Dress codes have been getting a lot of flak in the news lately. Rather than being hailed as equalizing forces, they're getting reamed in the media for being oppressive.
They harken back to a time when manners and civility were weaponized to clearly define "us" and "them." They stem from the Victorian period in England, where they were designed to help those in power draw a clear line between "god's chosen elites" and commoners. They were a means of social control to create clear categories between people—between the powerful and the powerless. Today, the "us" are upper-class, white, male, cis heterosexuals and the "them" are the rest of us, the Other, those in desperate need of policing.
Today, unless you work in a creative industry, you've probably felt that your individuality and sense of self were crushed not just by the soul-sucking work you do from 9 to 5 but by small-"c" conservative dress codes—with a slight respite on Casual Fridays. No shorts on men, no exposed toes or heels, no jeans, no shoulders, and, in some offices, no colours that are not navy, black, or white.
Often, the company line is that they'd like the attire of all drones—er, employees—to be uniform and professional in order to promote a productive workplace and maintain public image. However, these policies just end up being oppressive and reproduce racism, sexism, classism, fatphobia, and harmful gender norms and binaries.
Arisa Cox, the host of Big Brother Canada, has been a victim of office dress codes. At 24, Cox was faced with an ultimatum—wear her curly hair straight or lose her job. Cox chose her personal identity and cultural connection over corporate culture and a paycheque, and quit her broadcast journalism job. Like many Black women, Cox found her identity as a Black woman being policed by Eurocentric standards and norms through office dress codes.
Cox is not alone in this. Many Black women, and men too, have lost their jobs or otherwise been reprimanded because of their Africentric cultural norms. Braids, dreadlocks, headwraps, and afros have all been deemed inappropriate in work environments by a number of employers.
For Black women, they not only find their hair and headwear policed but their bodies as well. The societal hyper-sexualization of Black women plays out in the office and Black women find that they are more likely to be sexualized at work—even in a two-piece suit—while their white counterparts are not.
Enter any Catholic church and you'll be hit with a strict dress code, but just for women. No shoulders and no knees no matter what the thermometer says. Though these WASP-y, Judeo-Christian values can be traced to an earlier time, their remnants can be seen today, and not just in church. Even at your local accounting firm, women's bodies are sexualized—even a shoulder is deemed too damn enticing. These rules just reinforce the belief that there is something inherently wrong with women's bodies while also bolstering the idea that the sexual assault of women is somehow their fault. The sexualization of women's bodies is not women's problem, but the problem of those who interpret the sight of skin as a suggestion of sex.
Weight discrimination in offices is rampant, and plus-size women are often told to cover up their curves even when wearing the exact same outfits as their thinner coworkers. This weight discrimination reinforces the society-wide notion that bigger bodies are unattractive and need to be hidden. The dress code discrimination against bigger bodies is reflected in other aspects of the workplace: Bigger workers are less likely to be promoted or receive a raise and earn less than their thinner counterparts doing similar work.
Trans workers face a different kind of dress code discrimination. Not for wearing too much or too little but for not allowing office dress codes to dictate their gender expression. While there have been some gains—the University of Cambridge has relaxed its strictly gendered dress code to allow women to wear pants and men to wear skirts—workplaces are still sites of social control through dress codes for trans people. Most dress codes clearly delineate what is appropriate for men to wear and what is appropriate for women leaving those whose gender differs from the one they were assigned at birth or those who don't buy into the gender binary at odds with oppressive rules. Office dress codes do not allow for diverging from cultural norms or the full expression of gender. Many trans people have had dress codes used to discriminate against them.
On the school front, teenagers are finding their identities being strongly policed too. Recently, Etobicoke teen Alexi Halket raised the troops beneath the #CropTopDay hashtag when she was reprimanded for wearing a dress code-violating, belly-baring top to school. The Etobicoke School of the Arts student alleged that school administration sexualized her.
Toronto students have provided a more inclusive and intersectional critique of school dress codes. Central Technical School alumni Kerin Bethel-John, Erin Dixon and Andy Villanueva started Project Slut, an "anti slut shaming, anti victim blaming and anti sexual bullying campaign" that is pressuring the Toronto District School Board to abolish clothing guidelines.
"We want to bring to light the many ways that dress codes and how they are interpreted, police diverse people," said Bethel-John, Dixon and Villanueva. "Self-expression comes in many forms and how we dress can be fundamental to our identities. Dress codes tell us that we are something to be adjusted, tailored, hidden."
Graduates believe that dress codes disproportionately target not just girls but people of colour, women of colour, LGBTQ students, and plus-size students.
Dress codes are just another tool used to maintain the status quo and keep the boot of oppression firmly on the neck of those not born white, cis, or a man. Seemingly harmless, they are used to reinforce—or, rather re-enforce—rigid cultural norms and standards, assumed universal. The Office Fashion Police ("You down with OFP?") undress POC, plus-size, and trans bodies and uphold the discrimination behind hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MMIW, and #YouOKSis.
In dress codes we hear whispers of plantation overseers punishing enslaved Africans for practicing African spirituality and playing drums. We hear whispers of Indigenous children being dragged from their homes, their hair cut, their native tongues removed, all the things documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report. It's all there if you know where to look and what you're looking for.
Follow Septembre Anderson on Twitter.