By now we’ve all heard about the London receptionist who, allegedly, was sent home from work at a major city firm after refusing to wear high heels. And whether your reaction has ranged from disgust, to disappointment, to plain exasperation at the ever persistent sexism within the workplace, I think we can all agree, if true, it was pretty ridiculous.
But, aside from the obvious feminist issues it highlighted (which you don’t need me spelling out for you), it raises a more general question: Is it time we re-asses dress codes?
Dress codes are put in place to define what is and what isn’t appropriate for an occasion or environment. They’re supposedly guidelines to help us decide what to wear, whilst ensuring we all uphold a certain aesthetic ‘standard’. The problem is, who’s to say how we can achieve said standard?
One person’s ‘business smart’ can be very different to someone else’s. Person A might believe you should only wear sombre black or navy, whilst person B prefers an exquisitely tailored bright orange suit. Is one right whilst the other is wrong?
Well according to lots of dress codes, yes. But that shouldn’t be the case.
"Many dress codes fail to reflect the diverse range of styles that exist today"
These days, many dress codes are far too restrictive, as they fail to reflect the diverse range of styles and attitudes that exist today in our society. Perhaps once it was easy to decree blanket bans such as “no open toed shoes” and “no tracksuits”, but now we have peep-toe pumps, and silk joggers, both of which can look extremely elegant.
Now I appreciate the need for some sort of guideline. Unfortunately there are too many examples of where dress codes have been abolished and the resulting freedom has been abused (coughdressdownfridaycough). But that doesn’t mean we should go to back to the conservative extreme.
Take the example of Royal Ascot. It is so specifically restrictive it fails to take into consideration the overall look of an outfit. Non-matching (both in terms of colour AND fabric) female trouser suits are banned – but you can’t tell me a gorgeous dusty pink tailored jacket paired with cream pressed trousers is informal?
And then there are the absurd cases. A few years ago, at a well-known club in London, a very well heeled woman was asked to leave when she broke the cardinal ‘no trousers’ rule for women because apparently trousers aren’t formal enough. She was wearing a £1000+ Armani suit.
Don't tell me these gorgeous monkstrap inspired flats aren't work appropriate!
So how do we ensure there’s a sensible balance?
Part of the problem is dress codes are essentially dictated by what a person or group deems to be tasteful. But taste is extremely subjective. A couple of years back I attended a talk on defining taste, with artist Grayson Perry as a guest. A series of photos where shown, and everyone was asked to vote on what was and wasn’t tasteful. We got to Cher’s infamous Oscar outfit and, unsurprisingly, the majority of the audience said it wasn’t tasteful. But Perry disagreed – he suggested it was in taste. Indeed, it was flamboyant, extravagant and Cher had clearly put in effort dressing up for the special occasion, whilst still remaining herself.
"Perhaps it's a question of effort"
So perhaps that’s how we should deem what is and isn’t appropriate: by effort. If someone has clearly put in the time to look pulled together by their own personal standards then maybe that is enough? After all, whenever I go to a party I always dress up as a sign of respect to the host. In a similar vein, as long as I show respect to my work by not turning up looking like I’ve just rolled out of bed and put on whatever was lying on the floor, then that’s ok?
But of course this still gives room to people taking it too far. If effort is a measure of what is appropriate, then by that logic the longer you take to get ready, whatever it is you put on, the better. Which is obviously not the case. You could turn up to work having spent hours having put your hair in rollers, mastering the perfect smokey eye, and wearing gigantic stripper heels that took you 5 hours just to walk down the stairs in.
"There are 2 main steps forward we should take"
It’s a tricky one to solve, and I think we’re never going to be able to abolish dress codes in their entirety. They’re a necessary measure to keep all our varying tastes and style preferences in check, and to reflect a required ‘mood’ or aesthetic. But there are 2 main steps forward we can, and should, take:
- Keep updating and reviewing dress codes to echo changing attitudes, fashion and styles, whilst also trying to ensure there is a diverse mix of people amongst those who decide upon the code to represent different views. After all, the flapper dress, trouser suits and oxford shoes were met with utter shock and horror by conservatives at the time, but now wouldn’t be out of place at black tie.
- Treat each ‘case’ that technically breaks the code with discretion. Yes it might open the floodgates, but it’s a far more rational alternative. Because an Armani suit? Really?!
What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear them in the comments below!