Nichola Pais looks for answers to the recent storm surrounding an innocent (?) crop top

“What about the men who wear singlets to travel to Goa and Bermudas? Singlets are underwear too! Dress codes are made for women by men. High time women made dress codes for men now!” so declares the feisty Wendell Rodricks, fashion designer, bon vivant and creator of India’s first costume museum, among other things.

Rodricks is among those on one side of the fence defending 21-year-old Emily O’Connor of Birmingham who was almost ejected off a holiday flight for dressing ‘inappropriately’. O’Connor had recently revealed that she was asked to ‘cover up or leave’ while boarding the Thomas Cook flight to Tenerife because her black crop top was deemed too ‘bra-like’ and was ‘causing offence’. 

Discrimination or clothing code?
Discrimination or clothing code?

She eventually wasn’t escorted off the plane and amidst the roar of support coming O’Connor’s way, the airline apologised for the incident, admitting, “It’s clear we could have handled the situation better. In common with most airlines we have an appropriate attire policy. This applies equally to men and women of all ages without discrimination. Our crews have the difficult task of implementing that policy and don’t always get it right.”

‘Without discrimination’? Can this truthfully be said of the implementation of dress codes for women vis a vis men? Serena Williams is one of the many who will disagree. Her black catsuit with a red band which she wore on court at Roland Garros last year, earned the displeasure of the French Tennis Federation. Its President, Bernard Giudicelli went on to declare, “I think we sometimes went too far,. The combination of Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.” It mattered not that Williams’ outfit was designed to combat the issue of blood clots in her legs and help improve blood circulation. It was given the boot.

Discrimination or clothing code?

Our own Priyanka Chopra was similarly bewildered when her decorous knee-length dress worn to her meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made her the target of nasty trollers who judged it “indecent” of her to have “exposed her legs”. Clever PC refused to even acknowledge this invective—she simply shared another photograph on social media of herself along with her mother Madhu Chopra, showing off endless length of leg!

From Priyanka Gandhi, who was censured for changing her Twitter profile picture which featured her in a maroon sari, to one which saw her sporting jeans and a blue shirt, to Sonam Kapoor who was mocked even for wearing a sari—it was ripped denim—clearly if you’re a woman, there is no pleasing the self-appointed custodians of clothing codes.

Wendell strongly supports the right of O’Connor to wear what she likes, adding, “I have seen more revealing cholis for sure!”. Author Selma Carvalho, on the other hand, points out, “Most companies have a dress code and most airlines have an appropriate clothing policy which they are free to enforce if they choose to. An airline is not ‘public space’ as a beach or a park or a town square would be, and we have to distinguish between the two to see if our individual rights are being violated.”

O’Connor herself argues, “For me as a young woman — or a man, any gender, any sex — you should be able to show your body in whatever way you deem appropriate … Anything you can wear socially, into supermarkets or shopping centres, you should be able to wear on an airplane.”  

Discrimination or clothing code?

Which brings us to the tricky and rarely seen list of don’ts of in-flight dressing. Kaushal Dutta, CEO HTI (Hospitality Training Institute), which handles training of cabin crew for Air India and Air India Express, maintains, “Perspectives differ and so what is offensive to some may be appropriate to another. That said, any establishment is free to decide on what is and what is not appropriate dress code, behaviour, attitude. And in this case the airline took their call. As passengers we may decide to fly with them or boycott them.”

Another cabin crew trainer for a leading airline, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds, “Passengers should avoid tight, revealing T-shirts, T-shirts with profanity or bikini tops etc. Clothes that could be intimidating should be avoided.” And what happens when passengers are found to be ‘inappropriately dressed’? “At times we evaluate the profile of the guests travelling on the flight and the destination they are travelling to.

Based on that, a decision is taken. At times if the guests don’t have a change of clothes with them, they may not be allowed to travel. In some foreign countries the guests are offloaded if they not dressed appropriately specially if they would be travelling on Premier or First Class.” And finally that dangling carrot to ensure decorous dressing – “At times the airline does upgrade guests and if you are not well dressed, you could miss the chance!”

Fact remains, for some mysterious reason, information about in-flight dress codes is rarely present on the airline websites. With minimal awareness, confusion reigns—one woman’s crop top is another’s brassiere and evidently sends all undies into a twist!