Dress codes under fire as heels row blows up

Foot fault: On average, it takes one hour and six minutes for high heels to begin causing pain.

A receptionist was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels this week, prompting an angry response. As Britons dress more casually, should we lose the rules that guide our attire?

When Nicola Thorp got to work this week, she had a pair of flat black shoes with her. The agency employing her asked her to go out and buy shoes with two to four inch heels.

‘I refused on principle,’ she says. The agency sent her home without pay.

Thorp has now launched a petition calling for dress codes requiring women to wear high heels to be made illegal. By yesterday, it had gained over 100,000 signatures, meaning Parliament will now consider whether to debate it.

‘Nowadays women can be smart and formal and wear flat shoes,’ says Thorp.

But British people are increasingly unwilling to dress smartly at work. A survey in 2014 found that 34% of professionals dressed casually; 72% said a ‘smart casual’ look was acceptable in their job. Industries such as technology and the media were particularly relaxed.

The culture in banks, estate agents and legal firms is more formal. In 2011, Swiss investment bank UBS released a 44-page dress code for their employees. ‘If you’re interacting with clients or the media, you need to create an impression of being impeccable,’ says one former senior banker.

For millennia, clothes only existed to keep people warm. Humans are thought to have worn clothes for around 170,000 years, but eyed needles and dyed flax fibres — which allowed complex clothes to be developed — have only existed for about 40,000 years.

Clothes have subsequently acted as symbols of power, status and sex. In ancient Rome garments formally indicated social class and political importance. In the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England passed a series of laws requiring people to dress according to their social rank.

Now, UK employers may dismiss staff who fail to observe ‘reasonable’ dress codes. Some British school uniforms are nearly 500 years old. And informal dress codes exist all around us — attendees at rock concerts wear very different clothes to wedding guests.

Do we need these rules?

Dress to impress

Yes, some say, because: (i) They require everyone to dress similarly, removing social differences; (ii) They free us from choosing our clothes — allowing us to focus on more important things; (iii) Dressing as others do demonstrates a willingness to fit into a community or economic role — and uniforms can be informative, for example if you are a police officer.

No, respond others, because: (i) They exacerbate inequality — compare, for example, a Savile Row suit with a builder’s outfit; (ii) We should be free to express ourselves and trust each other to dress sensibly, rather than imposing rules; (iii) Dress codes can be unhealthy and reinforce unrealistic social expectations, particularly for women.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with rules over how to dress?
  2. Which is more important: the ability to express ourselves, or the willingness to fit into a community?

Activities

  1. You have become a successful business figure and you now own your own company. Write a dress code for employees and explain what you hope it will achieve. Consider what the company does as you write your policy.
  2. Think of an industry you would like to work in. Contact someone who works in it already and ask them what they wear to work and why. Return to your class and share your findings.

Some People Say...

“The clothes we choose are a statement of our values.”

What do you think?

Q & A

One woman got sent home from work. Why is this even a story?
Nicola Thorp’s story has gained media attention for several reasons. The agency she worked for applied a double standard between male and female employees; you may experience or witness this when you go to work. It has also made people ask how companies should bring people together and build a team spirit — should you ask staff to dress a certain way, or allow them to be themselves?
Is dressing up for work a bit like dressing up for school?
There are parallels: the way you dress in a formal environment now will help to teach you how to do so in years to come. But adolescence is a period of growing up and searching for your own identity — meaning teenagers usually need to be given more structure than adults.

Word Watch

Agency
Outsourcing company Portico have now changed their dress code. Thorp was due to do a temporary job at a multinational consultancy firm in London.
Survey
A retail firm polled 1,000 professionals on dress at work.
44-page
The code told men how to tie ties and women how to apply make-up. It advised employees to trim and file their toenails and asked women to wear skin-coloured underwear.
Banker
Chris Roebuck, formerly the global head of leadership at UBS.
Dyed flax fibres
Threads which humans wove together and coloured, using dyes from plants. The oldest are thought to be 36,000 years old.
Social class
Only Roman citizens could wear a toga, on which a broad purple stripe indicated important political office; the width of the stripe on the tunic indicated membership of the upper (’equestrian’) class, or of the senate.
Reasonable
Dress codes may outline different expectations of men and women, but they must be held to an ‘equivalent level of smartness’.
500
Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex says its uniform is the oldest still in existence — it was first used in 1552.

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