Public defender Candace Hodge had driven more than an hour outside her Boston-area office to a jail in Cedar Junction, then waited 45 minutes, before a corrections officer took one look at her skirt and told her it was a no-go. The skirt, he said, was too short because it rose more than two inches above her knees when she sat. She would have to change into pants or come back another day. Time was of the essence: Hodge had just two days before her client’s first hearing. But without a change of clothes in her car, she had no choice but to leave. Her client would have to wait.
“You’re willing to go through [harassment] because keeping your client out of jail is more important to you—and you think it’s just a part of the job,” said Hodge, who left the public defender’s office about a year after the skirt incident. “It’s not a part of the job.”
Furious that she was turned away, Hodge took a picture of her outfit and sent it to her colleagues before posting it on Facebook. In the photo she wears a blazer over a knee-length red dress with a cutout neckline—not exactly NSFW. The dress, Hodge said, had never caused a problem when she’d worn it to court. That angered her the most, that the jail dress code was subject to the interpretation of the corrections officer on duty.
“I’m an attorney, I’m not going to show up in hot pants and a sports bra to see my client,” Hodge said.
The cultural conversation around women and dress codes has largely focused on high school students who, like Hodge, have posted pictures of their offending outfits across social media. But policing women’s clothes doesn’t stop after we enter the workforce. In fact, working women face professional penalties, such as losing a day to prepare a defense, for not meeting subjective standards of dress.
In 2010, Debrahlee Lorenzana became a tabloid sensation after she sued CitiBank for firing her because she was too attractive. Lorenzana said she was prohibited from wearing pencil skirts, three-inch heels, and fitted business suits because “such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear,” according to the Village Voice. CitiBank said that Lorenzana lost the suit in arbitration.
That same year another woman, Amy-Erin Blakely, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the non-profit foundation where she worked after claiming that she was fired for complaining about sexual harassment regarding her breasts. Blakely said supervisors advised her to wear loose clothing to hide her breasts because they were too distracting and that she was too “sensual” to advance at the foundation.
Both Lorenzana and Blakely represent extreme cases of dress codes shaming women. But from schools to workplaces, dress codes put the burden on women to tamp down the male gaze and their peers’ sexual urges.
Nowhere was this more painfully apparent than in the cringeworthy video showing KTLA weather reporter Liberté Chan being asked to put on a sweater in the middle of her report last week. “I look like a librarian now,” Chan said after throwing on a gray cardigan over her black beaded dress. Her male colleague cheerily replied, “That works!” Chan later said the incident was part of the jokey nature of the morning broadcast, but try to find the funny during her first stunned moments after being handed the sweater.
Telling a journalist to put some clothes on during a broadcast is not illegal—insulting, but not illegal—and that is what makes the politics of work clothes difficult to maneuver. Federal law prevents employers from discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or disability. Other than those categories, workplaces are free to outline clothing guidelines. Whatever falls within those rules is subject to interpretation and enforcement by individual employers.
This is not always a bad thing, and there are plenty of good reasons for dress codes. Weather reporters like Chan who work in front of a green screen have restrictions on their clothes so they don’t get a floating head effect on-air (Chan had brought a different dress that day but nixed it for this reason). Hospital workers and doctors wear scrubs to maintain a clean environment. Law enforcement officers wear uniforms and protective gear for safety. In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections cited safety as the main reason for dress rules at its facilities. These rules include a ban on suggestive clothing—such as short skirts—that the DOC said could endanger visitors around sex offenders.
“We had to consider that a primary responsibility of DOC is to ensure the safety and security of inmates, staff and visitors in its correctional facilities, and to prevent the introduction of drug contraband and weapons,” said Christopher Fallon, a spokesman for the department.
Hodge said she respected the difficult job corrections officers have. The problem, she explained, was that the rules were not applied equally. For example, women couldn’t wear necklaces or scarves because officials said inmates could use them to choke them—yet men could wear neckties. When Hodge brought up the dress code at her office, younger women reported being more harassed about cleavage, skirt length, and the tightness of their pants than did older women.
Adding extra trips to change outfits also put a strain both not only Hodge’s financial resources, but the department’s.
“It’s not a convenient trip to go back and we’re all public defenders so none of us can afford new clothing,” said Hodge, who worked at Banana Republic every weekend for three years during her tenure at the department.
Some rules, like one allowing corrections officers to search weaves and wigs, disproportionately affected black attorneys, Hodge said. As a black woman who wears her hair naturally, Hodge said the rule against bobby pins also meant that she was at a loss as to how to style her hair in order to be in compliance, even though she acknowledged that the pins could be used to pick locks. Another rule barred sheer clothing, even with camisoles underneath, but Hodge pointed out that for black women certain white blouses can appear sheer.
In the fall of 2015, a newly fired-up Hodge and her colleagues decided to do something about this after they realized they had all had dress code run-ins. They commissioned a survey asking if other public defenders across the state had had similar experiences. They received 300 responses within the first day. The public defenders picked the 20 most egregious and presented them to the DOC.
“Another woman, who had a prosthetic breast, was almost turned away and told she had to present a doctor’s note,” Hodge said.
The attorneys argued two points. One was that since they were officers of the court and were often at the jail, they should not be subject to the same rules as general visitors. The other argument was economic. Both the DOC and the public defender’s office are funded through taxpayer dollars and wasting the time of the attorneys amounted to wasting taxpayer funds. After negotiations between public defenders and officials, the DOC issued a dress code for attorneys different from that of visitors and agreed to standardize its enforcement, Fallon said.
The new rules allow bobby pins and hairpieces, and attorneys may now wear professional scarves, among other things. Hodge found out about the changes last week, and said it felt “really fucking good” to change the rules.
“Our job is super stressful to start with and I thought maybe I should stop the fight,” she said. “But at the same time I thought, ‘No, this is ridiculous.’”
Gabriela Resto-Montero spends her days repping Puerto Rico and Colorado, writing about politics and culture, and scamming for Hamilton tickets. She awaits both Rihanna and Wisin y Yandel's new albums with equal anticipation.