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What it means to ‘dress like a woman’

Feature 28.02.17

Words Simone Konu Photography Sosa Osayande

Dress codes are engrained into our societal structure, and are a way of understanding a society, as well as our place within it, through clothing.  But recently guidelines on what women should wear in the workplace have become a source of political debate. Donald Trump’s recent White House dress code reportedly required female employees to dress like women when at work. So what does that mean? And do the current ideas of gendered dress have a place in the modern workplace?

Women have fought hard to earn an equal place amongst men in the workplace since they entered the workforce during with the Industrial Revolution. But given it’s 2017, there are still instances where dress codes have a gender bias, halting progress for women at work. Female employees may be required to wear heels, wear skirts, and make up as part of their office dress code, whereas male employees don’t have to abide by such rules.  We are obsessed with what women are wearing rather than what they are doing, and at some point this has to change.

The bias is ingrained within a lot of these dress codes as they are often written and shaped by men, without consultation or understanding of the opposite gender. A good example of this bias is the case of Nicola Thorpe, who was dismissed from work without pay in 2016 for refusal to adhere to her employers dress code policy of wearing heels of a minimum height of 2-4 inches. When she asked if her male colleagues had to adhere to this rule she was laughed at. But it’s no laughing matter to be on your feet all day with 4inch heels. Regardless of gender. And if we don’t expect men to do this, why should we impose this on women?  Her response was to create a government petition, signed by over 150,000 people to change the way the law surrounding dress codes are implemented and enforced. There is also the case of Cannes Film Festival in 2015 famously refusing entry to woman wearing flat shoes, including the actor Emily Blunt, stating they had a strict dress policy that needed to be adhered to.  I would have liked to have seen the male actors and film directors tottering around in a pair of Louboutin’s.

It is still legal in the UK for an employer to ask female employees to wear heels at work, and discriminatory dress codes remain an issue, which will be debated in the House of Commons in March 2017. Furthermore gender-based dress codes can also promote a working environment in which women are routinely objectified, and could be subjected to unwanted sexual attention, or sexual harassment.  The sexualisation of women in the work place is just unnecessary.  We are ultimately here to do a job, not to be looked at by male members of staff.

So what does it mean to ‘look like a woman’ – Twitter and Instagram responded to Trump’s statement with thousands of posts of women, wearing clothes doing their jobs using the hashtag #dresslikeawoman. From military officers to teachers, mothers, doctors, engineers and beyond, we should be proud that women are occupying a variety of jobs, not being limited by a dress code.  Within the creative industries there is less separation from work self and non work self; clothing needs to be multifunctional to fit with the demands of the modern working women. If clothing helps us to communicate a message then we as women should be allowed to dress in what makes us feel comfortable, smart, and does not impede the job in hand.  And so we enter the next shift in workplace dress codes where we as women can redefine how we are viewed.  If Trump is allowed to conduct presidential meetings in his pyjamas, wear baseball caps with suits then how can he impose a restrictive dress code on women?  

Words Simone Konu Photography Sosa Osayande
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