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The PQ's charter so yesterday

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ROTHESAY, NB -- How successful have past attempts to engineer culture-through-clothing regulation been?

Perhaps that is one question Quebec should be asking before it attempts to impose its Charter of Values on its citizens.

The supposed purpose of Quebec's Charter of Values would restrict certain religious-inspired clothing and other apparel in some public-sector occupations in an attempt to foster a neutral, secular social setting in governmental interactions with the public.

First, such efforts at cultural engineering are not without precedent. There are plenty of examples of such policies in the ancient and medieval eras, as well as in many current Middle Eastern nations. In pre-1700 western culture, these were known as sumptuary laws and were instituted by governments for one or more of three basic reasons; to curb spending on luxurious clothes, especially imported fabrics, to promote local industry and to maintain distinctions of social class.

In 1571, England passed a so-called "flat cap" law requiring males older than six years to wear cloth caps on Sundays and public holidays or face a fine of three farthings (less than one penny). It was widely ignored, hard to enforce and finally abolished in 1597.

France tried equally unenforceable sumptuary laws in the 1630s to curb opulent clothing fashions. So did the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World during the period 1634 to 1651. The concern of these English and somewhat puritanical colonists was that persons of "mean" (i.e. low) rank were wearing fancy clothes. So they banned silver and gold accoutrements for persons of low annual income. Interestingly, offenders had to pay property tax as if they were wealthy as punishment for appearing to be of higher status than they actually were.

Sumptuary laws didn't work, were too hard to enforce, contained exemptions for the rich and went against the long-term secular tendency in increasingly affluent western societies for common folk to try to dress more fashionably.

The banning of Scottish Highland kilts and tartans by the British government in 1746 merits special consideration, in part because this was a modernization effort on the part of the English and the Lowland Scots after the rebellion of 1745-46.

The government wanted to take away the elements of Highland culture they thought led to insurrectionary behaviour. The penalties were severe; six months in prison for the first offence, seven years labour on the plantations of Barbados or the Carolinas for a second. Military regiments were, however, always exempt and the law was eventually cancelled in 1782.

Other modernization efforts by clothing regulations happened in more recent times. In 1913, the new republican government of China passed an edict to promote western-style clothes for its population.

Women were encouraged to wear western-style dresses instead of the traditional Chinese baggy pants then in style. The reformist government of Kemal Attaturk (1881-1938) in 1925 abolished the traditional headgear, the fez, in Turkey. This was part of a modernization agenda that also saw the introduction of the western alphabet and calendar to the country.

By far the most notorious of recent cultural engineering efforts by a government occurred during Nazi rule in Germany and occupied territories in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Nazis revived old medieval laws requiring Jews to wear a yellow star and sometimes a badge with the word "Jude" or "Juif" on it. The purpose was to enable brutal discrimination against a portion of their population.

Proponents of the Quebec Charter of Values will argue all this has nothing to do with them. Their proposal is the opposite to that of the Nazis, they will claim. The object of their legislation is to create a non-discriminatory public service environment for all citizens.

On the other hand, in the famous remark coined by Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980), "the medium is the message." Government-legislated clothing styles of any type offend those affected. They create a backlash unanticipated by their proponents. There's many a Scot today who wear the kilt on ceremonial occasions to commemoratively spite the ban of 1746.

Perhaps more importantly, it's difficult to see such governmental impositions of clothing styles have worked in history. They are difficult to enforce and are often quickly withdrawn by later governments. More influential are long-term (dare I use the term?) secular trends. People wear cloth caps in England or western clothes in China or have abandoned Highland garb in Scotland for reasons independent of government legislation.

Today, people choose their clothing options based on such things as urbanization, industrialization, emigration to new lands, immigrant adoption of host society's customs, the emancipation of women, social equality and increased affluence.

By contrast, governmental efforts to engineer culture are weak and short-lived. Maybe the Quebec government should reconsider its plans in the light of the historical experience that such attempts at cultural engineering rarely work.


Fred Donnelly's career in journalism covers more than two decades. He writes on popular culture.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 A11

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