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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 12, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    Corporate dress codes are back in fashion – but so is rebelling against them

    Laura Slattery

    Are we back in the 1950s? Stories about female employees expected to conform to arduous standards of self-presentation are rattling around the news schedules like misplaced hairpins, betraying the perfect image – of the companies, that is, not the women themselves. Earlier this month, we heard the story of Melanie Stark, who worked in the HMV outlet in Harrods until it was made clear to her by the department store that her unmade face did not satisfy the store’s requirement for full make-up.

    This week, we have the case of Sandra Rawline, suing for discrimination after she was fired from a Texan firm allegedly for refusing to dye her grey hair to comply with its “upscale image”. The firm, Capital Title, flatly denies the claim. But if the allegation is true, then Capital Title’s concept of corporate presentation is not only discriminatory but also behind the curve. This is a month, after all, when Christine Lagarde has ascended to the position of head of the International Monetary Fund sporting a silvery crop that no right-seeing person could describe as anything other than a visual enhancement of her status.

    IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

    Corporate dress codes extend to men, too, of course, but – as with the much-mocked and now scrapped 44-page dress code of Swiss bank UBS – their instructions to women often seem to involve specifications that are either creepier (UBS told its female employees what colour underwear was acceptable), more time-consuming (The Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes calculated Harrods’ make-up instructions to female staff is a 45-minute job) or simply more expensive to follow (though admittedly UBS did tell male employees to get a professional in to iron their shirts).

    Reading feminist objections to Harrods, UBS et al is an exercise in déjà vu. It’s been over two decades since third wave feminists declared women could wear high heels, mascara and underwear-as-outerwear and still confidently call themselves good feminists – because it was campaigning for equal pay, fracturing the glass ceiling and securing the option to sidestep pension-free domestic slavery that counted, not how much you chose to embrace or rebel against the beauty industry.

    Assailed by years of what Ariel Levy dubbed raunch culture, postfeminists like Natasha Walter later revised their earlier positions and said, yes, there was something to fight against here too – women weren’t controlling their image, their image was controlling them. For if employers are going to treat female staff like they’re 1950s housewives who just happen to be on secondment to the workplace, then the old arguments of rebellion are going to have to be dragged out for a revival, too. Women like Stark, Rawline and the “slutwalk” protesters all, in different ways, want the same thing: the right to choose how they appear now, without having to give testimony later.

    • redframewhitelight says:

      All I know is Rebekah Brooks needs to get to a hairdressers, fast.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Suggested in a letter to Sir today (that likely won’t get printed) that our political financial legal and business classes might consider sackcloth and ashes as de rigeur. With a sum total of each day’s increasing debt millstone written on the front and on the back grovelling mea culpas. Won’t get printed though. May’s well say it here.

    • Mary says:

      Very good article! I enjoyed John’s comment above. Hilarious but true!

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Thanks for the good word Mary. I said a lot more but it was a lot ruder so as PRediCted Sir spiked it. At least I got it off my chest.

    • Spider J says:

      This is rather timely in light of the recent kerfuffle in the Dail about dress codes where it seems there is more concern that clothing shows disrespect to the institution of the Dail rather than admitting that a persons actual behaviour in office is a better way to measure their disrespect.

      As regards rules of dress for women, these are often longer than for men, but are not reflective of a desire to have more control over women. It is more to do with the fact that there is more choice and variety in women’s clothes and an acceptance that women are allowed express themselves visually. In fact the shorter dress codes for men offer far less freedom. Basically, Suit, Shirt, Tie.. short back and sides, clean shaven.. like it or lump it. Indeed in this regard Ireland’s corporate culture is one of the most backward and fearful of anything different. I can attest to the difficulty of finding a job when i had long hair and the polar opposite in responses i got with an awful homemade short haircut. Ability, work history, references, and education were irrelevant. So it seems the criteria for getting a good job in corporate ireland is your haircut rather than your ability to do the job, no wonder we are in such a mess. fingleton always looked dashing smart in his hat.

    • Apparatchic says:

      The politics of dressing…the power suit…women trying to look like men to gain authority… the masculinisation of Society…
      Irish people are not consistently voted the worse dressed for nothing…just as the opposite id true of the French…
      Personally I think we should dress appropriately for the occasion…and to maintain the dignity of the profession in which we work…
      When at home kick off your shoes change into the trackie bottoms or whatever and put you feet up…but the Dail is the seat of Government and the members should dress accordingly…
      If you cannot be bothered to look like you are fit for purpose then perhaps you aren’t…

    • Macker says:

      Seems like the backlash against ‘Piggygate’ has begun in the IT.

      Can any reader out there enlighten us what ‘third wave feminism’ is? The underwear as outerwear sounds fun.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      @6 as I said, the ‘dignity’ of Irish politics, finance, law, has been brought to such a pass that sackcloth ashes and potsherds are entirely commensurate with it. End of. The Emperor’s wardrobe malfunction apparent to the most purblind adult here. Here in Omelas.

    • Noreen says:

      The underwear is only the start of it with UBS, they issued 44 pages of guidance to staff telling women how to maintain their hair, what makeup was acceptable and giving guidance on everything from perfume to nail-varnish to stockings to when to open and close their jackets.

      But my personal favourite was the guidance to men. They were told they were not to wash or even iron their shirts themselves.

    • peter barrins says:

      Based on my experience, having working in a number of ‘big name’ organisations, certain women go to town on dress and presentation to the point where they are perceived as being the most trendy girls in the class! In certain companies, particularly large accountacy and consultancy firms, the younger women are almost like clones – tallish, thin, beautifully dressed and fragrant! Surely it is women themselves that are the cause of such dress codes and rules? Then again I have worked in places where some of the women have dressed very badly going to work, made absolutely no effort at all, and I guess that is not appropriate either.

      Regarding men, it is more straighforward, thanks, primarily, to the suit. But all suits are not equally and some examples are so shoddy and worn, that decent business casual would be preferable. Personally, the one item of clothing I detest and resent having to wear, it the tie. It is a singularly ridiculous piece of attire – restrictive, uncomfortable and pointless. Startched shirts are a thing of the past, yet the neck tie remains!

      In places I have worked where there is a business casual code it has been abused and directives have invariably had to be issued at regular intervals reminding people what ‘business casual’ implies – no sports wear, sleevless tops, trainers, torn/rough demin – but that still leaves quite a lot of inappropriate options!!

    • peter barrins says:

      Christine Lagarde, like most French women, is effortlessly stylish. Unfortunately a corporate dress code requesting that people dress stylishly would be quite pointless!

    • Apparatchic says:

      Continental Europeans definitely have the edge when it comes to chic…the French are uber-chic (!) as it were..! Style is not the reserve of the well off…kids youths students and home makers/workers all have it in spades…even when they dress down they look stylish…the essence is simplicity…simple lines and a reduced palettte less is more…usually accompanied by a great haircut…and fantastic accessories…
      Je ne sais quoi…It’s timeless…
      You can’t buy it you’ve either got it or you ain’t…minimum fuss maximum impact…
      As far as work is concerned women should dress appropriately look business like i.e. not like some flower trying to attract attention…
      I know I look good when men notice at me I know I look really good when women do…
      The Irish god help them never quite get it…the ‘style’ on show at the Presidential dinner for Eilis a do was just awful…think I’ll leave it at that….

    • D de Burca says:

      I suggest that the solution to this problem is to be found in the ethnic dress of recent immigrants…the FULL burca…we would would then not be affronted either by the appearance or the apparel of politicians…and they could get on with what they were elected to do instead of bitching about what people are wearing…
      Whilst I think the off mic/k comments were a bit off and have rebounded on the bounders…Ms MMO’C might want to consider whether her choice of workwear is more appropriate for the Dail or a day out at a garden party…just sayin’ like…

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Next thing you’ll see the Satraps bringing in sumptuary laws maybe, to force those pinkos to change their ways. Heh. Haven’t they little to worry them, with their big fat Dail salaries and pinsions and perks. Well they can afford the best of Louis Copeland and M’sieu Charvet. Having robbed the shirt off my back sure why wouldn’t they?
      Let me say it again. I have ZERO respect for your political class. Every time I see a Ministerial Merc purr by it gets the two fingers from me. Screw them and their whinging. Good luck to Ming and Mick and Mr Boyd Barrett not to mention Mr Adams. They should come in dressed as ringmasters. Most appropriate dress of all for that circus with all the clowns and big baeshts.

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