If you’re a nurse, a surgeon, a cabin steward... you wear a uniform on the job and you expect to wear a uniform, writes Terry Prone

So this out-of-work actor goes temping, as actors do when they’re “resting” between jobs. They wait tables. They bar tend. They temp as secretaries and receptionists. All the time dreaming of the breakthrough role that will make them a household name.

This particular young actor is sent to work as a receptionist in Britain by a temp agency. She arrives at the offices of a major accountancy partnership, only to be taken aside and advised that receptionists in that company are expected to wear heels. She wouldn’t have known this, so they’ll be happy if she runs out to buy a pair.

The temp says no. The temp points out that a male receptionist wouldn’t be expected to wear heels, which is as true as pointing out that a male receptionist wouldn’t be expected to wear a bra.

The company indicates that this is not an issue for negotiation, and she gets sent home. At which point she takes to social media, provoking a hundred thousand people to sign a petition. The freedom to not wear high heels — or indeed heels of any kind — is now properly asserted on behalf of women, worldwide.

Now, high heels, as Esquire magazine once pointed out, are arguably the oldest sexual fetish objects.

“They taper the toes. They arch the instep. They lift the calves. They tilt the funny and bow the back and oil the hips and sashay the gait. Their leathery, animal scents and textures evoke the jungle blood sports braided in our genes.

"They make the foot look shorter and more precious and yet add the formidableness of extra height and often a sort of stiletto menace. A sexy shoe is a masterpiece of concealment and disclosure and so defines the dynamic of lust itself.”

Not that women were the first to discover the shoe as a sexual statement.

In the Middle Ages, about the time of the arrival of the codpiece, men decided that shoes, too, could be a potent virility proxy, with some adopting shoes so extended in the front that they had to be filled with sawdust to enable the wearer to balance.

Some lads — perhaps the less subtle ones who would have appeared on the contemporary equivalent of First Date — even had the extended front bit of their shoes shaped and coloured to resemble a penis. Which underscores one of the great virtues of the fashion business: That kind of approach dies, over time.

Companies devoted to number-crunching would hardly develop their approach to the proper clothing for receptionists by reference to Esquire.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they may simply have felt that a woman looks smarter when she wears heels, and, given that receptionists do not have to cover the kilometres demanded of, say, a waitress, the matter may never have surfaced at partner meetings as a major human rights issue.

They may even have a dress code that specifies the footwear appropriate for women and for men employed by them. If they do, then communication between them and the temp agency failed, since the latter interviewed and recruited someone who clearly never wears heels and failed to raise the issue with her before she arrived for her day’s work.

If you’re a nurse, a surgeon, a cabin steward on a plane, a waiter, clean room technician, or a server in a deli, you wear a uniform on the job and you expect to wear a uniform. Indeed, as an actor, the young woman involved would not have been surprised, were she to have auditioned for the role of a receptionist in a theatrical production, to be outfitted in heels, a pencil skirt, possibly spectacles and be told to put her long hair up.

(All the better, in the seduction scene, for her to divest herself of the specs and cast loose the hair.)

It does rather depend on the employer. Some companies, particularly newer hi-tech companies with younger employees, don’t really care what you wear on the job — the old ‘dress down Friday’ is hardly necessary any more, because everybody’s dressed down all the time.

One good example of this syndrome is radio. So many people wear smart casuals in radio — or even just casuals — that a producer or broadcaster in a suit is an astonishing exception.

A lot of companies in the middle rely on employees to have a bit of cop on. And, let’s be clear, the requirement for cop on falls more heavily on females, who would be expected to wear tights even in the summer if they’re dealing with customers, and control their use of cleavage.

For the most part, companies figure that if someone comes to work dressed inappropriately, one of their peers will have a quiet word with them. It’s an extrapolation from the uniform.

Why do pilots and co-pilots wear a semi-military uniform? Because in the early days of passenger aviation, everybody was so frightened that seeing guys (and, of course, it was all guys, back then) arriving to fly the plane looking like army or air force officers was oddly comforting.

Similarly, if you work for Bord Gáis Éireann, and if you arrive at someone’s home because they’ve smelled gas, your clothes — the logo on your chest — say “I’m official, I know what I’m doing, I’m safe to let into your home”.

In short, it’s an aspect of the brand most people ‘get’ after a day’s observation and avoid problems like when your clothing makes a statement that runs counter to the values of your organisation. For example, if you work for a charity but flaunt a Mont Blanc pen, that’s a disconnect. If you work for a development agency but wear clothes that come from a Bangladeishi sweat shop, ditto.

Most companies do not articulate policies about behaviours that seem to them to be obvious, including the fact that everything about your appearance sends a message about you. The cleanliness of your hair, for one thing. The adequacy of your deodorant, for another. Eating garlic when you deal close up and personal with customers for a third.

In this instance of the flat-shoed temp, two things happened. First was that an assumption was not stated in a dress code. The second was that whoever was dealing with the flat-shoed temp underestimated the individual involved, not to mention the availability of fast fashion feminist anger.

At a time when each of us knows women abused in their own home or bullied at work, when each of us knows women fighting chemo and/or disfiguration, when each of us knows women battling the systems of promotion and tenure, more than 100,000 people decided to make the obligatory wearing of heels by receptionists in one company a major human rights issue.

Heel-wearing, for the individual involved, is unlikely to be an ongoing challenge.

If her inspired personal publicity campaign does not land her high profile acting roles in the immediate future, I might cease wearing four-inch heels. Not guaranteeing it, though.


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