Heels at work: the conflation of ‘smart’ and ‘pretty’

Image by the awesome Stuart F Taylor

Sometimes I see an issue pop up in the news and think ‘oh God I can’t be bothered,’ and this week’s discussion about women wearing high heels at work was almost one of them. But then I remembered something an old boss said to me, and the bile rose in my throat so I thought: fuck it. I’m doing this. I’m going to state the massively obvious.

Making women wear high heels at work is a fucking awful, sexist, bullshit, tedious thing to do. It belongs in a bin somewhere back in the 1950s. If you have a ‘dress code’ – official or unofficial – at your workplace that requires any member of staff to wear ridiculously painful footwear that isn’t directly relevant to their job, then you are an arse.

What’s more, heels are generally a gendered thing. Although there are reports of workplaces sending women home if they’re not wearing heels, I’ve never seen men told to don a pair of Louboutins or fuck off down to the dole office. There are gendered workplace dress codes that affect men too: compulsory ties, anyone? It’s bollocks. All of it’s bollocks.

But there I go stating the obvious.

Unofficial dress codes

Part of the problem, I think, comes from the fact that so many of these dress codes are ‘unofficial.’ Rarely is it explicitly stated the way it would be on a school uniform checklist: men must wear ties, women must wear heels. It’s usually handed down in coded language like ‘smart’, then followed up by managers who have personal preferences/opinions/biases on these things. While it’s all very well us pointing to the Equality Act and saying ‘companies should be fined if they have dress codes that tell women to wear heels at work’, mostly these ‘dress codes’ are policed via informal chats and individual assumptions.

Onto the story I wanted to tell you.

When I first moved to London, nearly ten years ago, I accepted the very first job that was offered to me. I was desperate to be here (and out of my parents’ house), and no one had yet offered me a tonne of money to sit on my arse writing about sex. So I took a sales job. God it was awful – AWFUL. As awful as you’d expect a sales job to be, but with the added fun of a senior manager who had his arse (and ideas) planted firmly in the late 1970s.

Over the course of my time there he picked me up on a number of egregious workplace misdemeanours I’d committed, including ‘wearing a tank top’, ‘having a boyfriend’ and ‘eating crisps at lunchtime.’ He was a grade-A bellend, whose bullshit I swallowed because I needed the fucking money.

Anyway. He is just the backdrop to this. All he had done was lay the groundwork for what actually happened. What happened was that my line manager (one rung below Arsehole Prick Boss on the corporate ladder) pulled me into a meeting room one day. We’d had a meeting the day before, during which I’d been pretty excellent. I’d managed to persuade a client to stay with us, or I’d upsold them something, or I’d left them with a general sense that hiring us was the best corporate decision they’d made since Apple invented the iPod – something along those lines. I’d done well. Naturally I thought she was taking me to one side for a pat on the head, but no.

“The meeting yesterday,” she began. I nodded and smiled, ready to bat away her compliments with ‘ah, all in a day’s work mate.’ Then she put on her angry face.

“I know you’re used to being casual, but you really need to make more of an effort in meetings.”

“I… what?”

“You looked incredibly scruffy, and it gives a really bad impression.”


“You were wearing trousers,” she began, “and they’re too big for you. But more importantly, you weren’t wearing any make-up.”


Back then, I rarely – if ever – wore make-up. Even if I was going out, I’d draw on some lopsided eyeliner in the toilet of a pub and pretend I’d made an effort. Make-up was not, for me, a vital part of any outfit, let alone one in which all I’d be doing was sitting opposite strangers and telling them to buy our shit.

But the decree had come down: make-up. She kindly made the concession that if I had no external meetings in any given day, I wouldn’t have to wear make-up for those. But if we were going out to see people, I had to wear make-up. Because it was ‘smart.’ I also had to buy some new smart trousers, because mine were too baggy because oh sorry boss I am fucking POOR and I do not have the money to spend on trousers I’m mostly going to be wearing BELOW A DESK THAT NO ONE CAN SEE.


So yeah. I’m stating the obvious: women shouldn’t be made to wear heels at work. Hooray for me, you probably agree, let’s all knit a jumper and congratulate ourselves on changing the world.

Except while we almost certainly do all agree that gendered dress codes are a bullshit thing, we probably all still have ideas in our head about what counts as ‘smart.’ Likely many of us will still instinctively conflate ‘smart’ and ‘pretty’ for women – seeing attributes like heels and make-up as important aspects of a ‘professional’ uniform. For men, ties perform a similar purpose, and while they’re not quite as uncomfortable as six-inch heels, they are still a massive pain in the neck.

And even though I am writing this down here, even I probably still make knee-jerk assumptions about someone’s worthiness or professionalism based on gender markers that have been defined and honed by generations of people like my Original Arsehole Prick Boss. Many of us do still ascribe to dress codes at social events that exclude people based on a number of different factors. And there are clearly still people – like my line manager – who will unthinkingly accept those things and then pass them on, because that’s just the way things are done around here.

So yeah, it’s a tedious issue to bang on about. There are definitely more important things. But I wanted to get that story out of my system, even if it means stating the boring obvious.


  • RB says:

    I’d be really interested to see some kind of breakdown of what sectors/kinds of business enforce these sexist rules, purely to educate myself, because it really is a whole other world I don’t know. My working life since university has been spent in local government and Higher Education, and it’s never, ever, ever come up for me, even as someone who doesn’t wear make-up and can look what people might consider ‘scruffy’ at times. Right now I support the SLT of a big university, the post prestigious job I’ve had, and still nothing. But I don’t know if public sectors have more HR safeguards and complaint procedures, or whether I’ve just been lucky.

    Also, fuck that guy and I’m glad you’re your own boss now.

    • Mr Cockles says:

      Basically sales roles. An a fairly alternative looking gentleman I really struggled when working in a sales office. I had to work that bit harder than everyone else just to get them to cut me a break from time to time. I always though that it was to encourage another level of competition (which you need lots of money to partake in, ergo you then need to be very successful at your role)

      I now work from home. Today is a rarity in that I have gotten dressed.

      • Girl on the net says:

        Seconded on sales roles – and I think any job where suits are considered important like banking/law/etc etc. I have friends in law who have been massively fucked off with the expectations on them to wear not just smart but ‘femme smart’ – again it’s rarely outright expressed (because you can be damn sure lawyers know about the Equality Act) but more ‘casually’ enforced by managers and other members of the team. I bet there are also rules with certain uniformed professions too – there was a kick off a while back about Virgin Trains issuing female staff with a new blouse that was basically see-through, and other uniformed roles like air stewards etc often have quite strict and gendered dress codes. It’s all over the place, basically.

  • GL says:

    The funny thing about heels is that they can catch women coming and going (see jokes about tall women with short boyfriends not wearing heels).
    I had never thought about it, until a much taller friend called herself “The BFG” (and not in a nice way) when wearing heels, and commented on a picture that “she looked like she was going to eat us”.
    Conclusion: enforced narrow femininity is yet another rigged game.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Sometimes all you can do is state the boringly obvious. Lots of people repeating a message over and over has an effect, because there will always be people for whom it’s not obvious hearing it for the first time and going “oh yeah”. In such ways, hopefully, society gradually changes, until eventually we all wonder how we put up with such a stupid situation for so long.

    I figure strict dresscodes tend to come in where a company or field is feeling insecure about its status and wants to emphasise its separation from the crowd. That certainly applies in the law, where there’s a strong inclination to preserve the ‘mystique’ of the legal profession, and maintain a sense of tradition. Neither of which is a justification for ridiculous dress expectations, though. Wigs have mostly gone from courts, high heels can go too.

    I was going to say ‘besides, I can think of a few people who prove you can be somewhat scruffy-looking and still a good lawyer’ – but now I think about it, they’re all men. A woman probably couldn’t get away with it. That old double standard again.

    (For what it’s worth, the worst thing I was told by a boss was that I smelled and needed to improve my hygiene routine. That was crushingly embarrassing, but at least it was non-gendered. And in hindsight, probably true.)

  • Girl E. says:

    No heels for work here, NEVER!

    I avoid this like the plague.

  • I’ve experienced gendered transgressions of an unspoken dress code, but in a different way. I’ve worked at companies where it was never a particular item of clothing that was the issue, but that women were more likely to be pulled up on matters of appearance than men. And women would be picked on for things that were perfectly fine for men to do / wear.
    I work in one of “the professions”, and no-one who I work with is stupid enough to turn up in something obviously inappropriate. I think that part of the problem is that my area of work is traditionally male-dominated, and that women are “different” solely because of that. And that some people get a kick out of making other people’s lives harder. For example, I’ve learnt which managers hold which prejudices, and so it’s another part of navigating the politics / bullshit. As much as I hate formal dress codes, having one would eliminate the potential for abuse that we have with the subjective rules that everyone sort-of-knows-and-it’s-ok-as-it-doesn’t-apply-to-me.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ugh having to navigate all that sounds exhausting, and I think this is really interesting: “As much as I hate formal dress codes, having one would eliminate the potential for abuse” – I think I’m with you, although I guess it would then potentially limit otherwise casual working environments. Maybe some guidelines, along with an explicit company policy of non-discrimination, where managers are given appropriate training?

      Slight tangent but one of the things that frequently surprised me/annoyed me when I was working was just how many people were promoted to managers or given managerial type roles without any relevant training on how to ensure a fair environment for staff. Probably the best example of this is the sheer number of people who were called to be on interview panels, with no training on how to conduct a job interview without breaking discrimination law – cue a whole bunch of people suggesting that Candidate A is a ‘better fit’ than Candidate B. And I’m guessing a lot of the managers who enforce gendered dress codes are doing so without ever having been taught why this might be an issue.

  • Just want to mention as well that it can be terrifyingly ableist for some of us – job interviews give me the fear partly because I know I’ll be expected to wear heels but they put me at much greater risk of tripping and falling, therefore adding an additional level of anxiety to the process that, I think, puts me at a disadvantage compared to other candidates.

  • Rebecca says:

    Age provides a solution to a certain extent in the fact that we are more confident more bolshie, more willing to stand up for what is right despite making us unpopular. I work in an environment where we have a dress code. The dress code stipulates smart/business wear. However that is it, and to be honest very rarely do any females wear make up or heels. This is entirely our choice and myself find an unmade up face, and flat shoes to deal with the walking easier. It is my choice and my choice alone whether I wish to adorn my face with “make up” or to wear heels which incidentally I love for me, not for a man. And I agree re the practicalities of wearing heels, I chose to wear when I am not walking far as I will trip and break my ankle. I do think more and more now days there is more emphasis on standing up which is wonderful. When I was a member of Ashley Madison and looking for a sexual liaison I would immediately jettison any man who put constraints on his profile such as size, underwear and makeup. How they had the audacity to do that was unbelievable.

  • Sadie says:

    I used to have to wear minimum 3 inch heels for my job as a make up artist in Selfridges. No tops that exposed your armpit. Full make up (which was relevant to my job since you’re unlikely to splurge £20 on a lippie from someone with a completely bare face.)

    I constantly got bollocked that my hair wasn’t smart enough. Meaning it was short rather the supposedly more feminine long look. My boss only stopped bugging me when I pointed out I spent £90 every 3 weeks getting it cut at Vidal Sassoon and she tied hers up with a bobble from Superdrug and which was ‘smarter’ on that scale?

    I loved wearing heels outside of work and owned some ridiculous pairs of towering boots and shoes, but being forced to wear them at work pissed me off immensely. I spent 8-10 hours a day on my feet and often on a marble floor and I was frequently expected to lift and carry stuff in a stockroom while wearing them. They also meant I had to wear tights (no boots allowed) all the time instead of socks which added a fortune to my monthly budget and dictated the clothes I could wear.

    I often went into stand alone stores for the same company and they insisted on having the door open in winter while their 90% female staff were all wearing 15 denier tights, pencil skirts and blouses and freezing cold. You know how women often complain ‘make up ladies’ are hostile and quite rude? Our feet hurt and we’re really cold and we’ve just laddered our eighth pair of tights in a week. And quite likely some bloke has been staring at my tits while buying a gift for his wife because we’re dressed in such an overt way compared to most people. Add in that I sufferer from chronic pain and I’m surprised I never told anyone to fuck off in that job.

    And don’t start me on the temp job I had dressing up an old fashioned usherette to sell niche Japanese cosmetics that involved wearing a leotard, fishnets and high heels and walking round a department store. Or the waitressing job in a 50s style diner with the short skirt and striped blouse knotted below my boobs which being the 90s I wore my DMs with.

    When I was an actual sex worker I mainly just wore a dress and flat ankle boots unless someone wanted the pin up/Jessica Rabbit va va voom style and paid me extra for how much time and labour goes into dolling yourself up. I’m high femme and in my personal life I love all that stuff, but the products and time cost money and if you demand I do it for work, I’m already on a pay gap right there. Wearing a tie does not compare in the slightest btw. I wore one everyday for 7 years at school. Never hurt, didn’t cost anything and was unlikely to break my ankle or get me groped.

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