Office Work It
Dress codes (the set of ‘rules’ that govern what we wear in specific situations) are present in every facet of our daily lives, whether explicitly stated or inherently assumed. For this article, there’s only one dress code I want to talk about: what you wear at work.
The working ‘uniform’ is ubiquitous to a huge number of professions, despite the possibility that many of us associate it first and foremost with the service industries. By service industries, I don’t mean simply McDonald’s workers, Tesco employees or the like; service means serving you (the consumer) through labour. Retail fashion workers are a prime example, where the ‘uniform’ may not be a classic sweatshirt-and-trousers combo, but rather items picked solely from the collection of garments that the shop provides – living mannequins, in a sense. But this is getting way ahead of myself; let’s go back a bit.
Wearing a uniform, as so many sixth form debates have pointed out, has both positive and negative effects on the individual and the group in any given institution. School uniform has the apparent benefit of making everyone equal (at least, visually) while at the same time ensuring creative idiosyncratic fashion choices are made in the smallest details; how many buttons are done up, how the tie is tied, what badges you wear and the jewellery you sneak in. Even in a photo that has been posed for this Guardian piece, the same uniform turns up in many different styles. So what about the uniform at work? I’ve worked in enough poorly-paid retail jobs to realise what the proposed function of a uniform is, and what actually happens when you wear it.
Just like at school, a uniform is meant to show that all the wearers are equal – visually. For the consumer, workers are identified by what they are wearing; many a time I have been asked in various shops where the changing rooms are, because my particular garb is close enough to the ‘uniform’ of a retail fashion worker to confuse the consumer (although mostly this happens in charity shops. I’m down with that). Workers are set apart from consumers and grouped together as labour through their uniform.
However, looking the same and being the same are (duh) different. My manager and I wear the same uniform: shirt, trousers, and name badge – but are we the same? No. She’s the manager; she’s my boss. Confusing messages of similarity (and potential solidarity?) and hidden hierarchies abound with the working uniform, especially in retail sectors where more than one hierarchy is on the ‘working floor’. You might be able to argue that those industries in which workers are physically grouped by hierarchy – like the factory floor, where the manager is not as physically ‘present’ as on the shop floor – are able to recognise the uniform’s messages of similarity and solidarity more effectively than those where workers of disparate hierarchies are bundled in together.
From Bobby Pin, these are 1950s beauty salon uniforms:
As well as hierarchy being hidden (but strangely elaborated too, I suppose, by its hiddenness), gender too, is at least under an attempted disguise through the wearing of uniforms. Gone are the days of Mad Men, where women wore skirts and men wore trousers – now we all have to wear trousers, and horrible polo shirts too. An apparently gender-neutral uniform is provided in a number of sectors (mine was previously white shirt and black trousers – or skirt) that never really successfully disguises gender to the consumer in the same way that it conceals hierarchy to some extent. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work, especially if the size is designed for someone who doesn’t have breasts.
And that, my friends, neatly brings me onto those workplaces where you don’t have a uniform. Or, at least, they don’t tell you that you have a uniform. Explicitly, the dress code might be not much more than ‘no shorts or clogs’, but implicitly, the dress code will be bending and morphing round the individuals who are adhering to and working against it. This dress code will tie in gender and authority hierarchies, as illustrated by the business suit and its female equivalent.
From my employment experience (and others who have agreed with me), men wear business suits, but women do not wear business suits, despite this (again) apparently gender-neutral ‘uniform’ being available. A number of women working in offices might wear the female equivalent of the business suit (Next surely embodies this look), which more often than not includes a) skirt b) something frilly c) front-cover-flawless makeup. So it’s the business suit, plus a) traditional emblem of femininity b) annoying and impractical emblem of femininity c) emblem of femininity that is often perceived to be caused by heavy external pressures to look good at all times. The visual ‘uniform’ of the business suit is not gender-neutral, because it is adapted to become gender-specific; whether this is due to individual taste or workplace culture, I’m unsure, but it does inform the hierarchy of the office.The dress code in some offices (especially creative industries) is not always specified explicitly; you might not have to wear a suit, you could wear jeans whenever you please, and if you want to turn up dressed like Cyndi Lauper, by gum you can do. However, the adage of ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’ rings in my ears; you can do all those things, but will doing so damage employment opportunities because you haven’t adhered to the implicit dress code? Inter-departmental hierarchies are neatly displayed in adherence to or ignorance of the implicit dress code; if all the workers who were lower paid began to wear the business suits of those who are highest paid, would you be able to see a more democratic office?
Rather than looking at personal comments regarding taste that may be made about office workwear, my interest instead lies in how this implicit dress code dramatically affects the hierarchical makeup of a working environment, potentially without many of the individuals involved even being fully aware of how it is being shaped around them. If I arrive tomorrow at work with a ‘male’ business suit on, will I be taken more seriously? Or, as a woman, if I arrive in a simulated version of that ‘male’ business suit, will I be declined respect because I appear too much like one of the boys? Am I feminine enough for the office if I don’t wear flawless makeup – or any makeup? If I start dressing like the big boys, will they still know it’s me on the inside? I believe there is a definite question of sexuality and sexual preference here that comes into play with ‘levels’ of femininity in the workplace, although I don’t feel able to tackle this in great detail here (or just yet).
Workplace hierarchies are constituted through a vast number of factors, but the role of dress and dress codes is one that can’t be ignored. From traditional environments where gender and authority hierarchies may have been distinguished and designated by an explicit uniform placed upon the workers, contemporary working environments – especially those in the creative industries – now have to juggle with an implicit dress code that is created and defined by the workers themselves (across all hierarchies) in their clothing choices. Plus, there is the added element of workers’ perception of the importance of that dress code or, conversely, the desire to play with it and break some boundaries, in designating what you can, or can’t, wear to work.
- EB Snare is a full time writer who also writes freelance, makes and sells her own jewellery, drinks, smokes and listens almost exclusively to 80s electropop music. She completed her Masters in 2011, with a dissertation on fashion blogging as a contemporary labour form that included some sweet diagrams. Her blog, The Magic Square Foundation, covers fashion, culture and general life, or you can talk to her on Twitter: @ebsnare. And, yeah, we’ve snapped her up for Team BadRep too. Woo!