Harrods and make-up: women’s faces aren’t good enough

// 2 July 2011

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make up accessories.jpg

The Guardian today reports on a Harrods salesperson who felt compelled to leave the company after refusing to comply with their requirement for women to wear make-up. Management had no problems with Melanie Stark’s work, and she excelled in a mystery shopper assessment, but was sent home last August when senior managers noticed she wasn’t wearing make-up. The next day, she was put to work in the stock room, and was later told she had to start wearing make-up or quit her job.

This episode blew over, but a few weeks ago she attended a training presentation where staff were told: “Girls, I want you to be made up”. She was transferred to a new store but decided she couldn’t go through all the hassle again and resigned.

The two-page “ladies” dress code stipulates: “Full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a ‘washing out’ effect).”

When she refused she was offered a makeup workshop and told, ‘You can see what you look like with makeup’, she said.

“I was appalled. 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 completely agree with her; the policy is outrageous and offensive. Needless to say, men are not subject to the same requirements.

This is clear sexist discrimination: men’s bare faces are acceptable, women’s are not. Legally, case law apparently supports “the right of employers to impose dress codes with different requirements for women and men provided there were ‘equivalent’ requirements”, but I fail to see any equivalence here. Perhaps the fact that this trend is repeated in workplaces and social settings across the country would provide Harrods with an excuse: after all, in terms of social norms, there is equivalence.

Well, I applaud Stark for breaking this social norm. So many women feel their natural faces are not good enough to be exposed in public, that they must be concealed and enhanced before they can step out the front door, attend a social function, or perform their job in the workplace. Harrods’ code is just one small example of our society’s demand that women simply accept that our faces are not good enough without make-up, and I think we’d all be better off if more of us followed Stark’s example and took a stand against this everyday sexism.

I know I am. I used to be unable to leave the house without make-up, and I eventually decided my life would be much improved if I could be comfortable in public without painting my face first. I forced myself to go for weeks without wearing make-up, until that feeling of being exposed and inadequate left me and was replaced with a new sense of freedom and real confidence – not the kind that comes with a tube of expensive foundation sold by a company that makes its millions off creating and feeding female insecurity. It may seem like a small thing, but the effect it’s had on my self-esteem has been immense.

I of course know and accept that everyone’s different, and not all women will feel the same, but I think many would be surprised at how much better they’d feel if they stopped buying into the beauty myth. The ball’s in our court: if we want to stop body hatred and insecurity, we need to start accepting that, actually, we don’t need make-up.

Photo of a pale face powder with brushes and black eye liner, on a purple background, by incurable_hippie, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Jane E // Posted 2 July 2011 at 12:53 pm

This is appalling. There must be a legal case for Harrods to answer here, surely? I fail to see the difference between a culture that demands a woman covers her face with make-up in order to work and one that demands she covers it with a veil to be out in public. We would not tolerate one in a government, we should not tolerate the other in a business.

However: I too applaud Stark’s stance on this. This is because I am sensible and also a feminist. But I do take issue with this implicit and frequently repeated trope that one cannot be a “proper” feminist if one likes make-up. My decision to wear make-up is NOT lack of confidence or giving in to the beauty myth. It is punk/goth/warpaint – an expression of my identity. Proven by the fact that I am required to wear LESS of it when I’m working. Please don’t assume weakness in women based on what we choose to wear.

Laura // Posted 2 July 2011 at 1:59 pm

Hi Jane E,

I totally agree that wearing make-up isn’t necessarily indicative of giving in to the beauty myth and that there are other reasons why women (and men) wear it. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing in and of itself. I did actually originally write a paragraph about how I do now sometimes wear it to alter my appearance/be creative and that it now feels like a free choice rather than something I have to do, but the post was getting rather lengthy and too focused on me so I cut it! What I meant by my last paragraph was that women shouldn’t feel like it’s a REQUIREMENT to wear make-up, not that we should never wear it at all. Hope that clears things up :-)

Helen Fielding // Posted 2 July 2011 at 2:28 pm

How ridiculous. I could understand if she worked on a make up counter. Otherwise, what a lot of effort! I work in retail (not this kind of retail) and I frequently can’t be bothered to put make up on for work. I like make up, I don’t see why you can’t wear make up and also be a feminist. But Harrods should understand that you can NOT wear make up and still be an excellent staff member. This is shocking, 1950’s style behaviour

Jake // Posted 2 July 2011 at 2:45 pm

That’s aweful! here’s Harrods Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/HarrodsofLondon. If you’ve ever bought anything from Harrods then your a customer, so feel free to leave a channel comment about this. Calm down 1st though and make it and effective. In case it’s deleted, this is mine.

“The large amounts of money spent at harrods is earne largely by people who are capable and intelligent. When I found out there’s a requirement that female staff wear makeup at all times iI thought it was rediculous and insulting to female customers as well as staff. Can you think carefully about removing this requirement as I lie to shop in places where I feel comfortable that have a nice karma.not an onerous one, thankyou.”

Jake // Posted 2 July 2011 at 3:28 pm

Also here’s the Harrods contact page where you can select corperate enquiry from the message type. http://www.harrods.com/contact-us

Laura // Posted 2 July 2011 at 4:09 pm

Hi Jake,

I appreciate your sentiment, but I just wanted to point out that it doesn’t matter whether the people who spend money at Harrods are what society deems “capable and intelligent”. Those who society deems incapable and unintelligent matter too! Feminist With Disabilities have more on ableist language here: http://disabledfeminists.com/category/ableist-word-profile/

Jake // Posted 3 July 2011 at 3:24 am

Hey sorry if the publication of my email to Harrods has offended anyone, it was designed to to communicate directly and effectively with the managers at Harrods. I work in retail as an hourly paid staff member and have experienced the results of retail top management culture 1st hand for years and it’s not cool. It’s that both customers and staff resistance to anything can be overcome by applying tried and tested sychological methods and those, by the way, usually work. So they basically think we’re all morons, Unless, those people are percieved to be from the same group and culture as the managers themselves. In which case a single comment can be taken note of (and that’s what I was aiming for). or it’s a popular view PR can’t shift so they stand to lose sales. So my email was written to be as effective as possible at persuading them to change their policy. If I’d just written it from the heart they would have just filed it away and after counting only 20 others like it, dismissed it as they will yours if your not a journalist. And 6 months later the whole thing is forgotten about and the make up requirement is still in place and if they really have to they’ll write to staff members on the subject saying “We value your effort, commitment and professionalism” meaning not adhering to all the current dress standards is unprofessional. I know them like the back of my hand. It would take an item on a TV news show to possibly change policy. Anyway I should have made all that plain before publishing the email here or not published it. Of course everyones opinion is valid but not to top retail managment culture, that’s why this dress code exists and why Melanies opinion wasn’t considered valid and the inevitable result of their response to her is that she’ll have to claim constructive dismissal. Yeah anyway sorry.

Kerry // Posted 3 July 2011 at 4:01 am

I’m in total agreement, but I feel the need to make another point…

Does this mean that Harrods are also in breach off the DDA, if they refuse to employ a woman who is unable to wear make-up – for example, someone who was allergic?

shatterboxx // Posted 3 July 2011 at 8:40 am

That’s appalling, the poor girl. I worked in retail for six years and remember in one position my manager giving me a low mark for ‘appearance’ in my monthly assessment, despite the fact I always wore regulation uniform, had my hair tied back and wore appropriate shoes. I know for a fact the male members of staff did fine on this bit, so I did wonder if it was because I never wore any makeup (or whether my manager thought it was OK to judge me more harshly because I’m a woman)..

Is anyone else shocked by the fact that this girl has essentially been forced out of her job? Does she have a new job? God knows you don’t want to be unemployed at the moment… This really is frightening.

Chelle // Posted 4 July 2011 at 10:57 am

I have a friend who works at Harrods and has experienced exactly the same thing. She went through a four round interview process where a lot of focus was given to dress code and the way everyone looked. Unlike Stark however, she has not yet been brave enough to make a stand. She once spent an entire lunch break with me panicing about a ladder in her tights and what would happen to her if her manager saw it. This is not the friend I know. She used to always go bare legged. I really admire Melanie Stark, when many other women haven’t haven’t had the bottle to stand up. Or even worse, are enforcing the make up rule.

LUVM // Posted 4 July 2011 at 1:26 pm

If you truly have to wear every single item of make-up on that list, it’s not make-up, it’s a mask.

sian norris // Posted 5 July 2011 at 1:48 pm


I did exactly the same thing! i couldn’t leave the house without make-up, even for ten minutes. So i forced myself not to wear it. Now i do tend to wear it, but more as a creative expression thing and i certainly don’t feel i have to at work. last week i didn’t wear make up or style my hair when going to work at all because i was ill (bee sting, bad arm, painful to put on make-up), something which i simply couldn’t have done years ago. it is disgraceful that Harrods have behaved this way, but they are not the only offender, banks are also guilty of this, as a blogpost/review from a couple of years ago revealed.

It basically says that women’s faces aren’t good enough, that we should always be on display, that we are objects to be seen, not subjects.


Anna Mackenzie // Posted 5 July 2011 at 4:26 pm

I think that Harrods have behaved disgracefully, and thoroughly admire Stark’s position on this. Though, you’ve got to ask – is this such a tremendous and ‘out-there’, brave thing to do? It’s simply asking your employers to respect your appearance; it’s not like she was flouting their clothing regulations by, for example, wearing a purple, checked mini-skirt instead of a knee-length black skirt… It’s a face. Kerry – you’ve got a great point there!!

I experienced a similar thing in a restaurant I used to work at as a breakfast waitress. I’d been waitressing for 7 years and had never been criticised for the way in which I presented myself. Always clean, ironed clothes, clean har tied back, and whatever make-up I felt I needed (for blemish-covering purposes!) on that day. On one occasion I was pulled aside, told to wear blusher and lip-gloss, to buy ‘dolly shoes’ instead of the smart, functional black shoes I’d always worn, and to tie my fringe up off my face. I refused with regard the make-up and fringe, but changed my shoes. Nothing else was said.

It’s amazing how employers feel they can behave this way with women, and not men. Take the beauty counter staff in department stores – instead of being amazed and astounded at how good they look, I always feel – irrelevant of how good my hair’s being that day, or how clear my skin is – that I’m so scruffy, and unkempt, and non-shiny in comparison. And that puts me off buying from them – ah, that old fear of being judged…

The bottom line is: as long as staff are clean, presentable, their clothes are ironed, and their hair tied up (if necessary), what is the problem? I very much doubt that such problems are highlighted with, for example, men with too much stubble, or their hair’s too light under the ‘washing out effect’ of the Harrods’ lights…. Criticising someone’s *face* – by virtue of demanding they plaster it in make-up – is an absolute disgrace. I’ll never go in Harrods again.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 5 July 2011 at 5:31 pm

The Daily Mail has shared their wisdom on this story…

Philippa Willitts // Posted 5 July 2011 at 5:34 pm

If that link doesn’t work, this one should.

S // Posted 6 July 2011 at 4:35 pm

I never really comment on here, but I just wanted ot add to this with…

On the link to the Daily Mail, they also say that earring are ‘essential’.

Does this mean I’d need to go an get my ears pierced to work there?

That seems just as, if not more, unfair than expecting ‘full’ makeup to be worn.

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