The Problem With Retail Dress Codes

Clothing stores require employees stick to a dress code so they’re easily identifiable and represent the brand’s look. But where does an employer’s rights end and a worker’s rights begin?

Stacy Lee Kong
Two mannequins in a retail store window. One is wearing a striped off-the-shoulder top, the other is wearing a lilac version of the same top. You can see the reflection of a building in the window.
(Photo, Getty.)

When Christina Roberts (not her real name) worked at a downtown Toronto Coach store, “there was an actual book you were given of pre-approved outfits, hairstyles, et cetera,” she says. “We could only have nude or clear manicures, and it had to be perfect—one chip and the whole thing had to come off.”

As dress codes go, Coach’s requirements were pretty standard. Employees were expected to wear a black skirt or pants with a black sweater or white dress shirt, and to accessorize with a silk scarf, provided by the store, which most employees tied around their wrists or neck. The rules were more strict at Club Monaco, another of Roberts’ former gigs. There, “outfits were predetermined based on season,” she says. “When I first started working there, you were given an outfit of black basics and a white shirt that you could wear at any time. Then, they started introducing seasonal outfits. [Eventually,] they required us to wear something that was currently on sale in the store.” As new merchandise arrived in-store on a monthly basis, Roberts had to buy new outfits every month, which was a large financial burden—even with a 60% employee discount.

Not following the dress code isn’t really an option, though; Roberts says her bosses at both Coach and Club Monaco were strict when it came to violations. “You were asked to purchase something on the spot [if your outfit didn’t meet the standards], given a warning or sent home. It didn’t happen often.”

Most jobs have some sort of dress code, from the business casual attire required at many white collar jobs to company-provided uniforms at fast food restaurants or department stores. But clothing stores occupy a sometimes complicated space—companies want their employees to be easily identifiable and look professional, but they also have to represent the brand’s look. And that’s where things can get sticky.

Dress codes have always been about control

Retailers have always used dress codes to police their employees’ appearances and, by extension, their behaviour. “When the department store was created and spread around the country, shop floors were increasingly being staffed by women, and their appearance was seen as crucial by employers for projecting a specific image,” says Kendra Coulter, a Canadian labour expert and Brock University prof. “Some of the earliest department stores sponsored ‘wellness’ events and beauty pageants for employees to promote a particular way of looking—and acting.”

Back then, Coulter says, the majority of retail workers were unmarried, young, white women. Now, retail work is more evenly split along gender lines. According to Statistics Canada, “retail salesperson” is the most common job for both women and men, though women are still slightly more likely to work in stores—4.7% of employed women work in retail, as compared to 3.3% of employed men. (Statistics Canada doesn’t collect data on transgender or gender non-binary workers.) Workers are getting older, too. But according to a report from the Wellesley Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, people of colour are still underrepresented in Canada’s retail workforce.

This retail landscape, combined with dress codes aimed at a more homogenous workforce, can combine in troubling ways. As Roberts notes, workers aren’t usually provided the clothes they’re required to wear, which can make for a huge financial burden. And dress codes can also uphold restrictive beauty standards and problematic ideas about race, class and body image. Even the phrase “professional attire” needs to be unpacked—historically, Black women have been told their natural hair was unprofessional, a message recent events have only emphasized. Remember back in 2016, when managers at a Toronto Zara location told an employee her braids were “extreme” and “unprofessional”? Well, the more things change… Last year, a manager at a White Plains, NY Banana Republic told an employee her box braids were too “urban” and “unkempt” for the store’s image. (In that case, the company immediately suspended the manager and, after an investigation, he was fired.)

Some dress codes can be problematic—even if they’re not trying to be

It’s worth noting that companies may not be actively trying to discriminate against their employees—but they may be unintentionally singling out some groups of workers.

“In human rights decisions, decision-makers often talk about needing to look for the ‘subtle scent’ of discrimination because most discrimination is not overt and in-your-face these days,” says Morgan Rowe, a labour and employment lawyer in Ottawa. “[And] Canadian human rights law generally recognizes the discrimination doesn’t need to be intentional. The question decision-makers typically ask when trying to assess whether or not a dress code is discriminatory is: even if the dress code looks like it’s neutral, does it actually negatively impact certain people for a human rights-protected reason or require certain groups of people to follow a different, more onerous set of rules?”

That’s something plus-size workers, like Rachel Hayward, have run into when applying for jobs in the retail sector. Once, in an interview at Aritzia, the store manager she met with told her employees were required to wear the store’s clothing during their shifts. “Hearing that I was required to wear mostly clothes from Aritzia wasn’t the best,” she says. “I enjoy the clothes, but not all of them are made for girls of my size. I’m typically a 14 to 16 in pants, but they don’t even carry pants past a size 12! It was pretty disheartening.”

What recourse do workers have?

Non-unionized workers can encourage their employer to compromise, but if the company won’t budge, the only official form of recourse is a complaint through a provincial human rights tribunal.

But employees who belong to a union have a good chance of changing problematic rules, Rowe says. “Since dress codes have been recognized to interfere with employees’ right to make personal decisions about their appearance, labour arbitrators have often held that employers may only impose specific dress code policies if they are for a legitimate, business-related purpose and that the requirements of a dress code have to be balanced against how much they intrude on employees’ freedoms,” she explains. That’s why unions have often been successful in striking down unreasonable dress codes, or ones that aren’t for a legitimate business purpose (i.e. safety or hygiene).

Hayward ended up applying at stores with more inclusive sizing, and landed a gig at Old Navy. Now, she works at The Detox Market, a green beauty store in Toronto.

“I think everywhere I’ve worked, including now at the Detox Market, has had a dress code of some sort—[there might be a] ‘tank top straps must be three fingers wide’ rule, or a ‘no tank tops at all’ rule. But we have a fairly casual dress code. It’s much less strict than anywhere I’ve worked, since it isn’t a clothing store or a business casual setting. It’s been great to wear whatever I want and be able to express myself through clothes again.”


These Kickass Halifax Baristas Are Standing Up Against Wage Theft
Claire Foy Finally Got the *Huge* Payday She Deserves
Yes, Men Get Paid More than Women…But What About Trans Women?

Filed under:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

FLARE - Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to FLARE Need to Know for smart, sassy, no-filter takes on everything you're interested in—including style, culture & current events, plus special offers—sent straight to your inbox each day. Sign up here.