Right Steps & Poui Trees

No Written Rules Banning Sleeveless Dresses: An Access to Information Story


I look at the Gleaner this morning and see that the issue of the banning of women wearing sleeveless dresses is again in the news here in Jamaica. The Gleaner’s editorial entitled “Dressing Sleeveless in Jamaica” was sparked by social media commentary pointing out “that women in Jamaica could not dress like Mrs May to enter several government departments and agencies, including hospitals, prisons and schools.” This was a reference to the UK Prime Minister’s sleeveless attire in a formal setting during the official visit of the US President.PM May - Trump visit 7-2018

But we don’t have to go that far afield to show the disparity between what is accepted in a formal setting and what will get a Jamaican woman barred from entry to do business in some government entities. We only need to look at our own Governor General’s wife at the swearing-in ceremony of PM Andrew Holness at King’s House in 2016. She, like a number of women who attended, wore a sleeveless dress, which was perfectly acceptable attire for that very formal occasion. Yet wearing that same or a similar dress, I would risk being barred from entering some government ministries or agencies.

Back in May this year, someone shared the classic story of her elderly mother, a woman of high standing in the field of education in Jamaica, being barred from attending a meeting at the Ministry of Education recently because she was wearing a sleeveless dress. Undeterred, she returned to her car, tore a hole for her head in a sheet of The Gleaner newspaper, returned with her arms covered in this way and was allowed to enter!

I have been interested in this issue for a number of years and have written a couple of blog posts about it and decided that I wanted to actually see the regulations that guided this sleeveless ban. So I made a request under the Access to Information Act to seven Ministries for

“any regulation/guideline/protocol/etc documenting the Ministry’s prohibition of female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses entering the Ministry to do business.”

I also made this request to one Executive Agency.

I made my initial requests on May 29 & 30. This week I received the response from the last of the bodies. Not one produced any document prohibiting the wearing of sleeveless dresses or blouses by female members of the public.

The Ministries & Executive Agency and Their Responses

The Ministries and Executive Agency I made ATI requests to were

  • Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport
  • Ministry of Education, Youth & Information
  • Ministry of Finance & the Public Service
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade
  • Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Justice
  • Ministry of Labour & Social Security
  • Registrar General’s Department

I selected some of these Ministries and the Registrar General’s Department because they have featured in sleeveless banning complaints in the past; the other Ministries were included just to extend the range. Their responses are as follows.

Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport

June  5, 2018 – “In response to your request stated below under the Access to Information Act, I am not aware of any documentation from this Ministry regarding any regulation/protocol or guideline for the prohibition of female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses entering the Ministry to do business.”

Ministry of Education, Youth & Information

June 8, 2018 – “The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MoEYI) is pleased to grant you access. Please see attachment Visitors Dress Code.”

MOYC Visitors Dress Code ATI 2018

On June 11, 2018, I made two subsequent ATI requests. It is now more than 30 days since I made these requests and I haven’t received either an acknowledgment of them or any documents in response to them.
“1. I note that this document does not include “sleeveless dresses or blouses” in its list of prohibited wear. Is there any document that does?
2. The document sent seems to be a photograph of a framed notice at the Ministry. It includes the words “Signed Human Resource Management and Administration. Ministry of Education. 2009”. Are there any documents (minutes, memos, letters, reports, etc) relating to the issuance of this notice and the establishment of the dress code for visitors policy on which it is based?
Please regard this as a formal request under the Access to Information Act.”

Ministry of Finance & the Public Service

July 9, 2018 – I am somewhat heartened by the indication that the Ministry of Finance is currently reviewing its “practice of restricting access by females who wear sleeveless blouses or dresses”.

MFPS ATI response 9-7-18 sleeveless dresses

Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade

June 15, 2018 – “I hereby acknowledge receipt of your request dated Wednesday, May 30, 2018. The Ministry however, does not have any documented regulation prohibiting female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses when entering the Ministry to do business.”

Ministry of Health

July 3, 2018 – “Please be advised that we have undertaken the necessary research to respond to your request for any “regulation / guideline /protocol/document which guides the Ministry’s prohibition of female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses entering the Ministry to do business”.

To date no document has been identified or located. It appears that this is an unwritten policy that has been carried on over many years.
In pursuit of a concrete response we have sent the request to the Cabinet Office and continue to await their response.”

Ministry of Justice

June 22, 2018 – “Reference is made to your Access to Information application below, please be informed that no documents were found in support of your application.

Ministry of Labour & Social Security

July 11, 2018 – “Thank you for your application under the Access to Information Act, wherein you requested the Ministry’s Dress Code to enter its offices. Please note that the ministry in keeping with other Government entities established a Dress Code Guideline for its customers. The Dress Code prohibits:

  • Camisoles
  • Tube Tops
  • Merinos
  • Short Shorts
  • Mini Skirts
  • Low Cut Garments exposing the Bosom
  • Tights
  • Sheer (see through) Garments
  • Pants below the waist

It should be noted that persons are not prohibited from entering the building, as long as the clothing is not excessively revealing. Steps are also being taken to review this guide bearing in mind the Ministry’s stakeholders.”

The list included in the Ministry of Labour & Social Security’s response is displayed on printed posters at the guard house at the gate and in the lobby of the Ministry. It is delightfully ironic that the poster in the lobby has a piece of masking tape affixed to it, on which is written the word “sleeveless”!MLSS dress code poster 7-18 - sleeveless

Registrar General’s Department

May 30, 2018 – “The Registrar General’s Department does not have any formal regulation/guideline/protocol documenting the prohibition of female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses.

We do however follow the general rule of most Ministries and Hospitals, which prohibit the wearing of alter backs, tube tops and spaghetti blouses.”

On May 30, 2018, I replied making a follow-up ATI request:

I’d like to make a request under the Access to Information Act for a copy of any document (memo, correspondence, minutes, report, etc) in the possession of the Registrar General’s Department that sets out “the general rule of most Ministries and Hospitals, which prohibit the wearing of alter tops, tube tops and spaghetti blouses” referred to in your email, which you advise that the RGD follows.

On June 11, 2018, I received the following reply: “The Registrar General’s Department does not have a written document, but there is an unspoken, unwritten dress code which is in force.

Please note with regard to Dress codes each organization sets its own policy, which can be written or unwritten. It differs and is dependent on the organization.

Our unwritten policy encourages our customers to dress in such a way, that shows consideration for other members of the public.”

(I remain somewhat puzzled at how the dress code can be efficiently communicated if it is both unspoken and unwritten!)

Concluding Comments

So there you have it. A small sampling of government entities.

  • 8 entities requested via the ATI Act to provide documents setting out “any regulation/guideline/protocol/etc documenting the Ministry’s prohibition of female members of the public wearing sleeveless dresses or blouses entering the Ministry to do business.”
  • 6 out of 8 indicated that they had no such document.
  • 3 of those 6 gave some background or context for the unwritten sleeveless ban policy/practice.
  • 1 of those 6 made mention of some of the prohibited garments.
  • 1 of those 6 indicated that they had referred the request to the Cabinet Office for a further response.
  • 2 of the 8 entities sent the list of garments prohibited by their dress code. Neither of those dress codes specifically prohibited sleeveless dresses or blouses.
  • 2 of the 8 entities indicated that they were currently undertaking a review of the existing practice.

It is time that this practice – unwritten, unspoken (?), unjustified, whatever its origin – be officially abandoned and those Ministries and other government entities applying it recognise that a woman in a sleeveless dress or blouse entering their precincts will not bring government business to a screeching halt.


A note on camisoles, tube tops, halter tops, spaghetti blouses mentioned by those dress codes supplied…they are different from sleeveless dresses and blouses.sleeveless collage


Donkey seh di worl nuh level. I guess the Ministry of Education hesitated to apply the sleeveless ban to a former government Minister. No Gleaner newspaper needed to cover her bare arms?

Tweet 31-3-16 Flloyd Green & Lisa Hanna at Min of Ed

March 31, 2016 tweet


Author: rightpouitree

Navigating the real and virtual worlds and sometimes writing about what I observe...

18 thoughts on “No Written Rules Banning Sleeveless Dresses: An Access to Information Story

  1. Great, Susan! Its long been apparent that a widespread practice had no formal legislated basis, but was imposed as a serious of ad hog decisions. I never understood why a general directive couldn’t be given to all public agencies to follow the law on say indecent exposure and let that be the bar.

    That aside, I shall not go to RGD with my ‘alter backs’ (sic). I’ll reblog this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: No Written Rules Banning Sleeveless Dresses: An Access to Information Story | Jamaica: Political Economy

  3. Governing isn’t easy, but why do governments everywhere go out of their way to make it more difficult? This would be ridiculous and funny if it didn’t impact ordinary people the way it can – a day taken off work or a long, difficult journey wasted because of someone’s arbitrary dislike of your perfectly reasonable attire. Well done highlighting this kind of idiocy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Graham! Yes, governments should really pick their battles and sleeveless dresses really is a ridiculous battle to continue to pick, especially in a tropical country like Jamaica. And you are entirely correct about the potential impact for people who are turned away.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great work. It’s not just about sleeveless though. Why are government agencies regulating the way people dress? Short of applying standards of decency (and even that is hard to get right) what purpose is served? Why not camisoles? Is a Brigette sandal with thin straps ‘better’ than a pair of flip flops? It’s just so arbitrary and pointless and has little to no effect other than rendering it a painful exercise to deal with the government that is paid for by, and is supposed to exist for the benefit of, the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Access to service denied | Jamaican Journal

  7. Hi Sue. This is such good work I was wondering if we could take this to OUR member of parliament. I suspect we share the same. Or a female parliamentarian(s) and see how we could get it going from this thorough blog post to remedial action. Or could we get WROC or one of those gender based groups to seriously sit with us and those female parlimentarians to address is formally. We need to get beyond the chatter and have it remedied and I don’t want you to have gone to this much for naught.

    After all Sue if the Opposition is has filed in court to defend our constitutional right with regards to their view that NIDS could block access to government good and services how can this (which is doing the very same) be countenanced and not given the same level of parliamentary attention. Poppycock!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jeanette. I see you have done a follow-up comment, referring to PM Holness’ referral of this to Minister Grange.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Heard Nwide calling this excellent citizen journalism. I soooo agree and that’s another reason Sue why I”d like to help with the follow up if I can because if we get the mileage we desire from this then this is a powerful example of what’s possible in terms of a citizen effecting and affecting policy via ATI and blogging. I’m a tad excited 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:
    For some time now, there has been much discussion (especially among women) about the rigid and at times complex dress code rules for entry to government offices (and thus, access to government services). We have all complained on social media and written articles, but…that’s not enough. So many kudos to Susan Goffe, who has taken action and, in her own methodical and persistent way, got to the bottom of the matter. Well, it turns out that there are no official regulations or laws at all prescribing certain modes of dress. Well, well! NB A friend recalls taking her very young and seriously ill daughter to a public hospital and being denied entry because she was wearing a tank top. Fortunately she found a shirt to wear! (I understand this is also an issue in Trinidad. Is this a colonial hangover, put in place by someone who thought it was a great idea to keep people in their place?) Be that as it may, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has responded on Twitter, thus: “I had tasked @Babsy_grange to examine and review the practice of prohibiting women who wear sleeveless attire from government facilities. As a modern society, we must evolve.” Indeed, we must! We look forward to swift action on this long-standing matter from our Gender Affairs Minister…Meanwhile, thanks again, Susan!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I hear that the Prime Minister has asked MP Grange to form a committee to look into this. So we might not have to go a-calling but their attention bandwidth is so small that we have to follow this up guys. See if the committee is in fact formed and follow it up. If not…..twill die by the wayside.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Jamaica to cycle up sleeves and analysis sexist accouterment rules: ‘We have to evolve’ – Planet News

  11. Pingback: Jamaica to roll up sleeves and review sexist clothing rules: ‘We must evolve’ – BreakingNewsUK

  12. Well written, well researched. Excellent commentary.

    Liked by 1 person