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Office Work It

2012 August 2

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.

Promo shots for McDonald's uniforms. Shared under Fair Use guidelines. Brown shirts ranging from a man in a suit with a brown tie to a checkout assistant's brown polo shirt to a female employee's blouse with scarf.

Amalgamating the shop worker, flight attendant and businessman, McDonald’s latest uniform incarnation is a far cry from Ronald McDonald’s red and yellow clown suit.

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:

Black and white advert from a 1950s magazine advertising beautician uniforms. It says 'Uniforms! Uniforms! Uniforms! From our fabulous full catalog!' and shows three women posing in very hyper-femme, high-waisted white dresses!

From a 1950s magazine, uniforms that couldn’t be any more ‘feminine’: accentuating waist, hips, drawing attention to face and hairstyle. For this author, they’re utterly beautiful. But then I am a total sucker for ‘the giant coachman collar’.

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.

Photo of business suit worn by a figure with the face cropped out. Large hands grip the edge of the jacket. Free image from 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.

Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s, with orange and yellow hair, blue eyeshadow, and many bead necklaces

I. Love. Her.

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!
8 Responses leave one →
  1. ladylugosi permalink
    August 2, 2012

    At big corporate companies where I’ve worked although there isn’t formally a uniform – in practice there is a very definite uniform – yet it could be covered by the description of suit,shirt,tie for men, skirt and blouse for women – except the higher up the hierarchy the more noticeably expensive the clothes became and the more noticeably better cut and more ‘serious’ in a way – no particularly bright colours or frills, and ostentation for the women was shown more in jewellery rather than clothing.

    It all heads back to tribal marking doesn’t it?

    I used to enjoy so called ‘dress down friday’ as I took that to mean ‘goth up friday’ and used to enjoy seeing just how far I could push it without taking it too far – pinstripe is a marvellous thing and can be subverted so well :-)

  2. August 2, 2012

    Nice piece and interesting points.

    I think my office falls into a third possible category: very laid-back clothing-wise, but the women who are doing best and getting ahead tend to also wear elaborately put together ‘concept outfits’ (e.g. ‘Vivienne Westwood cowgirl’), complete with plentiful heels, makeup and accessories. There’s an element of objective enjoyment of fashion here (we’re a ‘creative bunch’ and we want to show that we understand the creative sector), but I also occasionally wonder if there’s an element of coercian too – if I have an external meeting, I always make sure I’m wearing heels or a skirt or something quite pointedly ‘fashion’, whereas on fridays or days when I’m just bumming around the office doing admin I’ll often just wear jeans and a shirt, or something else that’s quite gender-neutral because it’s easy and comfortable. The guys in the office (although there aren’t that many of them, interestingly) can essentially do this every day with little variation in how smart they look – I once went to a meeting in Leicester with plimpsoles for the journey and massive heels whipped on only when I was just around the corner.

  3. Clare permalink
    August 2, 2012

    I think implicit dress codes are even more difficult to navigate in workplaces with a big gender disparity. I work in a massively male dominated field and the line between too dowdy and too slutty, where you get taken seriously, is in a very different place to an average workplace. I have worked in places where wearing any kind of skirt would have been considered provocative!
    There is an effective uniform of jeans and shirt/t-shirt for men, but I am still struggling to find an equivilent which works for me and is not too figure huging or revealing and is also not a sack.

  4. Clare permalink
    August 2, 2012

    I also meant to say that in a work place with very few other women, you have very few examples of acceptable ways to dress for work and you have to figure this all out on your own.

  5. August 9, 2012

    I work in events. I work in a place where there is a sort-of uniform. Basically we need to be visible as staff so we can serve guests. we have to obey a colour scheme rather than a uniform and its different for males and females. Basically, men wear ties and trousers, women wear a scarf type thing.

    My bosses are quite lenient about whether women wear dresses or trousers. It’s seen as a matter of choice about whether women want to wear flats or heels. Usually my bosses aren’t bothered if my colleagues wear a black dress instead of a white blouse, although some managers have pointed out if we don’t look consistent in our appearance (where the colour scheme comes in), guests won’t know we are all staff.

    One notable thing about where I work is that most people who come as guests are in their own work situation or environment (in conferences etc) and so I get to see what is their work attire. One universal is that women are expected to wear high heels, and invariably if I’m doing cloakroom duty, they are in a lot of pain and have a pair of flats to go home. I’m getting the impression that they feel there is a pressure on them to wear high heeled shoes, or to be seen wearing them. Working in corporate events does make me see the highly gendered nature of our clothing. The thing that I find insufferable about it is how tacit it is. At least with somewhere like UBS they are explicit about the gendered rules. I find something comforting in being explicit about appearance against talking about people’s appearances behind their back etc.

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