Lucy Mangan

“You can take your heels and...” Lucy Mangan on the high heels debate

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Lucy Mangan
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I honestly thought more than 10 MPs would turn up to the Westminster Hall debate about high heels in the workplace last week, even if they only went for curiosity’s sake or to kill some of the otherwise dead hours of doing their parliamentary duty. In the event, the turn-out was p*sspoor. Still, what we lose in rigorous discussion and forward legislative motion we gain in hope.

You remember, I’m sure, the news that prompted the debate over banning mandatory corporate dress codes. Receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home by her employer after she refused to wear high heels to work. She launched a petition entitled ‘Make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work’ that quickly got over 150,000 signatures and prompted the Petitions and Women and Equalities committees to investigate sexist dress codes in the workplace and call for a review of the rules covering them.

The resulting debate cited evidence gathered by the committees that will probably come as no surprise to those of us who have ever set foot in an office or worked in a shop, but which is still pretty astonishing when you hear it all at once. There’s the firm that requires female staff to wear make-up and even provides a colour chart of acceptable nail polish shades. The firm that told off a black woman for wearing black tights instead of “flesh coloured”. The retailer who told female staff to wear extra lipstick and open their blouses a bit more at Christmas so that it would hit seasonal targets.

We could all, I’m sure, add our own anecdotes to this. I was once fired from a temp job for my insistence on wearing trousers instead of a skirt while working at the (freezing) reception desk. To my everlasting regret I just slunk away (I was in my early 20s and still easily intimidated), but 15 years on I now go shopping with girlfriends and watch, mouth agape, as they try and find just the right shift dress for work. Not too short. Not too long. Not ‘booby’ but not sexless. A matching cardigan, not to accommodate different temperatures but different clients. Some can cope with women having bare arms, you see, and some can’t. Then come the different height heels according to the exact result those calculations have produced. Two inches if the dress is a little bit short or a little bit booby. Four if it’s erring the other way. Three if you’re tall or have a really long day ahead of you. Never once do I hear anything about comfort or how the outfit will facilitate getting their jobs done.

I’m sure the low turnout at the parliamentary debate was down to how frivolous it sounded – high heels, yay or nay? – but of course it’s not. So much is enshrined in how we dress and the rules that are laid down about it. Imagine being the black woman who was told to change her black tights because they weren’t flesh- coloured. What erasure. Imagine being told to look more sexually available so that a store can hit central targets. What humiliation. Imagine being expected to do an eight hour shift standing on the balls of your feet and two thin sticks. What madness.

This was a debate worth having among more than 10 MPs. And it is one that we must keep having among ourselves. It is technically already illegal to have different dress codes for men and women (although the penalties are so trifling you’d be better off making code enforcers stand in stilettoes for an hour instead), so don’t be cowed. Let’s slip on our flats en masse, and stand tall.