What Not to Wear? Dress for the Workplace

This evening I am seeing a short film about three women whose daily professions often focus on the experience of death.  Called Style to the End, the director Avril Furness explores what these three women will wear when death befalls them. Part of a series of events called Life, Death, Whatever, which aims to “redesign the dialogue about death and dying, to open it up and to find new approaches to this fundamental subject”.
Seems quite apt, given its almost mid autumn, signalled by the many fallen conkers, a drop in the temperature and the various celebrations of death found in many cultures around the world.

Still from Avril Furness’ short film Style to the End

What also interested me about this film is the way in which dress is critical to our working lives as a complex way to express both our professional and individual identity.  In the summer, I mentioned that Hackney Museum had received a pair of black flat shoes from Nicola Thorp, a local resident.  Thorp was sent home from her temporary place of work because she refused to change her flat shoes for the obligatory high heels, part of a ‘female grooming policy’ adopted by the company that hired her.

British Working Dress: Occupational Clothing 1750-1950 Shire Books

This story and the objects inspired me to return to the subject of what we wear to work, or don’t wear to work, in order to develop an undergraduate dissertation project.  Using Thorp’s story, I want to invite students to consider their own experience of dressing for work as a starting point for investigating the role of clothes and fashion within the broad context of work, whether that be occupation, profession, vocation or employment.  Working dress is an area that has receives little and sporadic scholarly attention, which is why I think it would be great to encourage students to look more closely at something that most of us do everyday.

I am very keen to know more about archives or collections of dress that emphasise workwear and the experience of working, ideally in London so it would be possible to visit with students. I would also be grateful for any recommendations concerning permanent museum displays that focus on dress in the workplace.  Anything that might be of interest, please get in touch using the comments below.

Top image credit: http://pictures.abebooks.com/JIMSOLDBOOKS/14188855583_2.jpg

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.