The erosive effect of the dress code


First published in our political magazine Democracy Street, Issue I, p.44-49

Humans are renowned for spending their time on trivialities, meaningless or harmful activities or making life difficult for each other by choosing to behave in ways which they regard as utterly important but which are ultimately idiotic and destructive. One of these useless quirks of people is the enforcement of dress code at workplaces (let alone work and the wage system itself, an issue worthy of separate discussion). For the purposes of this text let’s accept that some work still needs to be done, and that the abolition of work – as Bob Black appealingly writes – is not immediately possible. Since we live in a society largely immersed in the work ethic, we should actively bring into question the components of this ideology if we ever want to see it loosing its grip on the minds of the people.

A number of laws and regulations exists regarding the clothing and appearance bosses can enforce upon employees; colars, ties, skirts, hair-length, grooming restrictions, and even the seemingly lax custom of dress-down Friday consist a strict framework imposed on the human body and behaviour. Theoretically, employers are liable for sex, gender and religious discrimination but they can appear to be on the right by claiming that their policy is to treat all employees «equally strict». There is the case of Miss S. who was not allowed to wear trousers at work. The British Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decided in favour of the employer because they had maintained an «even-handed approach between men and women» by imposing a different but equally strict dress code for both sexes. The bosses, therefore, have secured the «right» to use their power on the employee’s body so long as they distribute the pressure evenly.

«But I don’t feel this way,» some would argue, proudly. «I am a valued member of a company and I enjoy my work. I like to dress appropriately even if it isn’t officially required.» This statement is an alarming indication of how deep is the encroachment of the workplace into the spontaneity and imagination of man, who is turning, or has turned for that matter, into homo economicus, not a person any more but primarily an employee.

What’s wrong with the dress code?

«Clothing is a very powerful way in which social regulation is enacted: it turns bodies into readable signs, making the observer recognise patterns of docility and transgression, and social positioning» (213), writes Ines Dussel and in this remark she is generally right. Clothing is a language of sorts which has a transforming capacity; one is regarded by others not as a body but as a body charged with an added meaning. This meaning is mainly two-fold: it either shows obedience to social expectations and behaviours considered desirable and normal, or it suggests a divergence from the norm, an inclination to a freer attitude. As an example, it is highly improbable to see a squatter wearing a tie and suit, or a boss dressed like a punk. Although aspects of various sub-cultures have been incorporated by capitalism and are often appealing to the masses (piercings, tatoos, drug use, certain types of non-conventional clothes or hairstyles), the duality of the social message of clothing remains the same: formality and informality are largely expressed by the choice of clothing.

The business suit may not necessarily be as strict as the military suit but it still is a type of suit, even in its more relaxed variations. These variations exist, as Colin Ward explains, because there has been a «relaxation of dress codes, pioneered all through the 20th century by the radical nonconformists’ rejection of fashion» (2004). Ward here refers to the dress code which distinguishes social classes but his observation is significant for the business dress code as well. Despite these changes, which were brought about by the encouragement of class mobility, and despite that the non-comformist opinion seems to have penetrated social norms (hence the relaxation of the dress code), the worship of «decency» has not been eradicated from the work place.

What I want to focus on is the effect of the dress code on the body, and subsequently on the mental framework and behaviour of the wearer. «No matter what sort of uniform it is […] to put on such livery is to give up one’s right to act as an individual», writes Alison Lurie (1983). This statement will be confronted by those who claim to see a logical pattern in the dress code or by those who might say that any combination of clothes ultimately refers to a dress code. My point of disagreement is that the behaviour of people in every day life strongly testifies in favour of Lurie’s observation: the effect of the uniform/suit is detrimental for the human mentality.

The uniformed body, rather than resembling a living being, tends to resemble an object. Holding a job is like acting a role (in fact, the word role is often used instead of the word job), and what the employee wears is the costume appropriate for the role. The employee, as an actor, is not supposed to use his/her own words, express his/her own feelings, be him-/herself. He/she has a function to fulfill, a performance (another theatrical-register word) to carry out. The dress code is the sine qua non of the performance; at all times the subject must put on the right appearance, must conform to instructions and standards. Without the uniform the employee is no more fit to perform, is not allowed on the stage of the workplace. Putting on the uniform, the subject is expected to put on an attitude and a character which often is very different from the character of the every day man or woman. Consequently, as the subject spends a great deal of his/her life at work, elements of this character start permeating the mind.

A long-term familirisation with the uniform is effective in order to make humans accept it as normal. It is important to instill the dress-code logic into the minds of children from their early years in school, before they start developing their critical thinking abilities. Sameness and discipline, thus, restrict the natural drive for individuality, self expression, and imaginative thinking. The school uniform is an effective way to make «students adhere to the dress code and use proper manners as a way to provide them with social skills, including those needed for future employment»¹. This dehumanization of the self and the disconnection from others can deeply affect the state of mind of pupils. The individuals may say that their choices are theirs and that their body and mind belongs to them; they would not admit otherwise. But their behaviour and choices tell a different story: they take the world around them for granted and do not question authority and social norms. This is not to say that the transformation is absolute and irreversible; in this case we would entirely cease to behave like humans and would become mere automatons, which cannot be true for any of us. Anyone is capable of moments of revelation or deep thought. The problem is that these moments become fewer and rarer, while the moments of apathy and obedience take more and more space and time, saturating the mind and eroding its qualities.

“The struggle to impose the discipline of labour upon our activity is a struggle fought by capital each and every day: what else do managers, teachers, social workers, police and so on do?» (2010) John Holloway writes. These professional categories are not mentioned in random. They are all required to wear uniforms and their position is closely connected to discipline. They represent a top-down structure and their function is to impose and be imposed. Without the right uniform they would not have been able or allowed to be part of the structure. Consumers/customers expect this structure. They do not trust a company when the stuff do not behave and look in a specific way. Without the right shoes, hair, or tone of voice an employee is not to be trusted. Thus, people themselves, those who are under the yoke of capital, perpetuate and impose the logic of the boss.

Is casual a dress code?

Some might argue that casual clothing is still a dress code, that no matter how free we believe we are when we dress «as we like», we are still dressed according to what is generally acceptable by society. For example, we don’t go about dressed as aboriginals, or like people used to dress a hundred years ago. I want to support that this lingering post-modern logic of homogenisation, of elimination of criteria and difference in attitudes, is irrational and self-indulgent. It would have some validity if all types of clothes had the same appearance and significance, and therefore we would have been right to criticise them equally. It is plain to see that sports shoes are very different from formal shoes, or that a jumper is not a shirt. There is a reason why we use different words to express different things. The dictionary entry for casual is: «subject to or produced by chance.» The word casual comes from the Latin word casus, which means «chance, occasion, opportunity; accident, event.» Given than the dress code is identified with restriction, casual dress by definition cannot be a type of dress code.

Words speak for themselves: chance, opportunity. If you do not have the chance to be yourself, you will find yourself transformed into someone you are not, a person without a chance to be free in the movements of the body and the workings of the mind. The encroachment of the mind takes place in all different ways; the supermarket, the spectacle, the factory, the office, the strict dress code turn the spontaneous into calculated vacuum. Where this vacuum predominates there is little or no space for the spontaneous, the casual.

Is anything an option?

Liberation from the dress code is one of the things that needs to be done if we want to take steps towards human emancipation. However, the major problem in which the dress-code issue is entailed, is the work ethic and work itself. A dress-what-you-like attitude that would not be complemented with a radical change of opinion towards work, would not be a solution. On the other hand, freedom of choice does not mean that minimum rules should not apply. What is constrictive is not the existence of rules in themselves but the fact that decision-making is either restricted to the elect few or that social norms which come from above are widely and passively accepted as effective and superior. It is of utmost importance that rules be made by members of a society who can think and decide as equals among equals. So long as there is a deficiency of (political and economic) equality in society, rules will keep being imposed vertically.

What would these new rules be? It is not politically mature to give ready-made, individual answers to issues that should be handled collectively, but a few suggestions can be made. Going naked or semi-naked for example would not be an option, unless you live with an indigenous tribe in the Amazonia. And if you decide to go out the door wearing different shoes and your clothes inside out, you will soon find that this is neither aesthetically desirable nor practical, as the pockets will be on the wrong side and the texture of the cloth will be rough on your skin. What is most important is not to make exaggerated comments about clothing trying to disprove the necessity of rules, but to dismantle the existing logic of servility and to promote freedom of behaviour and mind.

What about hospital workers, construction workers, garbage collectors…

The list can go on to include others such as the police, judges, fire fighters, cooks etc. First of all we need to consider what occupations among these are necessary and why. For example, we don’t really need the police, as their job is to protect the upper classes and not to prevent crime. This can be the subject of a separate article but suffice it here to say that the levels of crime are not reduced despite the existence of police. Peter Kropotkin gives a substantial solution to crime in Law And Authority: “it is well-known that two-thirds, and often as many as three-fourths, of such “crimes” are instigated by the desire to obtain possession of someone’s wealth. […] Moreover, it is also a well-known fact that the fear of punishment has never stopped a single murderer. He who kills his neighbour from revenge or misery does not reason much about consequence; and there have been few murderers who were not firmly convinced that they should escape prosecution. This immense class of so-called ‘crimes and misdemeanours’ will disappear on the day on which private property ceases to exist.”
We need to re-evaluate the necessity of all occupations and the amount of time we spend at work. This might include fewer working hours and collective solutions to neighbourhood problems which could eliminate the need for professionals (cleaners, construction workers, child minders etc). A more relaxed stance towards work would lead to more work-free time, the minimisation of the dress code, and the abolition of phony decency. Re-think the real meaning of the human essence: imagination and creativity. Shed the rigid hierarchical suit.

1. The quotation is from the study “Tuck in that shirt! Race, class, gender, and discipline in the urban school” by Edward W. Morris. Morris spent two years studying Matthews Middle School in Texas, USA.

Black, Bob. The Abolition of Work. Loompanics Unlimited, 1986.
Dussel, Ines. School Uniforms and the Disciplining of Appearances. Published in Cultural History and Education: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Schooling, Routledge, 2013.
Holloway, John. Cracks and the Crisis of Abstract Labour. Antipode, 2010.
Kropotkin, Peter. Law and Autority. International, 1986.
Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. Henry Holt and Company, 1981
Morris, Edward. Tuck that Shirt! Published in Schools and Society: A sociological approach to Education. Pine Forge Press, 2008.
Ward, Colin. Anarchism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2004.