Off Message: would strict dress codes make a difference?

When Mark Twain penned the immortal line “Clothes make the man”, little did he realise how important that single statement would turn out to be in the world of work.

With the human resources (HR) profession’s leading awards night just days away – that’s the Personnel Today Awards 2007, in case you’re wondering – all thoughts in HR offices across the land will be directed towards what to wear, what not to wear, what other people will be wearing, and sartorial disasters of past events.

Being a man, the choice is simple: black tie – not just a tie, you understand, but the whole suit and dress shirt too. But for the female majority, the choice is not so limited. But why should that be? And could it be that this ‘choice’ contributes to the inequalities suffered by the female of the species in the workplace – both in terms of pay and seniority?

Shoe fetish

On the face of it, that would seem unlikely, for surely we live in a meritocracy where people only get into positions of power on merit, on account of their vast amounts of experience, due to their numerous and relevant qualifications.

But is this really the case?

A glance around the boardrooms of the nation would suggest that men are much smarter, brighter and more qualified than women. Clearly this is not true. But what they definitely are is more blandly dressed suited and booted, yes, but in a decidedly ‘grey’ kind of way.

When women do get to positions of power or take up high-profile jobs, it is what they wear and what they look like that generates as much, if not more, comment as what they actually say or do.

When Tory MP Teresa May stands up to speak, nobody listens to what she has to say. Apart from other, more obvious causes, the main reason is that their gaze falls to her feet, to see her latest bad-taste footwear selection. Any subsequent reports of what she had to say are dominated by comments on her fashion sense, or lack of it, and her predilection for leopard-print kitten heels.

The bland leading the brand

And the media is even harder on its own (especially in TV land), with women presenters promoted on account of their blondeness – and quite possibly their blandness – rather than their ability, as demonstrated by the seemingly endless crop of ‘robot babes’ in posh frocks populating our TV screens with their inane chatter.

There are women who get on as a result of their abilities, but as Moira Stewart recently found to her cost, looks and sartorial elegance are not enough when you are a mere woman – age becomes an issue. So while newsreaders like Martyn Lewis and Huw Edwards can get away with crumpled suits and crumpled faces, the women know their days are numbered.

Is this lookism, ageism, or just good old sexism? Of course, there are many ‘isms’ lurking in the shadows just waiting to jump out and bite the unwary HR practitioner on the bottom, as it were. Racism, fattism, heightism, crucifixism – you name it, there now seems to be an ‘ism’ for every occasion.

And with every ‘ism’, there’s someone taking an employer to court with a bad bout of tribunalism – as in the ongoing case of British Airways (BA) check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, who is still getting all shirty about needing to wear a crucifix to work.

No doubt whichever side wins will indulge in a bit of triumphalism.

But can what you wear really be that important? Could ‘lookism’ really be one of the most powerful tools in the corporate scabbard?

The marketeers would have us believe that image is everything and that the brand is king. And there is no doubt that the employer brand – as embodied by its employees – is becoming increasingly important. First impressions do count.

And nothing quite exercises the mind of the average British worker like a discussion about clothes – who’s wearing what, what’s in, what’s not, what’s decidedly cool, what’s incredibly hot?

Stitched up

BA actually softened its dress code to allow Eweida to wear her cross, and all it got for its trouble was a slap in the face and a further invitation to the courthouse. So perhaps it would have been wiser to implement a stricter dress code, a code where no jewellery would be allowed, a code that made everyone dress the same, in the same bland colours and styles.

If men and women were forced to wear the same clothes, would sexism in the workplace be as rife? Would ageism matter quite as much? Just think back to the 1950s when boys were besuited from the age of 10, where boys looked like men, men looked like men and old men looked like… well… men. They all wore the same uniform and as a result they all acted in the same uniform manner.

Suited – not booted

So as we stride manfully/womanfully towards the second decade of the 21st century – kitted out in our Armani/Hugo Boss/Jaeger/Next/Moss Bros/M&S* (*delete as appropriate) machine washable ultra-grey two-piece ensemble with added pockets – the dress code could be the making of us.

For in a world where the list of ‘isms’ grows ever larger by the day, it seems that a neatly stitched, Sta-Prest, buttoned-down dress code could be all that is required to keep the wolf from the door – especially if it’s wearing a sheepskin coat.

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