Are employment dress code days numbered

Back in the 1990s I worked for a law firm in Glasgow, Scotland, which provided suits for female support staff as a way of imposing a dress code. It wasn’t a uniform as it didn’t carry any corporate branding or logo and we had to pay tax for the clothing.

A situation in the past week, which made the headlines in the UK got me wondering about dress codes and imposing controls on how we dress. In my personal blog today I look at Police Scotland’s proposal to introduce a clean shaven policy coming into effect at the end of May.  You can read my blog to find out more about this case and why I think it may be a bad move for Police Scotland.

My experience

I don’t have to wear a uniform today and there is no formal dress code for most of us at work (some support staff have to wear uniforms and some lecturers require to do so too (beauty lecturers, hospitality/catering lecturers etc).  Although I would say that being a business lecturer, there is an expectation for us to be dressed in a business-like manner – acting as a role model for our students.  But then again, I wonder how much of that is changing.  As indicated above, my background before teaching was working as a legal secretary. Professional firms such as solicitors tend to be slower to respond and will require a more traditional approach.  Certainly in the 1980s/1990s we would not be allowed to wear trousers and I seem to remember not being allowed to wear sandals or bare legs in the summer.

My 1990s employer introduced their dress code to control how the office juniors were dressing, and to control the length of the skirt (it was not allowed to be above the knee). Despite being a law firm, they were actually breaching the law and had one of the male support staff claimed sex discrimination because they weren’t provided with suits, the company would have lost.

With dress codes and uniforms its important that organisations are reasonable with their requests and don’t discriminate against any of their employees.

Why have a dress code?

There are many reasons why companies may introduce a dress code or provide uniforms: branding, corporate image, health and safety.  We’ll now have a look at the arguments for each of these in turn.


In some customer facing roles organisations prefer that their staff wear a uniform. Staff such as those in supermarkets, hospitality and restaurants, for example.  It means that we, the customers, can recognise and identify their staff easily when we need to find someone.

I suspect there are some roles where traditionally uniforms have always been worn, so we simply expect these people to be in uniform. There will be others where there will be aspects of health & safety built into their uniform (PPE for example).  Examples here would include our emergency services, medical staff.

For most of us, its easy to recognise who an employee represents because their uniform usually also carries branding or a logo for the organisation, along with corporate colours. Its amazing how powerful corporate colours can be; while I indicated we don’t typically have a uniform for all staff at the college, we comment on people wearing corporate colours if they turn up to work wearing purple. So from a corporate point of view, staff wearing the corporate colours is a strong branding exercise.

Corporate Image

Organisations will be aware that their employees represent them, both in what they say and do, and in their appearance.  As much as we say we shouldn’t judge people, first impressions count and organisations desire to create the ‘right’ impression with their customers. To do that some organisations will use uniforms, but others give their employees the freedom to wear their own clothes. However, they are likely to have rules about how smart or casual we can be. Dress Codes may also extend to jewellery, how we wear our hair and facial hair. Depending on situation, there may also be regulations about make up or perfume. A few years ago there was a lot of attention given to the requirement for female staff in some industries and roles to wear high heels. This caused a backlash because of the health and safety risks to the employees, not to mention the sexism attached to being forced to wear heels. Read more here.

Health & Safety

As well as dress codes being implemented for corporate image and reputation, sometimes a dress code may be required for health and safety reasons. For example, having long hair tied up and hair covered by a hair net or hat in a food processing factory.

I’m not sure what the position is in other countries, but in the UK where there is a risk to the health and safety of an employee or others, then it may be possible in certain circumstances to discriminate. An example could be in a factory with machinery there is likely to be a requirement not to wear jewellery.  Someone who insists that they must require jewellery as a statement of their faith and refuses to take off the jewellery where it would be a health risk if it were to be caught in machinery, could be dismissed, or refused employment on health and safety grounds. This is part of the issue in the case I explore today in my personal blog.

Would you always accept dress code restrictions?

How readily do we accept dress codes? Would you decline a job if it required a dress code? I suspect that answer may vary from person to person but probably also depending on the nature of the job and the restrictions. If the requirements are in line with what you do or believe anyway, I would imagine it wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. However, if you were suddenly told you had to wear your hair in a particular way or a particular type of shoe, you may feel that this was arbitrary and unnecessary and be more likely to fight it.

I also wonder how much society is changing; there are lots of areas where the status quo is being challenged, and are our uniforms and dress codes something that should be challenged too?

Mask-wearing as an example

During the Covid-19 Pandemic habits changed in many parts of the world as mask-wearing became compulsory and its much more normal to see people still wearing masks on public transport today. The last time I was at my doctor’s surgery, 2-3 weeks ago, mask wearing was still compulsory.

Some people opposed mask-wearing, but in the UK most adapted and complied, so we do tend to comply with rules and regulations. If your employer was to announce tomorrow that they were to reintroduce a mask-wearing policy for health & safety reasons, would that be a reasonable measure – or would they be over-reacting?  How would you respond?

Since Covid-19 and the changes that have come about in our societies, is it possible that companies are hyper-sensitive and being over-cautious with some of their dress-code requirements?  Is it time to drop/relax dress codes in the workplace?

Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

27 thoughts on “Are employment dress code days numbered

  1. When someone wears a uniform you can immediately recognize their role, like, as you say, if they are from the police, or doctors, or even waiters. But I have never worked in an environment where a dress code was imposed. Of course, it should be decent. We would need to define “decent” then. I think that it’s a matter of respect, for your colleagues, your employer, and you customers/stakeholders.

    1. I think that’s why the law firm gave us suits … a 16 year old’s idea of decent isn’t the same is mine.
      I think sometimes we need something for the students too 😵‍💫

      1. For the students it would be a good idea, it will leverage the social differences. We wear all the same uniform, we are all the same. In my home country, people, also teenagers, tend to dress up and by doing so you can spot immediately their social class. Here in Brussels people are cool, they don’t really care about the way they dress and this makes the society more tolerant. At least this is my impression.

      2. I think its interesting to.have that perspective of how we might do things differently in different countries

  2. When I first entered the workforce, everyone in the office dressed up ever day. Suits, dresses, skirts were the expected attire. Fast forward 35+ years and my workplace now has a casual dress code, unless you’re going out to visit clients. Interestingly, we went to do a consultant presentation a few years ago and we all dressed up. Their employees also dressed up. During the meeting, it came up that both companies had a casual dress code. We all looked at each other and said “So why are we all wearing suits?” 😂

    1. That sounds about right … generally we want to make a good impression, but as with many things, we don’t actually communicate – making everyone uncomfortable

      Thanks for sharing your experience Michelle

  3. This is an interesting debate, Brenda.

    Nurses in the US, who once wore white dresses and caps, now wear scrubs and no hats. Scrubs are worn in operating rooms with covered hair, masks and gloves for sanitary reasons. One local hospital has different colors of scrubs to identify the employee’s job, which is helpful.

    I taught in one Florida school where students wore uniforms consisting of navy blue Bermuda shorts and a white polo shirt with the school’s insignia. Although I do not like uniforms for students, I think these were practical and saved the parents money. There were no neckties or blazers in that warm climate.

    I think that workers in food production and food service need to cover their hair and dress for cleanliness. We don’t want to get food poisoning or find hair in our food.
    In general, I dislike uniforms and dress codes, but in some cases, they may be necessary or desirable. I think some or your examples such as banning facial hair or requiring women to wear high heels are overkill.

    1. Thanks Cheryl. I agree with you, but as Michelle also said, maybe some boundaries about appropriate dress.

  4. I alway enjoy reading about this debate, mostly because I think we all wear uniforms of some sort. I think back to the COVID meeting days. A nice shirt and underwear became a joke, but it was what most people were wearing. It became the status “suit” for those lucky enough to work from home.

    1. Thats very true. Its comfy to be able to wear pjs when working from home, maybe putting on a top if I had a Teams meeting.
      Imglad you enjoyed the post 😊

    2. I agree: most do wear uniforms of sorts. Even the Steve Jobs “look” of mock-turtle-neck-and-jeans was a uniform he wore. His explanation was to avoid having to think about what to wear and save those mental cycles for “worthier” decisions.

      Given the impact of some uniforms in creating authority figures, as was shown to terrifying effect in the Milgram experiment, I’m not sure that uniforms will disappear any time in the near future… Do you?

      1. Hey EW, I agree with what you said about Jobs, and we could all make a decision about what we wear to work, creating an individual uniform. I think that’s different from an organisation imposing a dress code though which, as per my post about Scottish Police, insisting that all police employees are clean shaven, or department stores insisting that female staff wear stilettos.
        I think so much in work and society is being challenged, I’m not sure how far things might go. What we consider is acceptable and what isn’t. As I said, not being allowed to wear trousers, now I don’t wear a skirt or dress very often to work.

      2. This is a great discussion point, Brenda! My understanding is that the Scottish Police came up with the clean-shaven rule so that high-quality protective masks will be effective for the personal safety of the officers wearing them and that facial hair can break the seal of those masks significantly reducing their efficacy.

        That is different motivation than the other example about stilettos, or even more so, the codes that airlines used to have in the past for female airline attendants. You know, to have certain body measurements, certain marital status (single…), and wear “certain” uniforms clearly not for the benefit of the airline attendants 😀

      3. You’re right about the masks but there are also arguments/debates about how necessary they are on a day to day basis and there are apparently alternative masks for those who can’t shave. Therefore I wonder if the alternative masks mean they could use these masks and not require the clean shaven policy

      4. Uniforms of some sort are here to stay. It is interesting to watch them morph but more fun to hear people say they are not wearing a uniform. 😉

      5. That’s a delightful and profound statement, and so true: does it take more than a glance to see the “uniform” of the roaring 20s vs hippie 60s vs disco 70s and so on and on? We DO wear uniforms, whether it’s a suit-and-tie, a white lab coat, or a subway t-shirt.

        I love that observation!

  5. Such an interesting topic. I agree with all you said. I lived in India and wore uniforms to school and my children here in US didn’t have that. That is one thing I felt was needed for kids. One thing being all of them no
    matter their social status would look the same and as a parent I didn’t need to keep shopping for new clothes. Mine was much better since I have boys but with girls parents spend a lot on clothes 😀.

    1. Thanks gir that Ganga. I’m in the UK and I had to wear a school uniform. I think many schools still use them here. I know sometimes there can be criticism that the uniforms can be very expensive too. I agree, when I worked for the law firm it was good not having to think much about what I wore. However, sometimes freedom would have been nice too

  6. It’s funny how regional dress can be. I know on the West coast of the US where I am, we are way more casual. Certainly there are companies with dress codes but the rest of us are wearing yoga pants and sweartshirts a good deal of the time.

    1. I dont think I’d get away with that. Maybe natural/mono coloured leggings if they’re not too tight, but probably not a sweatshirt unless I was a sports lecturer working in the gym

  7. Good food for thought, here, Brenda. I can see the reasoning from a health and safety point of view, and for identifiability — that makes sense to me – but what I see is a subtle swing toward slightly more formal dress in the business world now that we’re emerging from our Covid hibernations. I have a client who will not forego her ‘stretchy pants’, LOL, for the workplace and she’s found tailored black pants that look as if they have a structured waistband (but they’re elasticized) …and they look great with her suit jackets (she’s an attorney). She said she would no longer wear fabrics “without flex”. 😊 I think she’s figured it all out beautifully. Like Wynne said, she didn’t want to give up the comfort of leggings/yoga pants even though she’s in the world, work-wise again. 😘

    1. I agree totally Vicki. I can wear smart but comfy trousers and have smart tops to dress up the outfit rather than a tee-shirt etc

      Plus I enjoyed flexing my brain a little too

  8. In my opinion, I feel that every company has the right to have a dress code in place, especially ones serving the public. Whether that be a uniform (then there should be a stipend of some sort to off set the initial cost), or simply guidelines to follow takes some of the guesswork out of the mix on what is considered acceptable, since everyone’s perception of what is decent is different. The dress code where I work is very general and very casual, but is meant to keep our staff looking more professional and less likely to be viewed as inappropriate by people of all generations.

    1. Thanks for sharing your opinion Dawn. I think that makes sense. Your right in that everyone’s views of what is appropriate differ.

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