How do you enforce a law against bad taste in clothing?
Last summer, before we moved to Abu Dhabi, we went to France for almost two weeks, including a week in Paris. I spent hours before we left New York agonising about my wardrobe. What could I wear strolling down the Champs-Elysées that wouldn't brand me as a tourist or, worse, an American?
The thick-soled trainers stayed home, as did the yoga trousers, the baseball cap, the sloganeering T-shirts. Into the suitcase went my leather sandals (which give me blisters but are très chic), two linen skirts (wrinkled, but from a fancy shop), a scarf (I was aiming for that ineffable French je ne sais quoi, but the result was closer to Eastern European hausfrau), and a few brand-new shirts, several price points above my usual attire.
As we walked along the boulevards, I would glance in shop windows and tell myself that, OK, I didn't look Parisian, but maybe, if you squinted and the lighting was right, I did at least look French.
Our trip to France was a stopping point on our journey from Manhattan to Abu Dhabi, but ironically, I worried more about what to wear in Paris than about what to wear here.
When we told friends in New York that we were moving to Abu Dhabi, the first question women friends asked was, "What are you going to wear?" As they asked, they made a sort of waving gesture around their heads, as if they thought I would be donning a halo, or maybe some kind of bee-keeping ensemble.
They were wondering if I'd have to "cover", because they (like many westerners) assumed that every woman in "Arabia" must be swathed in black. No, I answered, I would not be enrobed, and within reason I could wear in Abu Dhabi the same things I wore in New York.
It's the "within reason" that's the sticking point right now, it seems, if the discussion online and in the letters column of The National are any indicator. What is "reasonable" here, and should there be laws to govern the choices people make as they stand in front of their closets?
If there were dress-code laws, how would they work, I wonder. Would there be mandatory skirt lengths? What about tightness of trousers? I've seen men in trousers that, alas, leave very little to the imagination. Can the law mandate that all trousers be "relaxed fit"?
For that matter, at a public beach a few weeks ago I saw a gentleman whose belly reflected his love of a good meal and whose back was matted with hair. Could the dress-code laws do something about visible back hair?
"Within reason" in my mind, means that I shouldn't walk down the Corniche in my bathing suit, or dash into Madinat Zayed in a tank top and a miniskirt. And yes, you might want to forego those sassy shorts that could be mistaken for denim underwear.
Of course, even if you lived in Manhattan, you might want to avoid those shorts because trust me, they are not flattering, unless in fact you're a toddler and those shorts are simply covering up your nappy.
There are those who say that it's disrespectful for people here to show a lot of skin as they go about their daily business, and I suppose that's true. But does the country really want to wrangle about the legal definitions of "respectful dressing?"
Does the UAE government really want to take on the role of national fashion consultant, or appoint a federal bureau of Project Runway judges?
If I'd marched around Paris in running shoes, a polyester button-down shirt, and a baseball cap, with my nylon day-pack strapped around my waist, I would have committed about 8,000 fashion faux pas, and the Parisians would have laughed in my face. But my obliviousness to French culture would not have damaged that culture one whit. France would still be France, and I would be just one more visiting idiot from America who didn't know how to dress.
In the UAE, people who dress like extras from the television reality programme Jersey Shore (about a group of twenty-somethings whose shallowness makes the Kardashians look like the Kennedys), do not damage the UAE's culture in the least. They just make themselves (and their countries) look like Snooki, the most appalling of the Jersey Shore crew.
Now, if you wanted to make a law against Snooki … I'd be all ears.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at New York University Abu Dhabi and blogs at mannahattamamma.com. Rob Long's column returns next week
Updated: July 7, 2012 04:00 AM