The Bank of England dress code and more

// 1 February 2009

Women working at the Bank of England, a public institution let’s remember, have been told that heels and makeup are mandatory.

A memo was sent around to all female employees, ahead of a ‘Dress for Success’ day.

“Look professional, not fashionable; be careful with perfume; always wear a heel of some sort — maximum 2 inches; always wear some sort of makeup — even if it’s just lipstick.” Shoes and skirt must be the same color. No-no’s include ankle chains — “professional, but not the one you want to be associated with;” white high heels; overstuffed handbags; an overload of rings, and double-pierced ears.

Via Feminist Philosophers.

In the Guardian, Ruth Sutherland highlights the lack of women leaders at Davos:

The big theme at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) was “Shaping the Post-Crisis World”. The idea that that can be achieved while excluding half the population is breathtaking in its arrogance and shows that the male Davos elite remains mired in its own preening self-regard and complacency.

Sociological Images uncovers a particularly stark reminder of how women’s bodies are viewed as shameful:

As a fortuitous counterpoint, Melissa challeges us to name which part of our bodies we find the most beautiful:

“None” is not an acceptable answer. Go on and be radical and publicly love at least one part of your body!

Comments From You

Spider // Posted 2 February 2009 at 2:56 am

I wonder if you can get a pass if, like me, you have extremely flat feet and wearing even the smallest heel causes extreme pain.

I work for a bank in the States and have been explicitly told by my superiors that I ought to wear skirts and heels more often because it looks more professional, but I can’t get them to put it in writing. A shame.

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 9:38 am

“always wear some sort of makeup — even if it’s just lipstick.” Shoes and skirt must be the same color. No-no’s include ankle chains — “professional, but not the one you want to be associated with;”


Anne Onne // Posted 2 February 2009 at 11:10 am

Wow, anatomical images are inappropriate! Even the stomach, too, apparently! What a view to encourage with advertising: women’s bodies are dirty, whatever the context. I’m glad that my parents never cared about that for a start. I can’t even remember when I learned about sex, since reproduction was in all my science books as a kid. And now I’m an adult who isn’t ashamed of their body, and knows her cervix from her cervical vertebrae, so I guess ‘inappropriate content’ is a good thing.

Considering one can’t stop kids seeing porn, or sexual imagery in the media these days, trying to avoid factual references of sex (ie sex education) is particularly stupid, because it leaves kids unable to deal with the world around them with knowledge. I would really like to say the ad’s just a joke, but nothing ever really is, and there are enough parents out there who find the idea of teaching kids sex education of any sort a terrible crime that this is very unfunny.

As for parts of the body: I love my hands the most. They’re particularly functional, and we communicate so much with them. But I made up my mind a long time ago to not hate any part of my body. Is it flawed? Yes. But it’s beautiful because it is.

And heels and make-up? If they’re so professional, why don’t the men wear them, too, to improve their image? Hmm? And “professional, but not the one you want to be associated with;”??? What are we, 13 years old? Or in the stone age?

Maidens! Wear not thou anklets of braided chain, lest thou be mistaken for the harlotrye!

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2009 at 11:18 am

I don’t know, Leigh, who sent the memo or booked the appalling seminar. But whoever it was is just perpetuating the same tired notions, I think in an anti-woman way.

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 12:37 pm

Given the similarity to the Ernst & Young course that women were sent on, which were hosted and led by women I suspect that who ever issued the memo was female. Which leads me to the bigger issue- what role do women who write, edit and publish fashion magazines, women’s weeklies and adverts have to play in contemporary feminism. If they are doing things that are patently anti-women and doing the work of reinforcing destructive gender roles how should we as feminists (especially male feminists) respond to them. Are they not ‘the bad guys’, don’t they have a personal responsibility for what they do?

v // Posted 2 February 2009 at 12:39 pm

ive worked in retail and admin in many places and been given the same ‘advice’ on appropriate dress. one office i worked in – for honeywell, i’ll name them – the boss insisted on skirts, heels, and make-up. i didnt do the heels and he saw it as this huge rebellion against his authority, which he responded to by touching my legs as often as possible. i wasnt there long.

when i was working in restaurant bars i was allowed to wear trousers, but make-up was required, only *not too much* – we were to aim for a ‘natural look’. the female waiting staff were expected to go for a full on feminine look, even encouraged to wear glitter, and they were not allowed to wear trousers – skirts only, around knee length. bar staff were not allowed glitter, because behind the bar you’re expected to be a bit harder for some reason (refusing drinks? asking people to leave? these things i think).

so, yeh, dress codes are terribly complicated. personally i hope i never find myself in a small heeled court shoe again, they look stupid, and i hate wearing tights, im a person who always without fail and within minutes of putting the damn things on, gets ladders. theyre a waste of money and effort. but anyway, the bank of england is only doing what is done in a million other workplaces. its shitty, but its typical.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2009 at 12:53 pm

I think that the memo is also based on a false premise. For my job, I often have to go to events where there are loads of bankers, and there are always a wide variety of women in various types of professional clothing. I’ve never felt like I was not dressed appropriately, or felt like I stood out, and my usual thing when smart clothes are necessary is a trouser suit, no makeup, no heels. The only way in which I’ve stood out is having obviously not spent a ludicrous amount of money on my clothes, because after all I’m a journalist not a banker :-)

But it’s hardly unusual to see other women similarly dressed. Maybe I’ve been subtly missing out on stories because of my reluctance to don heels and skirts and makeup, though.

Leah, I’d suggest that the memo and seminar was very likely approved by or solicited by a man, given that the Bank of England is hardly swimming in female senior execs. That said, I’m not going to not criticise what’s clearly as sexist enforcement of dress code because women may have been involved in coming up with the tips.

However, those individual women are not responsible for the wider context, which the dress code is an example of.

polly styrene // Posted 2 February 2009 at 1:06 pm

Oooh I do hope some of the Bank of England’s female employees know a smart employment lawyer. First of all there are some disabilities that would prevent people wearing heels.(disability discrimination). Then there’s the sex discrimination of course….Unlimited damages for ‘injury to feelings’ in the case of both of those.

Seriously if a memo like this came round at my work I’d put in an immediate grievance. It wouldn’t of course.

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 2:17 pm

@ Jess, but those women (by those I also mean women working in fashion and magazines such as ‘Heat’) are responsible for perpetuating that wider context by not changing what they put into it or objecting to what’s there, surely? They are women, authoring images of women for the consumption of women, just like House of Colours was for female staff at Ernst and Young. How do you think feminists should respond to that? Should they be seen as capitulating to patriarchal ideals or, worse, betraying feminism outright?

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2009 at 2:27 pm

@Leigh I don’t think any specific response is called for, other than criticising the behaviour, and naming it as sexist. We don’t actually know that a woman wrote the email or set up the seminar, in this case.

Look, I don’t like it that women are perpetuating this particular kind of thing. But it’s not surprising in some ways; it can be a survival/success strategy. But, yeah, it’d be very nice if people stopped doing it.

However, in this case the responsibility rests with the Bank of England, which is the employer. It’s their job not to discriminate in this way, and to foster a non-sexist working environment. Of the 20 people senior enough to get listed on their website, only one is a woman. I don’t think that this is a case where any hands need to be wrung about women contributing to our own oppression.

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 3:49 pm

@polly styrene – The Bank of England is part of the government, technically they work for you, so you could write to them complaining on those grounds? That’s what I did “Your memo represents a backward, sexist attitude that has no place in an institution that represents this nation. It has no place in the 21st century.”

@Jess isn’t there something more proactive to do?

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 3:51 pm

Response from the Bank of England,

“Dear Mr Woosey

Thank you for your enquiry and comments on this matter.

Can I state categorically that media stories about a Bank of England dress code or advice about dress for women are wholly inaccurate and misleading. The Bank has issued no such advice, nor is there a memo from the Bank on the issue.

The facts are that an informal lunchtime gathering was organised by a women’s staff group at which an external company presented their ideas about building confidence. The session was provided free and had nothing to do with the Bank’s management. A list of ideas about dress was circulated by the consultant. Most Bank staff will not have seen this and those that have are free to treat it as they wish. Some members of our staff might hold views similar to your own. Like many organisations, the Bank simply requires staff to wear smart business attire.

I hope that this clarifies the situation following the unfortunate media reporting of this matter.

With kind regards

Malcolm Shemmonds

Public Information & Enquiries Group”

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 February 2009 at 4:09 pm

@Leigh, that’s fantastic. Well, it sucks that the session was deemed appropriate at all, but at least it wasn’t officially sanctioned, and the memo didn’t constitute a dress code.

Leigh // Posted 2 February 2009 at 4:24 pm

@Jess – And I only emailed them this morning! It just goes to show that if you are prepared to uproar you CAN get a response, things DO get read and you can have an impact.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 3 February 2009 at 12:14 am

May appear somewhat off topic but in answer to Leigh’s question concerning women’s magazine such as Heat, cosmo, Marie-Clair etc, whilst the editors are women they are not the ones with the real editorial power. This remains firmly in the hands of higher male management and male owners. Also, advertisers have immense influence in deciding what is and is not promoted within these women’s magazines. Advertising provides women’s magazines with the profit not articles. So, advertisers are able to demand and expect certain products to be located alongside articles focusing on women’s physical appearance and said advertising is often linked into the articles. So, it is not surprising so many women’s magazines promote women’s physical appearance as central to what supposedly passes for appropriate ‘feminine attire and behaviour.’ A great deal of pressure on women although purporting to emanate from women on further investigation it is discovered really emanates from men who hold more powerful positions such as the final say in what can and cannot be published.

How do we challenge that? Well, it is difficult but certainly questioning why women are constantly harranged about their appearance is a start but we need to be careful not to throw ‘baby out with bath water.’ A while ago a well known female celebrity attempted to have a photo taken of her without any airbrushing or make-up placed in well-known women magazines. Only one women’s magazine accepted – all the others refused because the photo did not conform to stereotypical representations of women and it was not the female editors who decided but the ‘hidden male directors/owners.’

polly styrene // Posted 3 February 2009 at 7:10 am

Hmmm – they should still be careful what activities are taking place on work premises and under the auspices of staff networks though. There have been plenty of cases where discriminatory behaviour has taken place at, for example, an office Christmas party and employers are still liable. In this case, as there was no element of compulsion or coercion, there’s probably no discrimination, but it’s not exactly good for their image.

And it’s shocking (though I have to say not entirely surprising) that the Bank of England, which I would presume is bound by the gender equality duty, isn’t taking positive steps to educate ALL its staff on equality and diversity.

Conservatorygirl // Posted 3 February 2009 at 9:10 am

Yeah! Get ahead by dressing like Thatcher… .does now.

F*** off.

Leigh // Posted 3 February 2009 at 12:06 pm

@Jennifer Drew – Do we have any evidence of the hidden males, links/new stories we can look at at in order to find out precisely who the buck stops with?

I have read plenty of (fairly vague) mandates from advertisers about no ‘controversial’ articles being published alongside their spreads, but are they issued/drafted by men? And how do we find out which men (or women) and how to contact them?

Aside from that, given how completely magazines like heat pursue a specific (and in my opinion confining) set of feminine value, can this all be attributed to male owners? Who owns women’s magazines (is there a list somewhere) and are they all men? Even so, why is it women writing for them and don’t they carry any personal responsibility for the words they choose to write, edit and publish?

Cara // Posted 3 February 2009 at 12:23 pm


OK so from what Leigh said – and good for you Leigh – it’s not quite as egregious as it sounded.

It wasn’t compulsory to attend this event and it isn’t a dress code.

Buut…the women who did go to this event hoping to build professional confidence may feel their appearance doesn’t measure up. You don’t have to be compelled to do something, to feel that if you don’t, it will make you come across as less professional / hurt your image / harm promotion prospects.

Also, this notion that women get confidence from looking a certain way. The cornerstone of a thousand makeover shows.

Can we get away from that, please.

Bored of it now.

Not saying that anyone, male or female, feels great in stained tracksuit bottoms, unshowered, with unwashed hair…but…there’s a big difference between basic personal grooming / hygiene and feeling you have to spend lots of money on the latest shoes (which must match your skirt, *eyeroll*).

(Oh and I’m lucky in that we have NO dress code at work. Sitting here in big boots over skinny jeans, and jumper. It’s comfy and warm, which in this weather is all I care about).

Cara // Posted 3 February 2009 at 12:30 pm

Oh, yes, loving the ‘professional, but not the one you want to be associated with’ comment, too.

Women must walk the line between ‘slut’ / ‘asking for it’ and ‘frump, no self-respect, should smarten up, not hot enough’.

That is, we must be sufficiently sexy looking to please men, but not so much so that we distract the poor things because they are forced to stare, leer, harrass, and sexually assault.

It is a narrow line.


Ruth // Posted 3 February 2009 at 1:59 pm

Heh, so glad I work in social care (pay’s crap but the work is great and so’s the team). Only dress code problems we had were the (female) team manager making the two (male) assistant managers wear shoes instead of flip flops, and not painting his toenails blue whilst wearing sandals respectively. :-)

The Boggart // Posted 3 February 2009 at 5:54 pm

If the dress code is mandatory, then surely women employees should be given a stipend of some kind towards the cost of make-up, heels and fashionable clothing – especially if we take the gender pay divide into account.

Secondly, I think that a reasonable case could be made for this dress code being both hazardous and detrimental to employees. In the short term high heels can cause severe foot pain and prevent freedom of movement – effectively hobbling the wearer. They also contribute greatly to accidents. In the longer term, daily wear can lead to serious chronic health problems such as bunions and incorrect posture. As for make-up, it is often laced with phlates and parabens e.t.c which are linked to myriad health problems such as cancer and infertility.

Therefore, the Bank of England should be fully prepared to compensate their employees, introduce a special health care plan, or at least to face a massive class-action law suit further down the line as a direct result of this dress code.


Hmmm…What’s that I hear?

The Boggart // Posted 3 February 2009 at 5:59 pm

Oopsie – it seems that the dress code is not mandatory/officially sanctioned afterall, but I feel that some of the points that I raise are still valid.

I really need to remember to refresh before commenting (Feministing moves so fast!)

Amrit // Posted 3 February 2009 at 7:46 pm

I have commented on this too!

for anyone who’s interested…

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