Saturday, June 9, 2007

Pyjama mamas

From my old neighbourhood in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, comes a story that last week embarrassingly ended up on the front page of the BBC News site: mothers dropping their children off at school have been asked by the school's headmaster not to turn up in their pyjamas. Apparently "as many as 50" women each day were dropping off their children while still in their nightclothes. The article goes on to say that in certain parts of Belfast wearing pyjamas all day has become de rigueur among women of a certain age and outlook, and that they carry this habit not only to the doors of their children's schools but also to the local supermarket, etc.

Although all of this is taking place a mere hundred yards or so from my granny's house, the neighbourhood in question is for sectarian and historical reasons entirely walled off from the one I used to live in. It's possible that the mothers have gotten so used to daily life in their fortified religious enclave that they don't expect to encounter the steely glare of outsiders, especially not ones from the BBC. And it's not as if there is a very high standard of fashion to aspire to in working- class Belfast generally. Still, it's fair to say that the mothers are only taking to a logical extreme the trend towards informality of dress now found in just about every Western country, courtesy of our egalitarian ideals and our pursuit of comfort at all costs.

Somewhat related is a report out of Toronto saying that a Catholic priest, Fr. William Swift of Holy Cross Catholic Church, drew widespread criticism after he asked his congregants to dress more modestly and less distractingly when they attended Sunday Mass. Swift emphasized that he had no intention of turning away those whose attire he objects to; all he has done so far in fact is insert a note in the parish bulletin asking that parishioners not try to "upstage God" and make themselves the centre of attention. This may seem a bit prudish to non- Catholics, who can't be expected to attach the same significance to the Mass, but even non- religious people must have noticed by now the prevalent habit of turning up in casual clothing even at solemn events such as funerals, and perhaps they too have wondered whether sartorial standards were collapsing.

To even raise this question is to risk being accused of being a fascist or hopelessly square. (Actually, I am hopelessly square, so I'm willing to accept that designation at least! And it's not as if I'm Mr. Style Incarnate myself: I tend to choose my clothing for its ability to deflect light.) This is another one of those situations where individual freedoms may lead to outcomes we find undesirable, which is the whole point of having those freedoms in the first place: the ability to choose what to wear means that you can choose to make a spectacle of yourself, if you like, and that other people can turn up their noses at you, if they like. The puritan-Islamic critique of Western clothing habits, which is now too often being taken seriously in the Western media, is wrong not necessarily in its assessment of what is objectionable but in its proposed solution of a uniform dress code. Even an endless pyjama- party would be better than that.

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