personal or cultural identity, the establishing, maintaining, or defying social group norms, and appreciating comfort and functionality.
For example, wearing expensive clothes can communicate wealth, the image of wealth, or cheaper access to quality clothing. All factors apply inversely to the wearing of inexpensive clothing and similar goods. The observer sees the resultant, expensive clothes, but may incorrectly perceive the extent to which these factors apply to the person observed. (cf. conspicuous consumption). Clothing can convey a social message, even if none is intended.
If the receiver's code of interpretation differs from the sender's code of communication, misinterpretation follows. In every culture, current fashion governs the manner of consciously constructing, assembling, and wearing clothing to convey a social message. The rate of change of fashion varies, and so modifies the style in wearing clothes and its accessories within months or days, especially in small social groups or in communications media-influenced modern societies. More extensive changes, requiring more time, money, and effort to effect, may span generations. When fashion changes, the messages communicated by clothing change.
The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast had a complex social structure, including slaves, commoners, and nobles, and dress codes to indicate these social distinctions. John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nuu-chah-nulth people in 1802-1805, describes how, after some time living there, Maquinna and the chiefs decided that he must now be "considered one of them, and conform to their customs". Jewitt resented the imposition of this dress code, finding the loose untailored garments very cold, and attributed to them a subsequent illness of which he almost died. He was not allowed to cut his hair, and had to paint his face and body as a Nootka would.
In some traditions, certain types of clothing are worn exclusively or predominantly by either men or women. For example, the wearing of a skirt tends to be associated with female dress, while trousers are associated with male dress. Hairdressing in some societies may also conform to a dress code, such as long hair for women and short hair for men. Some headgear are usually geared towards women, such as hair-clips, hairpins, and barettes.
In many societies, particular clothing may be a status symbol, reserved or affordable to people of high rank. For example, in Ancient Rome only senators were permitted to wear garments dyed with Tyrian purple; and, in traditional Hawaiian society, only high-ranking chiefs could wear feather cloaks and palaoa or carved whale teeth. In China before the establishment of the republic, only the emperor could wear yellow.
In 1996, former U. S. President Bill Clinton announced his support for the idea of school uniforms by stating, “School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are.” Many school districts in the United States took up the idea. By requiring students to wear a school uniform they are less likely to have something to make fun of other students for. This would cause the students to get to know one another by their personality and who they really are rather than the clothes they wear.
Military, police, and firefighters usually wear uniforms, as do workers in many industries. School children often wear school uniforms, while college and university students sometimes wear academic dress. Members of religious orders may wear uniforms known as habits. Sometimes a single item of clothing or a single accessory can declare one's occupation or rank within a profession.
In many regions of the world, national costumes and styles in clothing and ornament declare membership in a certain village, caste, religion, etc. A Scotsman declares his clan with his tartan. A French peasant woman identified her village with her cap or coif. A Palestinian woman identifies her village with the pattern of embroidery on her dress.
Clothes can also proclaim dissent from cultural norms and mainstream beliefs, as well as personal independence. In 19th-century Europe, artists and writers lived la vie de Bohème and dressed to shock: George Sand in men's clothing, female emancipationists in bloomers, male artists in velvet waistcoats and gaudy neckcloths. Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, Goths, Punks, and Skinheads have continued the (countercultural) tradition in the 20th-century West.
A Sikh or Muslim man may display his religious affiliation by wearing a turban and other traditional clothing. Many Muslim women wear head or body coverings (see sartorial hijab, hijab, burqa or niqab, chador, and abaya) that proclaim their status as respectable women and cover the so-called intimate parts. A Jewish man may indicate his observance of Judaism by wearing a Kippah.
Traditionally, Hindu women wear sindoor, a red powder, in the parting of their hair to indicate their married status; if widowed, they abandon sindoor and jewelry and wear simple white clothing. However, this is not true of all Hindu women; in the modern world this is not a norm and women without sindoor may not necessarily be unmarried.
In many Orthodox Jewish circles, married women wear head coverings such as a hat, snood, or wig. Additionally, after their marriage, Jewish men of Ashkenazi descent begin to wear a Tallit during prayer.
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In New Guinea and Vanuatu, there are areas where it is customary for the men to wear nothing but penis sheaths in public - this is uncommon in more developed areas. Women wear string skirts. In remote areas of Bali, women may go topless. In America, there are nude beaches.
In the United States, a few businesses or restaurants display dress code signs requiring shoes and shirts, claiming to be there on account of a health code, although no such health codes exist. Also, it is common belief that there are laws against driving barefoot. However, no such laws exist. It is quite uncommon for people to be nude in public in the United States. However, there are a few private beaches and resorts that cater to such a population.
Private organisations may insist on particular dress codes or standards in particular situations.
Dress codes function on certain social occasions and for certain jobs. A military institution may require specified uniforms; if it allows the wearing of plain clothes it may place restrictions on their use.
A "formal" or white tie dress code typically means tail-coats for men and full-length evening dresses for women. "Semi-formal" has a much less precise definition but typically means an evening jacket and tie for men (known as black tie) and a dress for women. "Business casual" typically means not wearing neckties or suits, but wearing instead collared shirts, and more country trousers (not black, but more relaxed, including things such as corduroy). "Casual" typically just means clothing for the torso, legs and shoes. "Wedding Casual" defines yet another mode of dress, where guests dress respectfully, but not necessarily fancily. The uniform may consist of various items that are appropriate length and style depending on what the school suggests: for example, khaki pants or shorts, plaid skirts, a button-up collared shirt, a sweater, a coat and tie and even socks. Some schools have each grade assigned a color type which communicates what grade the student is currently in. That way if a student is lost someone is able to figure out what grade they are in just by looking at the color of their shirt. If the student is younger, older students and faculty are able to look out for them and make sure they are safe. Organisations which seek to maintain standards of modesty have difficulties with sheer and see-through clothing.
Dress codes usually set a lower limit on body covering. However, sometimes it can specify the opposite: for example, in UK gay jargon, dress code, means people who dress in a militaristic manner. Dress code nights in nightclubs, and elsewhere, are deemed to specifically target people who have militaristic fetishes (e.g. leather/skinhead men).
White collar work place clothing has changed significantly through the years. In a corporate office, appropriate clothes are clean, business casual clothes such as a dress shirt, polo shirt, and trousers, or other similar outfits. Suits, neckties, and other formal wear are usually only required in law offices and financial sector offices. Previous business dress code eras (the 1950s in the U.S.) featured standardized business clothes that strongly differentiated what was acceptable and unacceptable for men and women to wear while working. Today, the two styles have merged; women's work clothes expanded to include the suit (and its variants) in addition to the usual dresses, skirts, and blouses; men's clothes have expanded to include garments and bright colours.
Casual wear entered business culture with the advent of the Silicon Valley, California, technology company featuring casual work clothes on the job. Additionally, some companies set aside days — generally Fridays ("dress-down Friday", "casual Friday") — when workers may wear casual clothes. This practice has moderated somewhat since the end of the dot com era. The clothing a company requires its worker to wear on the job varies with the occupation and profession.
Some businesses observe that anti-discrimination law restricts their determining what is appropriate and inappropriate workplace clothing. Yet, in fact, most businesses have much authority in determining and establishing what work place clothes they can require of their workers. Generally, a carefully drafted dress code applied consistently does not violate anti-discrimination laws.
Business casual dress, also "smart casual", is a popular work place dress code that emerged in white-collar workplaces in Western countries in the 1990s, especially in the United States and Canada. Many information technology businesses in Silicon Valley were early adopters of this dress code. In contrast to formal business wear such as suits and neckties (the international standard business attire), the business casual dress code has no generally accepted definition; its interpretation differs widely among organizations and is often a cause of sartorial confusion among workers.
The job search engine Monster.com offers this definition: In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed, yet neat and pulled together. A more pragmatic definition is that business casual dress is the mid ground between formal business clothes and street clothes. Examples of clothing combinations considered appropriate for work by businesses that consider themselves as using the business-casual dress code are:
Generally, neckties are excluded from business casual dress, unless worn in nontraditional ways. The acceptability of blue jeans and denim cloth clothing varies — some businesses consider them to be sloppy.
Inverse dress codes, sometimes referred to as "undress code", set forth an upper bound, rather than a lower bound, on body covering. An example of an undress code is the one commonly enforced in modern communal bathing facilities. For example, in the public bath SchwabenQuellen, no clothing of any kind is allowed in the sauna part of the resort. Other, less strict undress codes are common in public pools, especially indoor pools, in which shoes and shirts are disallowed.
Some clothing faux pas may occur intentionally for reasons of fashion or personal preference. For example, people may wear intentionally oversized clothing. For instance, the teenage boys of rap duo Kris Kross of the early 1990s wore all of their clothes backwards and extremely baggy.
Social attitudes to clothing have brought about various rules and social conventions, such as keeping the body covered, and not showing underwear in public. The backlash against these social norms has become a traditional form of rebellion. Over time, western societies have gradually adopted more casual dress codes in the workplace, school, and leisure. This has especially been the case since the early 1960s.
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