An innocuous message on Shanghai Metro's website advising young women to refrain from dressing too revealingly in the summer has stirred a storm of protests, alleging sexism on Internet forums.
Angry critics accused the subway operator of unfairly blaming the rise in petty sex crimes in subway cars on the way women chose to dress. They may have a point. But coming from Hong Kong, I am amazed by the very “casual” way Shanghai women, and men, dress not only for play but also at work.
Of course, businesses in Hong Kong have been following the example set by the government to promote casual dress in the work place. The objective of the exercise is to help save energy by cutting down on the use of air-conditioning in the summer months.
But in Hong Kong, being casual has its rules. In the workplace at least, most people are fully aware that there are unwritten dress codes they must observe.
Such awareness is apparently absent in Shanghai. In the morning on the commercial strip of Huaihai Road Central, where my office is, you can see crowds of women going to work in shorts, the very short type, tank tops and flip-flops. Men usually dress a bit more formally. But you can still run into some in the elevator wearing T-shirts, knee-length pants and sandals, and they aren’t couriers. In fact, most couriers wear their companies’ uniform.
And then, you see people dress in the other extreme. There are women who go to work in the morning dressed like they are on the way to a punk concert, wearing gothic makeup that would make Johnny Depp in “Alice In Wonderland” look, well, normal.
I once discussed this with my colleagues, and they thought I was too old-fashioned. I thought so too until I read a story in Forbes magazine in which the writer quoted Jacqui Stafford, fashion editor and corporate style consultant as saying: “At all times, whether you’re the secretary or CEO, people will judge you in nanoseconds by what you’re wearing.”
According to the experts interviewed in that article, shorts and flip-flops are a definite no-no in the office. But contrary to our agreed dress practice in Hong Kong, sleeveless tops are fine, provided, of course, you have the figure to pull it off, according to Stafford. The base line, she said, is “you want to show style, not too much skin”.
The same goes for men too. It’s okay to wear T-shirts to work, as long as it is worn under a blazer. But fashion experts agree that a gold chain, or a necklace of beads worn by many Chinese men for good luck, makes the wearer look either too vain or vulgar.
According to the Forbes article, many corporations in the United States include office dress codes in their staff manuals. When I was based in Singapore, I once ran into a visiting journalist from New York on the street. He was wearing a suit and tie, and sweating profusely under the tropical sun. He obviously had his standard to keep and I admired him for that.
I wore a suit and tie whenever I went for an interview when I was in Hong Kong. Every other reporter in the office did that too. As our editor used to say, we wanted to dress properly to show our respect to the persons we were going to interview, the newspaper for which we worked, and, of course, ourselves. We considered the dress code to be a discipline we couldn’t do without.
I don’t agree that the Shanghai Metro’s message carries a sexist overtone. It is sound advice that should be heeded rather than derided. And perhaps it can help remind Shanghai enterprises to seriously consider introducing a formal dress code in the workplace.