'Shouldergate' and dress codes in the workplace

Beauty editor Rashida Campbell-Allen discusses the recent controversy surrounding dress codes in the workplace.

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Tracy Brabin gave her critics the cold shoulder following an onslaught of comments and criticisms over an off the shoulder black dress she wore in parliament. Some may even say if only parliament cared more about real social issues and inequalities than what a woman wears.

The situation shed a bright light over the sexist attitudes clearly writhe not just in parliament but also on social media as her tweet in response to the criticisms prove the gendered nature of many comments. 

But what I fail to understand is why does attire matter? Why are women held in positions where yet again men are not held to the same standards or expectations of appearance? Heck, even Boris Johnson’s bedraggled aesthetic has been accepted and coined as somewhat of a “brand” - his look, turned into a comical personality trait.

Following the events of Brabin’s shouldergate, she took to the internet and as any classy, unbothered, professional woman would, she’s turned the dress into a lucrative charity gig by placing it up for auction on eBay and giving the 20k proceeds to GirlGuiding UK. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a society that has become so individualised and appearance driven, dress codes often only serve to perpetuate and reinforce sexist ideals. The very fact that many workplaces have regulations for the length of a skirt or dress ought to not speak to a woman’s professionalism but instead the problematic patriarchal behaviours and attitudes that surround them. In 2020 it’s not unheard of to see an off-the shoulder dress, it’s called fashion. But it seems in professional spaces women are safest if they don a full three piece suit or cover themselves head to toe - quite literally because don’t even think about wearing an open toe heel.

Dress codes are necessary to some extent in the workplace as they can be used to create a company culture, avoid distraction and create a level playing field, it bears no indication of a company or employee’s work ethic, it really is just for keeping up appearances. The underlying issue is the consequent unequal and unfair judgment of women. Let’s take Nicola Thorp back in 2016 who was sent home from her temp job at PwC for not wearing heels. 

Many offices today use the term ‘business casual’ or ‘smart’ in their policies but the issue here is the subjectivity of its implementation.  My personal take on dress codes is that people should wear what makes them feel the best version of themselves whilst being respectful of others. Surely staff should be judged on their work not their dress.

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