Saturday, 4 February 2017

Killer heels?

Picture by Sandi Rhys Jones

‘Dress like a woman’ is the latest dictat emanating from the White House to female staff, triggering witty and withering responses from women who are posting photographs of themselves appropriately clothed to fly helicopters, perform autopsies, command ships, fight fires, administer communion, race cars, and so on. In other words, jobs where the Ivanka Trump workwear range of high heels and figure hugging sheath dresses might pose a clear and present danger to the wearers and their customers.

But whilst President Donald Trump may currently be the most prominent – and deserving – misogynist target for feminine ire, he is not alone in demanding stereotypical dress wear for women at work. Only last week the UK Government published its report High heels and workplace dress codes: urgent action needed. The report condemns the frequent flouting of existing law against discriminatory dress codes and calls for a new framework and increased penalties for employers who breach it.

Triggered by a petition started by a woman sent home without pay when she arrived for work in flat shoes rather than the high heels stipulated by the employment agency, the two committees set up to investigate were inundated with examples of workplace discrimination, including demands that women wear high heels, revealing outfits and heavy make-up.

Picture courtesy of Rebecca Alleyne

Rebecca Alleyne MD tweeted this picture, saying "That's me on the left wearing my favorite outfit ‪#DressLikeAWoman."

The #dresslikeawoman furore has set me thinking back many years, to the day I arrived at the City offices of my first job in London and was issued with a full length overall, buttoned from collar to hem and made of slippery blue nylon. To my amazement, I was told that this is what I had to wear over my clothes, every day, and on no account should I wear a belt. The reason? The company did not want their male staff to be distracted by the female form – until 4.00pm when a buzzer sounded and we women could emerge from our shapeless sacks and the chaps were allowed to smoke cigarettes for the final hour of the working day.

At the time when the City firm was insisting that its women staff cover up so as not to distract their male colleagues, rather than revealing more to attract clients and visitors, it was the swinging sixties. It was the time of Mary Quant, Barbara Hulanicki, Kiki Byrne. It was the time of mini skirts, hot pants, white boots, dramatic black eyeliner and bright pink lipstick. Body stockings and sheer tights were invented – perfect for those who, like me, crocheted our own short lacy frocks.

There were articles in the press about men asking for books on the top shelves of libraries and dropping items in shops to encourage short skirted assistants to reach up or bend down. So managers and HR departments may have thought that insisting all women staff wore blue overalls removed the need for tricky conversations with individuals who were perceived as pushing workwear boundaries.

It did not take me long to abandon the insurance company and its blue nylon overall to move into the heady, creative world of global advertising agency J Walter Thompson and then to spend three years as a fashion journalist.  I would like to think that my memory of dressing distinctively yet appropriately for work, reserving the crocheted frocks, catsuits and eyeliner for leisure time, is a realistic one.

Then as my career progressed, and I became an employer, there were occasional tricky issues around staff dress and appearance. The most difficult one arose from the decision to introduce ‘dress down Friday.’ It soon became apparent that the art of smart casual is a rare skill, particularly amongst British men. After a few weeks of grubby jeans, tired sweaters, down at heel footwear and so on the experiment came to an end – and nobody objected.

Picture courtesy of Institution of Civil Engineers

I became increasingly involved in promoting and supporting women in construction, including the Purple Boots campaign in 2010 to make properly sized workwear and protective clothing available for women.  Dunlop responded by producing safety boots in women’s sizes, but it wasn’t until January 2016 that Transport for London (TfL) produced its first ever women’s safety clothing range, following a successful six-week staff trial. The new range includes high-visibility jackets, trousers, gloves and adjustable eye protection and a tailoring service to ensure female staff have access to better-fitted, safer PPE.  

The TfL initiative is to be applauded of course, but there is a degree of irony in that the introduction of appropriate clothing was seen as a fitting celebration of 100 Years of Women in Transport.  It reminded me of the women fighter pilots in Japan whose reward in passing the rigorous training a few years ago was to be issued with properly fitting aviator kit.

So here we are, several decades from when I was obliged to don a blue overall to conceal my female form and we are living in a world where in some countries women are forced to cover themselves completely from the public eye by wearing the burqa or the niqab. Meanwhile an increasing number of other countries forbid women from wearing such clothing and some businesses want their women staff to present themselves in a way that at best could be described as attractive and at worst, alluring.

Modesty or threat, freedom or protection  – the issues around dress codes for women are complex. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to agree reasonable guidelines for women working in democratic, mature countries. So congratulations to Nicola Thorp for setting up the petition that attracted more than 152,000 signatures and led to the UK Government report calling for an end to discriminatory dress codes in the workplace. At a time when people are questioning the effectiveness of protest, this is a great example of one determined individual succeeding in bringing about action. 

No comments: