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Dressing for the Job

What constitutes formal wear? The first outfit that comes to mind might be a neatly tailored suit or conservative dress, possibly involving a tie or blazer. Some Oxford students may even be thinking of sub fusc. Allow me to clarify my question: what constitutes professional attire? And why does it matter?

2023 seems to be shaping up to be the year of the revamped office uniform. Hot on the heels of Virgin Airways announcing last September that employees would no longer be restricted to gendered uniforms, this January British Airways unveiled a range of new uniform options for the first time in almost two decades, including a jumpsuit option for female ground staff and cabin crew. The redesign was more than purely aesthetical, with Business Insider reporting that “Engineers, for example, asked for easy-access tool pockets for when they’re working on aircraft, while ground handlers asked for touch-screen technology fabric in their gloves for use in cold weather.” A tunic and hijab option is also available to British Airways employees and equally so for HSBC bank branch employees earlier this very month, along with jumpsuits and – gasp! – even jeans.

It seems almost too easy to pin this development on the work-from-home policy of a certain recent global pandemic that I’m sure I don’t need to name. I propose another cause, evidenced by British Airway’s proud declaration that “More than 90% of the garments are produced using sustainable fabric from blends of recycled polyester” and HSBC’s use of “recycled polyester, dissolving plastic, ocean recovered plastic and sustainable cotton.” Modern companies are well aware of the power of social justice movements. By accommodating staff of all genders and religious minorities, and by combining practicality with sleekness and sustainability, these corporations signal that they have acknowledged and accepted their moral duty to create a welcoming workplace that places an emphasis on the well-being of its employees and customers.

Practical, stylish, inclusive, and strategic – these revamped uniforms are truly a display of twenty-first century innovation. But while it is admirable that companies are taking it upon themselves to give their staff more freedom with how they dress at work, it is also important to remember that we shouldn’t have to rely on corporations to agree to allow their employees to wear practical options. We deserve a standardised law that demands equality and consistency in the workplace instead of hoping that employers deign to allow comfortable, practical alternatives to old-fashioned suits and gendered dichotomies. Double standards in office dress codes were catapulted into the public consciousness after Nicola Thorp, a PricewaterhouseCoopers receptionist, was sent home on her first day of work in 2015 for wearing flats instead of two-to-four-inch-high heels. She subsequently created a petition that gained over 150,000 signatures calling for the government to make such workplace double standards illegal to no avail. Although the government did debate the motion, no existing legislature was changed to explicitly criminalise forcing female staff to abide by impractical and potentially physically damaging dress codes. The Government Equalities Office eventually produced a document in May of 2018 with the specific aim of providing guidance to employers and employees about what comprises unlawful sex discrimination regarding dress codes, an endeavour that was condemned as “bland and vague, failing to make it absolutely clear to employers that requiring heels, makeup and skirts will virtually always be unlawful sex discrimination”. The guidance’s determination that such rules would only be unlaw if no “equivalent requirement” is demanded of male employees fails to take into account that there is no ‘professional attire’ for men which inhibits their ability to walk and run or demands that they spend extra time applying cosmetics. The guidance document states that employees (rightfully) must accommodate disabled members of staff as well as transgender employees and those who wear religious symbols or garments, but no such binding provision is made to ensure that women are not required to endure discomfort and debilitation caused by impractical uniforms.

So, I ask again – what is professional attire? What makes high heels and makeup professional for women and not for men? In what context should some employees be mandated to sacrifice comfort for appearance whereas others are exempt? With this year’s cohort of finalist gearing up for one last vacation of revision before taking their final exams, let’s remember that while the dress-code aspect of office culture certainly appears to have made great strides in terms of inclusion and equality, corporate permission is no substitute for legal regulation.

And if anyone is considering restarting Thorp’s petition, know that my signature will be the first one on it. 

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