Text by Elizabeth Breiner
Title image by Charles-Henry Bédué

Our long form report from last month examined the wide-ranging contradictions inherited by the modern feminist movement and the impact of navigating conflicting feminine ideals on women’s professional and personal options in the realm of politics, fashion and the workplace. Echoing many of the ideas explored therein, this last week has seen a flurry of articles in the news about workplace dress codes and the physical and philosophical implications of wearing high heels after a London-based temp worker’s unfortunate experience at a corporate finance company came to light.

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Aspiring actress Nicola Thorp was placed by a temp agency at accountancy firm PwC in December, but never made it past her first day as a receptionist after being told that two- to four-inch heels were requisite. According to Thorp, the job required her to escort clients to their meeting rooms and generally staying on her feet over an active nine-hour work day. When she protested on the basis of discrimination and refused to go out and buy a new pair of shoes, she alleged, she was sent home without pay.

Thorp has since begun campaigning for a new law to regulate workplace dress codes and prevent such rules from being enforced where flat or low-heeled shoes should not only suffice but increase the basic comfort of employees. Her petition to this end has garnered over 100,000 signatures thus far and other women have been coming forward with their own similar stories. One of the most recent came from Nicola Gavins who shared the experience of her friend, a waitress in Edmonton, Canada, whose bloodied feet can be seen in a widely shared photograph with accompanying commentary on the restaurant’s restrictive footwear policies.

 


These cases provide a perfect complement to one like Debrahlee Lorenzana’s, in which she testified that her superiors gave her numerous instructions on how to dress; unlike Thorp and the anonymous waitress, she was told to avoid high heels and other professional attire like pencil skirts and turtlenecks as they made her look ‘too distracting.’ The situation ended in Lorenzana suing the company for unfair dismissal. From Business Insider: “When she looked too hot, they told her to dress down. But when she responded by not wearing makeup, they told her she looked ‘sickly’ and when she left her hair curly instead of straightening it, they told her she should go ahead and straighten it every day.”

The companies here are, of course, in part to blame for promoting and enforcing such rules, but these instances also fit into a larger problem with the expectations held in many professional environments that women toe an exceptionally delicate line between attractive and appropriate. “I don’t hold anything against the company necessarily, because they are acting within their rights as employers to have a formal dress code, and, as it stands, part of that for a woman is to wear high heels,” Thorp said. “I think dress codes should reflect society and nowadays women can be smart and wear flat shoes.”

Pressure should be applied in equal measure to the fashion industry, for its role in promoting a certain ‘sexy and empowered’ look that, whether on the runway or in an office, almost always places its fashionistas and high-powered executive women in heels. It is no secret that women’s self-perception plays into these fashion choices often as much as explicit company rules.

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From 'What to Wear to Work: Timeless Suits for Women' for WardrobeLooks.com

As nineteensixtyeight photographer Justin Bartels strove to point out with his series Impression, women internalize notions of what ‘looks good’ and will tolerate surprising levels of discomfort to adhere to these perceived standards. From an interview last year in the Huffington Post:

“Through my dating experiences I started becoming aware of fashion trends that women would often verbally complain about. After seeing these articles come off and the physical and visual proof of how uncomfortable these garments were, I was very perplexed as to why a women would put themselves through such torture.

I would pose the question as to why they wore uncomfortable apparel and shoes when there were other more comfortable options out there. The responses I received typically came in the form of, ‘I want to look this way’, or ‘this is how women dress’, to ‘I feel good when I look good.'”

Bartels continued, “I also hoped that women would question what they wear, and why they wear it. Women shouldn’t wear clothes because of what society dictates, they should wear clothes that make them feel good physically and emotionally. I certainly hope that society will perceive these photos as a voice of the consumer asking the fashion industry to change its ways.”

Jenni Avins, writing for Quartz, makes a final point worth acknowledging, which brings the discussion away from becoming overly gendered — it is not just professional dress codes for women that are outdated, she points out, but unspoken codes for men as well. Being forced to wear a full suit and tie on the hottest days of the year is also a far cry from comfortable or even tolerable. She asks:


“Isn’t it about time to do away with gender-specific dress codes? Maybe this kerfluffle can help catalyze a professional culture where requirements are a little more fluid—and relevant.”

 

Interestingly, both the Avins and Thorp refer to this idea of bringing things into the present day, making dress codes “relevant” to “reflect society” as it is, when it might be argued that the very need for these sorts of battles and discussions suggests that in fact our society and certainly our professional—particularly corporate—culture is not at the point we presumed it was. So as important regulatory strides are made as a result of these highly publicized incidents, we must bear in mind that changing a rule or even a law will not change the structure and culture that encouraged it in the first place, nor will it eliminate the unregulated pressures that come from within.

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