Dress Codes and Women: What You Need To Know About Your Rights & The “Rules”

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Dress codes and women are getting a lot of attention lately thanks to schools implementing or enforcing them to avoid sexually-charged incidents or crimes. The problem, say critics, is that many dress codes are sexist: they imply that what a girl wears is responsible for how a boy behaves. Here’s an article on CNN.com about the body shaming that goes along with some dress code expectations (as one example).

But what about adult women in the workplace?  What is happening that may be affecting your self image or even violating your rights? Is there a psychology behind styling “dos & don’ts” that make sense or is it just another way to hold women responsible for men’s actions?

Bare Skin In The Workplace

I started down this rabbit hole after watching the below video by SheSpark contributors Imogen Lamport and Jill Chivers who discuss how much skin is appropriate to show in the workplace.  They acknowledge that this is a heated debate and look to studies to support their opinions. They also have simple strategies for determining what works for your environment and job.



One point they make is about how the human eye is naturally attracted to skin for both males and females. Not only that, it’s difficult to pull your eyes away from the skin even when you don’t want to stare. Is that the case? According to the article “The Science of Nudity: The Skinny on Showing Skin” by Peter Lollo on public station KQED in San Francisco, there’s merit to what Imogen and Jill point out.  A particular fact mentioned: “We recognize nude images quicker than almost anything–faster than cars, clothed people, or faces–and we do it within 0.2 seconds.” Clearly, skin attracts our attention immediately.


As an image consultant, I advise clients to bare a bit of skin to accentuate their assets and detract from other areas. If you have fabulous legs, wear a skirt. If you have fantastic arms, wear a sleeveless shirt. Track records show that baring even a little skin works in purposefully directing the eye to where you want it to go.

How Much is Too Much?

“If you need a special bra for it, it’s not office wear,” stated Corporatte blogger Kat Griffin in this Quartzy.com article. She refers to the off-shoulder blouse trend that has swept retail stores online and off. Yet, in an effort to be fashionable, magazine editors and designers are showing skin in places that are considered inappropriate for the office. (Unless, perhaps, you work for a fashion magazine or some other creative or sexy industry.)  Business casual has become such a moving target, that women aren’t sure what’s acceptable and look to fashion publications for answers. This can be misleading. Fashion editors show photos of women sporting suits with tube tops. Or skirts with slits up to your underwear seam. Style decisions that would send executive recruiters into a tizzy.

True Story

At AOL’s business-casual office in the 1990s, an administrative assistant was preparing the conference room for a meeting when myself and a handful of men walked in. She wore a black bra and lace top that showed skin all the way down to her skirt’s waistline. The men’s jaws dropped. Mine did, too. What did one do in this situation? This outfit was so far out of our corporate culture, that it was shocking. We all did our best to avoid staring at her bra and midriff by shuffling our meeting agendas and taking “notes.”  When she left the room, there was a collective sigh of relief. After the meeting, I called our HR manager to explain what happened. Apparently, she had already heard from someone else. Shortly thereafter, employees received a copy of AOL’s first dress code.

Aside from simple shock value, baring more skin may have subconscious repercussions on your perceived agency and experience. In this case, agency refers to your level of self control and ability and make decisions for him or herself. Experience refers to a person’s ability to perceive and feel.    Business Insider reported that students who saw photos of a man and woman from the neck up had a lot of agency. When shown the exact same man and woman bare-skinned below the neck, both became reckless or not to be taken as seriously. Their agency level plummeted.  It didn’t matter if the viewer was male or female, the results were the same. This subconscious reaction may warrant taking a second look at clothing choices for the workplace when climbing the career ladder of success.

Dress Codes and Women — Know Your Rights

If your company doesn’t have a dress code, it’s worth it to write one. Haven’t seen a dress code? Ask your manager or HR rep if there is one and review a copy.  If you see a clause that looks like it violates your rights, speak up. Discrimination based on religious beliefs, disabilities, race, or national origin are no-no’s, but may end up happening unintentionally. So make your voice heard. Here are examples of what you may encounter from Lawyers.com.  Notice that codes can legally vary between genders. While that may not be fair (some men may want to wear makeup and some women may like wearing pants instead of skirts), in most states it isn’t illegal. Watch this YouTube video from HR360Inc to better understand what HR departments are hearing from industry consultants on best practices for dress codes.



Breaking The Rules

If you think that an organization needs to evolve in dress codes, uniforms, or other personal image expectations, there is value in breaking the rules. We’d all still be wearing rib-breaking corsets if it weren’t for rule-breakers like Coco Chanel.  The trick is to do it in a way that creates “buy in” to a new perspective. Or designing a different approach to the matter. Instead of bare arms or shoulders, try wearing a camisole under a sheer top that has sleeves. Or opaque tights with a skirt that hits above the knee instead of bare legs.  Creativity is the catalyst for change and may allow for more feminine stylings without crossing lines of propriety.

The one rule of thumb I’ve heard from business owners, HR managers, and recruiters: keep “distractions” to a minimum.  If your creative style is so over the top that it distracts from your performance and skillset, then re-evaluate. Keep your agency level high!

Do you have a story of someone who broke style rules in a good way or bad way? Please share it in the comments below!


About The Author

Thea Wood mona lisa


Thea Wood is the co-publisher of SheSpark.com and a certified image consultant from Austin, TX.  She is a TEDx speaker and wrote the new e-book The Intentional Makeover  and co-authored the book Socially Smart & Savvy. Thea shares styling advice at TheaWood.com, helping women create a signature style that says who they are and where they’re going.

2 comments on “Dress Codes and Women: What You Need To Know About Your Rights & The “Rules”

  1. Great article. I have worked in the corporate world in sales for over 30 years, calling on businesses in all different industries. I remember when “casual Friday’s” were first implemented and how there are always a few employees who just don’t understand that casual in the workplace is not the same as at home. So, it always led to companies having to put in place dress codes for the few who violate any common sense. One piece of clothing that should be stated as a no-no to wear, is spandex. Trust me, I have seen some employees wear spandex to the work place when you would not even want to see them in at home. And thinking about the amount of skin to show, great reminders and I see that it is beginning to get more and more lack in environments, so great info. thank you

    1. LeAnn, thank you for sharing your experience and tips. Our generation has seen so many changes in work attire over the years that it’s mind boggling. Too bad that many fashion magazines are giving direction that isn’t always in alignment with a lot of work environments and dress codes.

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