Occupational dress: what to wear to work?

In The Social Psychology of Clothes (1996), Susan B. Kaiser frames occupational dress within a discussion about uniforms and various organisations related to work.  Kaiser suggests that our expectations of how someone should dress within an organization are based not just on their role but also on the type of organization they belong to.  In an organisation involving many people, where it is impossible to interact with everyone, uniforms help to discern roles and responsibilities quickly.

This year, I spent two months in hospital undergoing treatment for a serious heart infection.  It was my first experience of full-time medical care offered by our national health service (NHS).  According to the NHS website, it employs more than 1.6 million people, which puts it in the top five largest work organisations in the world. Others on that list include McDonalds, the Chinese Liberation Army and the US Department of Defence.

A range of NHS England uniforms at a teaching hospital in Leeds

As a patient in an NHS hospital, the first thing you notice is the number of people involved in your day to day care.  On a daily basis, I encountered nurses, student nurses, healthcare assistants, phlebotomists , consultants, registrars, pharmacists, student doctors, microbiologists, domestic staff, administrative staff, volunteers and clergy.  I was able to identify the majority of these roles by dress association or, in other words, their specific uniform.  While nurses wore blue and white uniforms, healthcare assistants wore pink and white.  Domestic staff wore a bluey-purple colour. Senior nurses wore navy blue while a newly qualified nurse wore white.

The multitude of uniforms that passed by my bay each day certainly emphasised the bureaucracy of a large organisation like the NHS, where hierarchy, order and impersonality tend to govern the daily interactions of those within.  However, without the uniforms, it would have been impossible for me to tell who and why someone might be by my bedside at any particular moment.

A NHS junior doctor dressed for work

Even doctors, who are no longer obliged to wear a white lab coat and can wear their own clothes, adopted some degree of uniformed formality that distinguished them from patients or visitors.  Kaiser (1996:290) suggests that in a service organisation, which mainly subsidized by taxes and where the aim is to benefit clients, occupational dress avoids demonstrations of prosperity.  For the NHS doctors I observed, this tended to be in the form of shirts, trousers and skirts in muted colours or just plain black.  Their clothing rarely seemed to draw attention to itself, favouring an austere or conservative approach.

I wanted to share these observations on occupational dress because I am about to write a short literature review on the topic for an upcoming paper. I would be very grateful if you could recommend any key texts or research, in particular on occupational dress within social and educational organisations.  Please post them below in the comments section.

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  • Monica Sklar July 22, 2015 01.51 pm

    I’ve got lots of workplaces pieces from a few perspectives:

    Sklar, M., & DeLong, M. (2012). Punk dress in the workplace: Expression vs. accommodation. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 30(4), 285-299.

    Kang, M., Sklar, M., & Johnson, K.K.P. (2011). Men at work: Using dress to create and communicate identities. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management (15)4.

    Kang, M., Sklar, M., & Johnson, K. (2008, November). Men at work: Fashioning identities.[Abstract]. Proceedings of the International Textile and Apparel Association, USA, 65.

    Sklar, M. and Delong, M. (2010, May) Punk dress in the workplace: Rebellion and routine at a crossroads. [Abstract]. Proceedings of the national meeting of the Costume Society of America, 36.

    Sklar, M. (2014, September). Invisible woman: Instructor presence in online apparel courses. [Abstract]. Proceedings of the meeting of the Costume Society of America Midwest Region.

  • Jill July 23, 2015 10.39 pm

    Hi Emma,

    One text that comes to mind is Jennifer Craik’s Uniforms Exposed: From Conformity to Transgression, published by Berg in 2005. There’s a chapter dealing with uniforms for work in a variety of occupations.
    Best of luck!

  • Emma October 06, 2015 12.53 pm

    Hi Jill,
    So sorry for such a late reply – I didn’t see your comment until now! Thanks so much for this recommendation – I didn’t refer to it but there is still time!
    Thanks again!

  • Emma October 06, 2015 12.54 pm

    Monica, thanks so much for these! For some reason, I didn’t see these comments until now!


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