Having joyfully contravened a number of employment dress codes myself over the years, I was intrigued to read the story of Melanie Stark, who recently left her job at HMV Harrods after the employer insisted she must wear make-up to comply with theirs.
Melanie, who at 24 is surely old enough to make her own decisions about her face and what she puts on it, had worked for the company for four years without wearing make-up, before the code was pointed out to her. She then continued to work for them, until, according to reports, the stress became too much and she left.
Alright. On one hand, dress codes are made to be flaunted. When I worked at HMV, we were prohibited from dying our hair outlandish colours, having facial piercings and displaying tattoos. By the time I left several years later, I had cheerfully (although not wilfully, these things tend to happen of their own volition in the rock n’roll world of music retail) broken all of those rules.
Now, when I visit that same store, I feel a certain sense of pride when I see staff members festooned with black eyeliner, topiary inspired ‘do’s and enough tattoos to keep customers entertained while they try to figure out the queuing system. I like to think of myself as a torch bearer in the battle of misguided self-expression. There might even be an homage to me in the stock room. But I doubt it.
That said, it’s easy to nudge this story towards the ‘woman’s right to present herself to the world exactly as she wishes’ precipice, but surely this is, at best, erroneous. Melanie Stark’s decision to leave her place of employment is not about whether a woman chooses to use make-up or not. It’s about a company picking and choosing when to enforce a set of guidelines. Harrods, like my former employers, are at fault for not enforcing their own code in a timely manner. We all know what kind of image they project, and I’m certain the customers they attract prefer to see a made-up face than a bare one.
I broke the rules at my job for one reason alone. They let me. I wasn’t disciplined when I turned up with pink hair, I was merely warned that I needed to dye it back to it’s original colour as a matter of urgency. I left it as it was, so did they, and I proceeded about my business. If they had pushed it? I might have left. I might have dyed my hair back to it’s natural ‘disappointing brown’ shade and complied. But since they were paying my wages, I was obliged to represent the company in a manner they deemed fit.
Regardless of whether I approved of it.