'Why should I have to work on stilts?': the women fighting sexist dress codes

Sirin Kale
Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

It was at the beginning of a shift at Harrods that Georgia Brown told her manager where to go. Brown, then aged 22, was working for a temp agency that supplied shop assistants to the department store. She cannot remember the name of the manager. But she does remember why she lost her cool: she had had enough of being forced to wear heels on the job.

“Not just a mini-heel, but proper black stilettos. Bear in mind, you’re on your feet in Harrods all day – you can’t sit down,” says Brown. When she arrived at work, there was a mandatory uniform check, after which she would slip into flat shoes. This time, she got caught. “I said: ‘My feet hurt; who are you to tell me I have to work on stilts?’,” says Brown.

After Brown’s outburst, Harrods notified her agency, and she was fired.

This all happened 10 years ago – and Harrods says that Brown’s experience does not represent the situation for workers now. The store’s current policy is that staff adhere to high standards of personal grooming and “dress appropriately for their day. This means that they are empowered to express their personal style, and are very much trusted to represent our brand to the highest of standards.”

Still, Brown’s situation will be all too familiar to many women. In May, a row erupted after British Airways flight attendants were warned not to wear bras in certain colours or shapes under their blouses. “It’s a bit extreme, saying you must wear a white bra under a white shirt,” says Claire Simpson of Unite, the union that represents most cabin crew, who is herself a former flight attendant.

Whether or not you agree with Mary Beard’s statement to shoe designer Manolo Blahnik this week that high heels are a “symbol of women’s oppression”, the fact remains that if men do not have to wear them, nor should women. Bunion-inducing stilettos, skirts so tight you are forced to walk with a coquettish wriggle, or gossamer-thin blouses in fiercely air-conditioned offices: women are often the victims of workplace dress codes, whether or not they wear uniforms.

But as women’s workwear increasingly becomes a more public battleground in the fight for equality, this may change. Simpson is pleased that Virgin Atlantic now gives female crew the choice of trousers or a skirt and they no longer have to wear makeup. She points out, though, that while airlines are increasingly allowing women to wear flat shoes, progress is slow.

It is not illegal for employers to impose dress codes on women alone. “We haven’t yet got to the position where you can say: ‘Having high heels in a dress code is unlawful,’” says the barrister Harini Iyengar, who specialises in employment and discrimination law. This issue was brought to the fore by the receptionist-turned-Coronation Street actor Nicola Thorp – arguably the champion of the new workwear movement. She made headlines in 2016 after being sent home from her agency job at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear heels. A petition calling for the mandatory wearing of high heels to be made illegal received more than 152,000 signatures, and prompted a parliamentary inquiry into workplace dress codes. It concluded that further work was needed to strengthen the Equality Act 2010 and protect workers from discrimination, including increased financial penalties for employers that break the law.

The problem, says Iyengar, is that it is hard to prove that being forced to wear high heels is discriminatory on the basis of sex – unless it is in a job that requires heavy lifting. “In a workplace where it’s the norm and all your colleagues are wearing heels – aside from the heavy-lifting example – it’s much harder for somebody without a medical certificate to say to an employer: ‘High heels are bad in general.’” The same applies for being made to wear makeup or skirts at work: unless you can show it is contrary to your gender identity or sexual orientation, there is not much you can do.

Whatever the law may say, though, women are increasingly refusing to put up and shut up. In Japan, the #KuToo movement has called on the government to ban employers from forcing women to wear heels. Employers are also seeing it as simply good PR to keep up with the times. “In recent years, there has been a relaxation in the uniform codes as far as hair and makeup are concerned,” says Simpson. “It’s about choice – and modern values being reflected in the uniform standard.”

Obviously, our wardrobes reflect the changing status of women in society. The fashion historian Deirdre Clemente says that, as women become more emancipated: “They push the boundaries of prescribed work-environment clothing.” The compulsory wearing of tights, she says, changed in the 1990s: “Women wanted bare legs.” Especially in the summer. Throughout the decade, dress codes were steadily relaxed, as casualwear brands such as Gap redefined corporate attire. “We started to see things like trouser suits, more casual dresses, maybe trousers and a matching sweater,” says Clemente.

If in the 80s, women wore power suits to project an image of masculine strength – the women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred wore hers in red for the first 25 years of her career – as today’s women feel more settled in the workplace, they adopt a relaxed, athleisure-inspired silhouette. “Women are wanting to wear tank tops to work now, or yoga pants to a meeting,” says Clemente.

But, she says, a double standard still persists: “Women are held to such a different public standard in their appearance to men. That will not change until there’s full equality.” Even the most slovenly man is generally considered OK, provided he wears a suit and tie and remembers to shave. But, for women, corporate dressing is often full of obligations that may not be set out in formal dress codes.

It took more than a decade before Iyengar felt comfortable wearing flat shoes to work. “Definitely at the beginning of my career, when I struggled to fit in, I wouldn’t have dared not to wear heels. I regret that I went along with it when I was younger, but it’s difficult to swim against the tide,” she says.

Women of colour are disproportionately policed when it comes to complying with written or unwritten dress codes. When Tara Williams worked as a lawyer in Philadelphia from 2010, she usually spent Sunday nights frowning at her wardrobe, trying to figure out which outfit would not get her into trouble the next day at work. Williams used to wear J Crew suits in black, navy pinstripe, charcoal tweed, light grey, and navy cotton, but she kept being told by her superiors that her outfits were brash or unprofessional. “There was this constant belittling and implication that I was not playing by the norms.”

The problem seemed to be the colour of the shirts she was wearing. “If I wore anything other than a light blue shirt, like a white or a red, I would receive these comments,” Williams remembers. “They’d say: ‘Oh, that’s loud.’” Once, when she wore a berry-coloured coat, she was ridiculed by a senior associate, who told her she looked “like Mrs Claus”. When she was being chastised, Williams would often look around the office and see another woman wearing the same J Crew outfit. “When you’re a brown person, particularly if you have dark skin, you’re seen as over-the-top when you reach outside of grey or black.”

Her experience is not uncommon. Dr Janet Ainsworth, a professor of law at Seattle University, says: “White employees do not have their hairstyles policed in any way, but employees of African ancestry are told they can’t wear braids or Afros.” Ainsworth wrote a 2013 paper that looked at 73 cases in which employees were sacked for dress-code violations. Her conclusion was disturbing. “[Employers wanted] women to look ultra-feminine, wear makeup, feminine-looking clothing and so forth. And African-ancestry women should look as white as possible.”

Some women get ahead by rejecting the double standard entirely. One medical researcher tells me that when she started wearing jeans and T-shirts to work, people stopped asking her to make coffee in meetings, because only a scientist would dress so casually. (This approach is backed up by a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research into the so-called “red-sneaker effect”, which found that employees who deviate from standard dress codes are perceived more favourably by their peers.) Kate Rosh Bertash, 32, who works in cybersecurity and lives in LA, has revolutionised her wardrobe with the help of the eight identical black wrap dresses that she has worn daily since January 2017. Part of Bertash’s motivation for adopting a uniform was her struggles to find work-appropriate clothing as a plus-sized woman. “Things would pull and gap in strange places.” It is also more environmentally friendly.

But wearing the same dress is about more than just convenience or sustainability. It is a feminist act. Bertash says: “There’s this stress that women put ourselves under to either be noticeable, or novel, or fashionable, and look like we’re always trying, whereas men wear the same thing pretty much every day … I think most of us have parts of that process and the trappings of femininity and professionalism that we don’t like, and don’t bring us happiness, and suck up a lot of time.” She still dresses up for special occasions – she recently wore a blue evening gown to a wedding – but not having to think about her wardrobe on a daily basis is freeing. “I expend a lot of creative energy on my work. It’s nice not to have to expend it on my clothing.” Her advice to anyone thinking of doing the same thing? Make sure the outfit has pockets. “That in itself is very life-changing.”

Why does it matter what women wear in the workplace? Because what we wear matters. Women chafe against sexist dress codes for the same reason we protest against the rolling-back of abortion rights; because, like regulation polyester blouses, they make us itch. “Don’t tell me how I should control my body, or how I should present myself. That’s my personal choice,” Clemente says. The pushback is particularly pronounced right now, because we’re living in increasingly feminist times. “It’s a big culmination of all of those years where women didn’t have a voice to say: ‘I’m not wearing this outfit’, and they silently either had to suffer, or band together a little bit and say: ‘We’re not wearing pantyhose.”’

Williams ended up transferring to a different office after the negative comments got too much. She gave the berry-pink coat to charity, but now she wears all the colour she wants. “I have a dress in the exact same colour, and I’m very proud of it,” she laughs. “So that’s the replacement.”