For a few years now office dress codes have noticeably relaxed, leaving behind requirements of three-piece suits for men and conservative tailoring for women. This is certainly true for industries like tech and creative fields, where individuality and comfort are valued more highly than adherence to arbitrary rules about clothes. Does this mean that people, and specifically women, are no longer being told what to wear to work? Not exactly.
Men’s dress codes have always followed a predictable pattern involving suits and dress shoes. For women, the situation has been a little bit murkier. A lot of administrative and ‘front of house’ roles tend to be filled by women and those jobs still typically come with restrictive dress codes. A few years ago, Nicola Thorp was sent home from her job as a receptionist because she arrived wearing flat shoes – this style choice was deemed ‘unprofessional’, with the company requiring its female receptionists to wear heels. Thorp said she chose to wear flats as her job involves a fair bit of walking and doing so in heels just wouldn’t be comfortable. Her employer didn’t agree and so she was sent home without pay.
What Thorp’s story exposes is that appearances in the workplace, based on outdated ideas around professional attire, are worth more than employee comfort. The service industry is particularly guilty of this sin, often providing uniforms for their female employees that don’t have the option of trousers or flat shoes, causing women discomfort and even pain. After all, no one really thinks that wearing heels for eight hours a day can ever be truly comfortable.
Bonmarche looked into dress code restrictions by surveying 1000 women; they uncovered that 13% were told that they’re not allowed to wear trousers to work, with the figure rising to 37% in London. That’s quite shocking to hear in the year 2019 but the fact is that women’s clothes are still subject to closer scrutiny at work with many workplaces deciding that style is more important than comfort. To learn more about Bonmarche’s findings, click here.
Wardrobe is not the only thing employers dictate when it comes to women’s appearance at work. Many companies have strict guidelines when it comes to grooming, including rules on make-up, hair, and nails. Not wearing make-up typically constitutes and unprofessional appearance, especially in the customer and client facing roles. When interviewed about her experiences Thorp also highlighted how the demand for women to wear make-up at work, something she often experienced, had nothing to do with women appearing professional and a lot with them appearing attractive. There were no guidelines asking men to cover up dark circles or to add a healthy glow to their skin in order to appear professional to clients.
Thankfully, things are changing and pretty fast too. Companies that once didn’t even entertain the idea of casual Fridays, like Price Waterhouse Cooper and JP Morgan, are now willingly overhauling their dress codes to business casual in order to improve company culture and attract top talent. It’s likely to positively affect the bottom line too as a study found that 61% of employees are more productive when dress codes are relaxed. That’s a win/win for employees and employers alike.