We live in a multi-cultural society where diversity is supposedly celebrated or at least tolerated. There is however a dominant culture that is Anglo / European in origins. The values of what is commonly referred to as the establishment are routinely viewed by its adherents as the status quo or default norm and are used to judge the ‘otherness’ of different values.

Consider clothing and in particular what is considered suitable attire for office workers. It is the Anglo / European suit, trousers and jacket for men and trousers or skirt and jacket for women. This is a kind of costume or uniform that is considered by the establishment to symbolise order and power, but these are subjective associations. The shapes, colours and fabrics of different garments have no objective values of their own.

Establishment media corporations repeatedly publish infotainment propaganda about the importance of wearing the establishment costume. Vague and contradictory advice abounds. One week we’re told the collar and tie for men will become a historical legacy, but the next week we’re told that it is becoming more common. Then it’s going again. The media has no coherent narrative in relation to this issue. Much of what we’re told is propaganda or marketing.

The costume of corporate capitalism is meaningless to many people and there is no functional or practical reason why it continues to exist. It continues to exist as pure symbolism. All clothing is costume, and all costume is theatre. Wearing the costume of corporate capitalism is, for many people, a form of insidious servitude, an enforced and ritualistic humiliation that undermines and devalues their individuality.

I have a particular fondness for the absurd controversies that surround discussions of the sartorial choices of the nerd kings – leading IT innovators like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. They have styled their own voluntary uniforms from comfortable informal clothing and, in so doing, told the conservative establishment to accept them on their merits or fuck off. Advice to such innovators to conform to conventional styles is pathetic and absurd. Why should they? I envy them their freedom.

ATO workers probably envy them too. They were recently criticised for dressing too casually in the workplace. I don’t see the point. Happy staff are productive. Staff who are being bullied for harmless behaviour that is not related to their professional skills are likely to be demoralised and unproductive. There is nothing to be gained my making them wear different costumes while they work.

Consider the stupidity of this example. A woman of African descent who was an executive at an oil company in the UK was fired for wearing ethnic clothing and an ethnic hairstyle in the workplace, specifically a dashiki and braided hair. Her style and presentation was different to that of the establishment and was viewed as not conforming to the dominant culture.

In another example an Australian rugby league player was criticised in the establishment media for appearing at an official hearing in casual clothing. The establishment said this symbolised disrespect. But they don’t choose who gets to define the symbolism of clothing and their opinion is no more worthy than the player’s.

This perfectly illustrates the ideology that costumes are assumed to have different meanings and different values. I contend that those values have so fragmented and dissolved that they no longer mean anything. Those that claim to own the values they (but not others) associate with those costumes do so to control and discriminate against others. This is unethical and should end.

Privileging one costume over another in the workplace is mere prejudice and discrimination and should be illegal like other forms of discrimination. Why do people care what other people wear? Objective standards can be determined, such as clothing being clean and in good condition, but there is no need for subjective standards, particularly those that enforce and entrench gender discrimination. Men are controlled more rigidly and narrowly than women.

Just because someone is white, or male, or middle class, or professionally employed, does not on its own make them a member of the establishment or someone who believes in the symbolism of the costume they are expected to wear. Members of the establishment cannot co-opt people who look like them to dress and behave like them any more than they can make people who look nothing like them dress like them.

There is a reason why conformity is policed. Nonconformist behaviour is symbolic of individuality and autonomy and hence a lack of staff being under the control of management. Research suggests that observers confer status on fashion nonconformists, and it is plausible to infer that the establishment does not like the proles making their own minds up about the symbolism of clothing. We’re expected to believe and respect only the dominant culture’s sartorial aesthetics. They can fuck off.

privileging one costume over another in the workplace

4 thoughts on “privileging one costume over another in the workplace

  • 16 May 2014 at 3:52 pm
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    I love this… I have worn casual clothes to a corporate job for quite a few years. Every time I get spoken to about it (once or twice per year) I manage to argue my way out of any persecution or disciplinary action. Our code of conduct does mention dress, but it is so vague as to exactly what you are supposed to wear that pulling it out only serves my agenda, to wear whatever I like to work.

    It’s a fun discussion.

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  • 20 May 2014 at 5:57 pm
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    I’m a Postie, so we have to wear high visibility top etc whilst we deliver, which makes sense, so I don’t have a problem with that as it’s safety. Whilst we stand at our frames/workstations and sort the mail (this can take hrs) we can wear what we want: some DC’s are really strict and the manager wants everyone in uniform whilst they sort, but our manager doesn’t care, so long as we go out in our uniform, gloves, helmet. When I arrive, I get changed from motorbike gear and then wear anything: yesterday I wore my FUCK TONY ABBOTT t-shirt and no one cared. NOW THAT is a tolerant workplace!!

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    • 20 May 2014 at 6:10 pm
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      Functional and OH&S requirements are completely different. I’m talking about when it’s only aesthetic and ideological.

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  • 20 May 2014 at 6:23 pm
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    Oh, I realise this, and I too hate the whole BS when it comes to office attire- I mean, who cares if you wear a tie or high heels? Part of the reason I left my crap hospital job was because of the stupid dress requirements: all that ironing and hand washing and having to have a “working wardrobe”…UGH, so expensive and tedious and unnecessary!

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