In my very progressive opinion, dress codes should only serve two purposes: visibility and safety. Uniforms make sense as a way to identify employees, especially in places like restaurants and theaters. Requiring employees to wear store-brand clothing makes a lot of sense in the retail world as a way to advertise the merchandise and show customers how clothes look on real people. (I recently bought a jumpsuit from Michael Kors simply because the blonde retail associate looked so great wearing it. I mean, if she looks good in it that means I’ll look good in it too, right?)
Dress codes for certain occupations also make sense. Hard hats and steel-toed boots in construction zones. Lab coats, goggles, and closed-toed shoes in laboratories. Hazmat suits and gloves for certain health care workers and those cleaning up hazardous waste. These are meant to protect the individual from a potentially dangerous environment while simultaneously avoiding lawsuits. These codes are logical and reasonable.
I start to cringe, however, when dress codes begin to decide what attire is “appropriate.” I understand what certain dress codes are trying to accomplish. Businesses want to look professional and competent by having employees who themselves look professional and competent. But the common conclusion that dress codes seem to reach is that women’s bodies are overtly sexual and must be concealed as much as possible.
I recently became a new volunteer with a local organization and a new employee with a separate organization so I had a couple of mandatory orientations to attend in which I learned a lot and had a great time. However, without fail in these and every other orientation I have ever attended, the low point is always the review of the dress code. Let us examine the dress code from the first orientation.
Closed-Toed, Rubber-Soled Shoes
Anything With Offensive Words Or Images
Out of the 9 types of clothing that were encouraged, 4 were unisex, 3 were common to mostly worn by men, and 2 were common to mostly worn by women. I think the approved list of clothes is quite balanced if not a little dated (capri pants… really?). It is the prohibited list of clothes that draws my attention. Out of the 12 types of clothing that are not allowed, 8 are types of clothing that typically only women wear. Meaning exactly two thirds of the prohibited list is aimed directly at women.
Women are very creative with the styles of clothing they wear, I understand that. What bothers me is that I know why these clothes are not allowed—because they display the female body too much. Skirts and shorts expose your legs, tank tops expose your arms, crop tops expose your abdomen, and low-cut tops expose your cleavage. But it doesn’t stop there. Leggings and yoga pants and stretch pants expose nothing but they outline the bottom half of your body, and that apparently is not acceptable either. Besides your head and your hands, there is hardly a body part left that you should not be worried about putting on display.
I wonder what employees, volunteers, and patrons of venues would wear if there were no such explicit dress codes? The second orientation I went to had a very relaxed dress code that essentially amounted to “use your own discretion.” I asked two supervisors if there had been many issues with this laissez-faire approach to the dress code over the years. Only one incident in which provocative shorts were worn by an individual could be recalled.
By making sure to list every article of clothing a woman might own that could be deemed as sexy and ignoring the myriad of other forms that looking unprofessional can take, dress codes tell women that their exposed legs are more visually offensive than profuse sweating. That even a hint of cleavage is more improper than ill-fitting clothing. That curve-hugging leggings are more distracting than body odor. This is not fair. This is not true. This is not okay.