Several months ago I was rifling through my wardrobe, sourcing outfits for a string of MA and graduate job interviews. Was this dress too tight, this one too short? One thing was a certainty, however: the black suede heels, wrapped up in paper like old-fashioned sweets. Finding them restrictive, I rarely wear heels; I reserve them for situations where heels seem an unspoken requirement: interviews, the races, and nights out in Leeds. I’m not alone in my assumption that, for women, heels are often an unwritten part of the ‘smart’ dress code. At a particularly formal interview I attended, all of the other female applicants present wore heels, just as all the male applicants wore ties. And companies currently have every legal right to ensure employees look ‘smart and professional’, whatever that might entail. So I was unsurprised when I heard that a London receptionist was sent home for refusing to wear heels.
Arriving at a London PwC office, Nicola Thorp was told to go out and buy heels. Pointing out that her male colleague could wear flat shoes, Thorp then asked if not wearing heels would impair her ability to work, to which her overseer had no answer. She was then sent home without pay. Thorp has now started a petition to make it illegal for companies to require women to wear heels at work. Last I checked, the petition had accumulated 130,943 signatures (you need 10,000 for Parliament to consider a debate).
Smart and ballsy, [Maxine Peake in Silk] still wears heels in order to be taken seriously in a professional context.
Although PwC has spoken about changing its dress policy and Thorp’s petition will most likely be debated in parliament, the fact remains that it’s 2016, and I, like numerous other smart, ambitious young women, still blindly reached for those black suede heels. Whilst white Nikes and comfortable ‘normcore’ trainers now dominate the everyday, society still holds the belief that a woman in an office should be wearing heels. Throughout my adolescence, my mum was the main breadwinner, holding down a position in a traditional office. She would frequently wear heels and ‘power dresses’ to assert her authority, and now claims she walks more easily in heels than flats.
It’s an ideology perpetuated by shows like Suits, Silk and The Good Wife, in which female professionals and powerbrokers invariably wear heels. Silk, a British television series focusing on a female barrister’s journey to becoming Queen’s Consel, is one of my favourite shows, due in part to its strong female lead, played by Maxine Peake. However, the character is often shown easing off her heels, wincing, at the end of a long day at court. Smart and ballsy, the character still wears heels in order to be taken seriously in a professional context. And in conforming, she suffers physical pain at the end of each day. In response to Thorp’s petition, a waitress shared a photo of her feet after having worked all day in heels; her thin beige stockings are soaked with blood.
Women need to challenge outdated, sexualised dress codes.
If anything, a working woman hoping to be taken seriously should be rebelling against heels-only dress codes. The visual ideal of a ‘smart and professional’ woman recalls the sexy, fetishsised secretaries from a Mad Men-esque era. Some men, in response to Thorpe, have argued that the suits and ties they are forced to wear are also uncomfortable. This is a non-sequiter. A suit neither hinders one’s ability to walk, nor conjures images of sexy pin-up girls. What’s also worrying is that a suit and heeled shoes are seen by some as comparable. For over a century the male suit has been synonymous with office wear and professionalism. The idea that the female equivalent of the smart suit is a smart heel is highly troubling. It points to the deeper issues and gender politics still at play in the workplace. As long as the heel remains the default ‘smart professional’ office wear for the working woman, so too will the dark, lurking assumption that a professional woman is, like Peggy Olsen in Mad Men, a (still sexualised) novelty.
After one of my interviews, I gleefully pulled off the black suede heels, tucking them into my bag before slipping on loafers. Unused to heels, I felt like a ballet dancer who’d been dancing en pointe for hours. The only other occasions I wore heels – the races, parties – were as frivolous as the three-inch heels themselves. I just couldn’t imagine wearing heels at work everyday. Women need to challenge outdated, sexualised dress codes. We should not need heels to be taken seriously as professionals. Perhaps the removal of pin-up girl workwear will be the final step in achieving workplace gender equality. Heels should not be equated with a smart tie, and neither should they be necessary evils.