Currently, in the United Kingdom (UK) an employer can insist on a female wearing heels to work. I specify female here because I’ve heard of no case where a man has been faced with the same requirement. Whilst some women may like to do this and are free to do so, I am of the position that no woman should be told to do so. A woman who is not wearing high heels at work should not be an offense to anyone. But sadly, in 2017 the British government choose not to ban those dress code practice providing that when it’s required men are made to dress to an ‘equivalent level of smartness’.
So, here’s my story. After completing my first year at university, I moved back home and decided to get a summer job. I signed up for an events agency which promised flexibility and work throughout London (I won’t say the name as I’m not sure how they’ll react). The company itself seemed reasonable, I received training and was made aware what would lead to being fired 1) not showing up to a shift 2) not following the uniform. Sounds easy.
My first shift was to be at the Shard where I received a briefing stating I would have to wear heels, a black skirt, and a white shirt, hair back in a donut, and makeup completed with red lips. An air hostess springs to mind more than a waitress but my only job was to show up ready to work. Once I arrived, I noticed a discrepancy between the genders (70% women, and 30% men). All of the young women looked uncomfortable, and it struck me instantly that the men looked quite young and laid back, especially next to women with slicked hair and red lipstick. The shift was hell, I was 18 working at a fancy event trying to juggle my tray of champagne, smile at guests, and not break my ankle. The shift ended up being 13.5 hours, which wouldn’t have been so bad if my feet weren’t in agony. One other girl sprained her ankle but was made to continue and the next day it’s fair to say that I didn’t get out of bed. Doesn’t sound so bad right?
Well, there’s a reason why this role is filled by agency staff, no woman in her right mind would sign up to do 13 hour shifts in heels. Where she is expected to lift, and manage emotions. When the government does not ban the heel as part of a uniform they’re saying heels have ceased to be an accessory for women. On top of that, the employer expected the women to go through a beautification process, complete with red lipstick. Several hundred years ago, Parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, considering it a sign of witchcraft (Psychologies, 2011). Times have changed.
This policy is sexist. Yes, men used to wear heels but in modern western society, they’re a symbol of feminine subservience. Their impracticality is widespread knowledge, they are dangerous on grass, ice, sleet, slippery surfaces, polished floors, crowds, even normal floors. They can result in sore feet, sprained ankles, BROKEN ankles, bunions, skin peeling and have few benefits other than improved pasture. Victoria Beckham has had to have foot surgery due to the extensive damage done through wearing heels.
How did high heels become popular?
Originally, heels were shoes used by men for horseback riding. They were then adopted by aristocrats as a fashion choice. Notably, aristocrats don’t tend to work in menial waitressing roles, though women did pick up on the trend as even in the 17th century women wanted to be considered more masculine. The trend filtered down through the classes so aristocrats responded by raising the height of the heel. Impractical, uncomfortable clothing has always been a signal of status (BBC, 2013).
Why don’t men wear heels?
The Enlightenment saw the start of the Great Male Renunciation, with a shift towards practical clothing, men abandoning jewellry and bright colours, and a pronounced gender difference emerging in fashion. By 1740 men had stopped wearing heels, and its popularity decreased for women (BBC, 2013).
What are dress codes for?
A dress code should outline how an employer should present themselves at work and/or functions. Clothing requirements should take into consideration safety of staff, appropriateness and need be pain.
Some may argue, you don’t need to work there, and don’t worry I don’t! But it was my first shift and by relying on agency workers they are certain of a steady inflow of cheap labour. There is a reason men are never seen freely choosing to wear heels. They are not a signifier of power in most settings. In London 2018, men wearing boots are widespread but if a man is wearing heels (it’s quite uncommon). It just isn’t part of the male presentation in everyday life for most men, but that doesn’t mean it should be enforced on women. With women making giant strides in countless sections of society, patriarchy does not need to fight female progress through greater policing of female dress.
By Shaneka Knight
Facebook: Shaneka Knight
Kremer, W. (2013). Why did men stop wearing high heels. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21151350 [Accessed 1st of April 2018].
Psychologies. (2011). The power of red lipsticks. Retrieved from https://www.psychologies.co.uk/body/the-power-of-red-lipstick.html [Accessed 1st of April 2018].