The Problem With Gendered Dress Codes

The rules of looking professional are deliberately different for women, but why?

Was anyone truly surprised by last week’s news that NFL cheerleaders are subjected to draconian contracts with their employers? Unlikely, but it was certainly revealing—and infuriating, especially when it comes to the standards imposed on their weight and the rules governing their appearance outside the workplace. Some teams don’t allow their cheerleaders to wear sweatpants in public, while others have intrusive rules about hygiene. Extreme? Of course. Out of touch in the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo? Absolutely. But this is nothing new—women have long been required to meet outlined sartorial and physical expectations as part of their jobs.

Usually dress codes are not as restrictive or intense as those imposed on the NFL cheerleaders. The strict rules are reminiscent of what airline hostesses dealt with in the 1960s (when airlines could dictate specific age and weight restrictions, as well as the family lives of their employees). But there are still gendered rules that most women encounter daily—and that says quite a bit about how we think of women in the workplace.

Fashion is a reflection of our social values, and gendered dressing is a reflection of what society has come to deem acceptable, respectable, and appropriate behavior—sartorial and otherwise—for men and women. Dress codes act to both inform and enforce the standards of any given institution. And while their goal is seemingly benign (to create a sense of professionalism) we need to consider how deeply gendered they often are.

Some dress expectations seem superficial. The pomp and pageantry of social dress codes like black tie attire have “rules” that are so outdated that it seems almost irrelevant to mention them. That is, of course, until the “rules” are enforced by an institution, like when the Cannes Film Festival famously tried to ban flat shoes for women on the red carpet as a way of maintaining formality. And while the Cannes Film Festival seems like a swanky party from the outside, actresses, directors, and other film industry professionals attend it to promote their work, thus making it a workplace.

Heels are complicated. They’re seen as frivolous and impractical, but they’re also considered an integral part of a woman’s “put-together” wardrobe. Sure, most women will never have to deal with the Cannes red carpet, but they might still encounter rules of dress that require them to wear unreasonable shoes. This was brought to light last year when British receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home from her job for refusing to wear high heels. Thorp launched a petition to change legislation about gendered dress codes in the UK, but the government rejected the proposal, with The Telegraph explaining “employers can continue to insist that female employees wear heels, providing it is considered a job requirement and men are made to dress to an ‘equivalent level of smartnes.’” But is it really equal if they are deliberately different?

This is not the only case of gendered workplace dress codes being taken to court. In 2000, Darlene Jespersen was fired from her bartender position at a Reno casino when her employers adopted a new policy on grooming—one that required its female employees to wear makeup. The casino owners argued that they were imposing equal grooming standards on men, who were asked to keep their hair and nails short and otherwise appear neat. Aside from pointing out the obvious—that they are in absolutely no way the same thing, not even close—Jespersen argued that these rules forced employees to conform to gender stereotypes. In a way, these workplace dress codes are also enforcing a gender binary.

During the case’s second appearance in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Las Vegas Sun reported the casino’s lawyer argued that the makeup policy was to “create a professional image.” Highlighting the absurdity of that statement, the judge then pointed out that the casino’s position was essentially that women can only be professionals if they wear makeup. That biting summery reads as a mic drop moment, until one takes a step back an realizes that not only do the casino owners actually think this way, but so do most employers. In fact, to a certain degree, we all believe this, until we’re asked to question it. And that’s where this becomes a tough to solve. Where does one start when the problem is cyclical? We are socially conditioned to believe that women should wear makeup and high heels to appear presentable. Thus, they wind up in our workplace dress codes, making women in the workforce conform to a certain ideal, which winds up further enforcing our ideas of what a professional woman looks like.

Between makeup and shoes, it is clear that women are constantly being asked to put effort into being “pretty.” Furthermore, the aspects of what we consider appropriate for women at work often appeals to the male gaze. And while some may be quick to say that the fashion industry is to blame for creating standards for women, workplace dress codes are arguably one of the few spheres in which the “rules” of dressing are not set by fashion designers or editors, because:

  1. Anyone who has paid attention to magazines or the runway for the past three decades knows that unisex or androgynous ways of dressing have long been championed by the industry and are more than appropriate for the workplace. At the very, veryleast, one can easily find sophisticated flat shoes for women, should they want to.
  2. Fashion rules aren’t real. Despite what the industry would like to believe, it does not dictate what people wear, society does. Women can flout fashion. They can opt to go against it. They cannotflout a workplace dress code set by an employer whose right to do so is supported by the government.

Fashion and clothing are integral parts of social communication, expressing everything from who we are to what we do to varying degrees of respect for any given situation. It helps to have indicators and guidelines, much like we would in regards to etiquette, manners, or other forms of behavioral conduct. But they should be examined for the way they impose gendered behavior on people that has no bearing on completing their job. No, makeup is not a bad thing. High heels are not a bad thing. Dress codes are not even a bad thing—but they are complicated and they should be scrutinized. If we’re ever going to fix this, we need to begin to examine the role fashion actually plays in our view of the world, of society, and of what is “proper”—it’s not “just” fashion if there are real consequences to what you wear.

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