Impossible not to comment on the Harrod’s outdated personal grooming code in the papers this week. Melanie Stark, a former employee claimed her bosses ruled she must wear make-up to work every day and this is how she should do it: Full make-up is to be worn at all times: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss…maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a ‘washing out’ effect). In addition, ‘pearl or diamond stud’ earrings are preferred. ‘One ring per hand with exception of wedding & engagement rings…No visible tattoos, sovereigns, mismatched jewellery, scrunchies, large clips or hoop earrings’. And perhaps my favourite, footwear should be of the ‘smart black leather’ variety, but stilettos and ‘kitten heels’ are welcome on this sexist-posing-as-suavity menu.
Melanie Stark, photographed by Sarah Lee for the Guardian
“I was appalled,” Stark told The Guardian. “It was insulting. Basically, it was implying it would be an improvement. I don’t understand how they think it is OK to say that. I know what I look like with make-up. I have used it, though never at work. But I just could not see how, in this day and age, Harrods could take away my right to choose whether to wear it or not.” Last week she resigned rather than comply with the code after working at the store for five years, three of them part-time while a philosophy, religion and ethics student at King’s College London, and the last two years full-time after completing her masters. Legally speaking, it’s perfectly hunky-dory of employers to impose dress codes with different requirements for women and men provided there are “equivalent” requirements. Employers however, are supposed to be able to show ‘good business reason’.
The code for male employees, by wieldy contrast, is any manner of ‘slick, sophisticated and debonair’…Clean shaven or full beards…Sideburns no longer than mid-ear length or wider than one inch, nails manicured (which here probably just means ‘cut’). Now this got me thinking. In 1995 when I returned from London to Dublin with my BA, I joined a rather prestigious job agency that specialised in mining female graduates to large corporate gaffs with a taste for pretty receptionists and ‘intelligent’ secretaries. I was promptly told ladies who joined this agency had the best of hairstyles as well as opportunities and it’d be good thing in the Utilitarian sense if I got to grips fairly pronto with cuticle health & purloined as many fashion tips as my degree’d brain could plow. Also, in preparation for crossing the threshold of this respected Gargantua, I learnt that important busy men are easily irritated by trivial womanish chit-chat, and that perhaps a quiet confident smile would add to the male day in a much worthier way. “Some of our lucky placements were even successful in finding husbands at this establishment,” the millionairess job agency owner shrilled.
Sure enough when I got there, it was a teeming nest of pencil-skirt secretaries hopping about with lever arch files mysteriously matching nail shades, whitening smiles akimbo, year-round tans, perfume wafts snaking after men at lift shafts in that Mmmmm BISTO style of old. New secretaries like me were lickety-split told of romantic successes – ‘Tania is now with Mr XXXX who’s soon to be in charge of the Banking Division, she’ll want for nothing’ – while the remaining wifeless were clearly tagged as potential connubials. It was the start of the ensuite loo era, but just before the holiday home & €30K car crapulence, if you played your gynic cards right, you were in with a chance of grabbing a lucrative cock: metaphorically & literally. At lunch time de wimmin nibbled tiny rye crackers barely touched with low-fat ‘philly’, in their measureless crusade to stay sexy-slim. They huddled in corners jabbering about graphic package triumphs and whose was a bit substandard-lacking and why and what could be done to fix it. They drank calorie-free drinks and resisted the microwave for fear of stinking up corporate air. By contrast the men – cordoned off by fabric partition screens – sluiced and slopped on factory lots of smelly coleslaw & egg mayonnaise. They savaged hot breakfast rolls filled with squirty fried eggs and overgorged on huge slabs of Quiche and meat pastry pies, often to combustion point.
Inevitable malodours of post-carbo-binge afternoons were treated with a type of 19th Century fartlore fondness. ‘Oh Joe is a right auld divil, always blowing off after his lunch, pooouuggghhh weee, what a whiff!’ I noticed too that the men, while clean-shaven and shirt-starched to bejaysus, often wore the same suit for the entire week and sometimes for weeks on end. Some stank of bovine sweat and could not have been daily communicants of the shower hose. They didn’t care what they looked like at work because they didn’t have to: their personal worth was solely aligned to intellectual ability and women would find them attractive regardless. On Friday evenings, the secretaries laminated themselves to bar-stools in snazzy hotel bars, sipping cocktails and laughing hysterically at everything male uttered, picking bits of fluff off suit shoulders, being fabulous and interesting. There were more personality splits than the banana variety; precious minutes being snatched in-between talk of University achievements to repaint lips & eyes. I realised in the sub-celtic-tiger cubby holes of corporate Ireland, men could look & behave in any state of [dis]grace, while women were mannequins of deliciousness and delicateness. It was a culture of wank-off Vs bank-off, and while most of these women were educated to degree level (and beyond) they were treated as marriage fodder, and disappointingly, put great effort into looking and behaving that way. It seems, this was normal work culture and I better get used to it. Except I couldn’t. Pretty soon my appetite for low-level anarchy kicked in, so of course I did something momentous to cause a turpitude of horror (details another time!) for the ritzy job agency lady, who never found me work in Dublin office blocks again. My escape from corporate Ireland was steadfast and complete.
In the years since I’ve never failed to notice this same unwritten rule – that men can look like pure shite in the course of their jobs but women must be groomed, painted-gorgeous and preferably slim…it applies to broadcast media, publishing houses, governmental offices, newspapers, radio stations and other jobs I’ve bobbed in & out of. Harrodsesque politesse is very much alive and pricking away at is own subliminal pace. Is it any wonder that some employers feel it’s OK to formalise these idiotic gender expectations? Hurray for geisha! Hurrah for the office slob! Even in the most low-level hellhole it’d be noticed (& talked about readily) if a woman turned up to work wearing the same clothes all week or was habitually untidy or hygiene lacking. I’ve been in jobs where the male equivalent was seen as charming, even hilarious! Nothing quite like the tousled armpit-stinking IT hippy in a Star Wars T-shirt for cutesy factor but don’t dare turn up like this if you’re female. Moronic workplace prejudices thrive at the top end of the spectrum too. I’ve a friend who worked in a very senior role in a government department in Dublin, who only wore trouser suits to work, so as to feel & be on an equal dress footing with her male colleagues. It became a kind of after work joke with her peers that she was somehow doing this on purpose to ‘seem more aggressive’ and unfeminine, even ‘competitive’. She felt she couldn’t win. A lot of these cultural conjectures are facilely sinister…
There are companies whose dress codes for men and women are equally ‘formal’ or even purposely casual (Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel demand staff look as ‘natural’ as possible, including very little make-up). All staff requirements are at least on an equal footing. An entire caste of dress codes is out there ranging from: ‘relaxed casual’ to ‘smart casual’, ‘professional’ and ‘formal’. Having them in place is not illegal. But asking something very different of women to men is another matter altogether. Just to be pedantic here, let’s remember that Harrods also has a ‘dress code’ for mere mortal shoppers too – prohibiting ripped jeans, high cut Bermuda or beach shorts, swim wear, athletic singlets, cycling shorts, flip flops or thong sandals, dirty or unkempt clothing…exposure of ankles or midriff – despite selling these very fashions. Since inception of this shopper’s dress code in 1989, the store has refused admittance to various people including: a soldier in uniform, a scout troop, a woman with a Mohican, a fifteen stone woman and FC Shakhtar Donetsk‘s first team for wearing tracksuits. However, to demand that make-up as uniform for female employees in the way that shirts or ties are for men, serves only to reinforce the idiotic gender stereotypes that I for one had assumed were left behind with asbestos and tinned carrots.
The Harrods Dress Code for staff seems hilariously Victorian on first reading, but I guess for someone like Melanie Stark, losing your job due to lack of bodily bedecking & garnishing is as unfunny as it gets. She may argue indirect discrimination – under the UK’s Equality Act 2010 – she’d have to show that the application of the provision, criterion or practice (PCP) put her (and other women?) at a particular disadvantage when compared with men in the same circumstances. Harrods could argue in return that it also practices a dress code for members of the public and therefore it cannot be deemed as discrimination to extend this to employees. Either way, I hope she siphons a ton of crisp notes off the sexist snobs…enough for a few decades-supply of make-up, should she ever choose to wear it.