When US student Ceara Sturgis was banned from wearing a tuxedo
in her yearbook photograph, it made international headlines.
Overnight, the 17-year-old became the face of an issue which had
been simmering for years - that of "appropriate" public gender
presentation. But this is not an issue that only affects teenagers
and teachers who look at each other across a generation gap. It
also happens in the workplace. American DIVA-reader Sally Davis
knows this first-hand.
"I was hired as the grooming assistant for a local animal
hospital, but didn't have much day-to-day contact with the
clients," she told us. "My hair was basically very short all over,
but long enough to be spiked up.
"Then, having successfully been in the job for a year, everything
soured. The business's owner said I didn't portray the kind of
impression he wanted the practice to have. He also asked my boss to
keep me in the back so people wouldn't be offended by my
"Shortly after, a client made the mistake of calling me sir in
front of this doctor and that was the last straw, apparently.
"Just two days later that I was informed that I was no longer
needed at the hospital. Apparently, my appearance was insulting and
offensive to the hospital's older clients, as they were confused
about my gender.
"I explained that I didn't have a problem with that. I wasn't
insulted by being called sir - I'd been called worse in my
lifetime, certainly - but it didn't do any good. I tried to reason
with them, but it was futile - their problem was just an excuse to
get rid of me because I wasn't the good little Christian,
"It wasn't pleasant, but I just try to take it in my stride that
he wasn't comfortable and it had nothing to do with me
But for Luisa Gottardo, dress-based discrimination has had a
lingering impact. She claims she was fired from her role on a
cruise ship because she wanted to wear a tuxedo instead of a
"I was working on one of most prestigious liners in the world,"
she told us. "My role entailed scheduling and running sports
events, then socialising with the guests in the evening.
"Despite not owning a dress - or wanting to - I was willing to
compromise in order to do the job I loved. I agreed to wear their
skirt suit - a company uniform which they supplied me with - once
every two weeks. I only wore this on days when guests were
embarking or disembarking from the ship.
"This compromise was met before I accepted the job, but on the
condition that during the evenings I could wear trousers or a
tuxedo," she adds. Then, very quickly, the relationship soured and
Gottardo was relieved of her duties.
"It all happened so fast. They said they were releasing me for
failing to conform to company dress policy, which shocked me.
According to them, they consider themselves a 'traditional company'
and didn't see tuxedos as a suitable alternative to ball gowns,
even though it had been ok throughout my first 12 weeks."
"Naturally, I'm angry and I want to fight back, but it's
particularly tough. I don't know who to approach and keep getting
sent around in circles."
Anne Hayfield, director of Manage Diversity Ltd - a company which
gives corporate training on equality - says Gottardo's experience
is no surprise. According to her, the law still lacks direct
definition and guidance.
"To my knowledge, a case where a lesbian wants to wear a tuxedo
instead of a ball-gown has never been tried in a UK court, so a
clear precedent hasn't yet been set.
"Plus, each situation is different. If someone were a nurse, there
would be a definite dress code that would count as part of his or
her contract. Other factors, such as whether someone has a
front-facing role within a company will come into it as well. It's
about what would be considered reasonable," she added.
"Legally, an employer can ask their staff to keep to a dress code.
How strictly the dress code is enforced often depends on the
profession and the occupation - nurses and police officers will
have rules about uniforms, while a car mechanic or a chef may have
to wear protective clothing for health and safety reasons.
Commonly, employers ask their staff to keep to dress codes that are
quite vague and talk about 'smart' or 'business-like' attire. In
these situations it is not unusual for a subjective judgement to be
"Employers are also allowed to ask men and women to look
different; for example, they can ask for men to wear trousers and
women to wear skirts. Many employers are also aware that dress
codes can be discriminatory and best practice would be to allow
some accommodation. A Muslim woman who wants to keep her legs
covered on religious grounds or a trans person who is in the
process of transitioning from one gender to another might have to
dress opposite to their birth gender."
However, the rules are not always applied consistently, which
makes navigating such issues tricky. And it doesn't just affect
women. Last summer, during soaring temperatures, male government
employees in London were told that they'd still have to wear a suit
and tie, even though their female counterparts were granted the
right to wear loose-fitting apparel, such as t-shirts.
As Hayfield says, this complicates the issue...and the outcome. So
what kind of chance do women like Gottardo have?
"Unfortunately, in this case, I don't think she's got that strong
a case as lesbians can and do wear skirts," Hayfield says. "She
needs to take advice from a good employment lawyer."
But for Gottardo, this is cold comfort. "Surely after Yves St
Laurent made the ladies' tuxedo a must-have item all those years
ago, employers should realise that times are changing. Regardless
of whether or not the company you work for is 'traditional' or
'quintessentially British', this does not - or should not - mean
that they are allowed to make you compromise the principles which
your life is based around."
• Additional reporting by Stacey Cosens and Lyndsey Clark
What does the law say?
Emma Satyamurti from legal firm Russell Jones and Walker said:
"The law on dress codes isn't very helpful, unfortunately. As long
as employers adopt similar standards of dress for men and women,
they can lawfully require them to dress differently. There may be
some room for argument about what counts as a social norm as this
is a matter of interpretation, but generally speaking, employers
have wide latitude in the area of dress."
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN DIVA 179, APRIL 2011