Freedom of Expression: United, Puma and the Leggings Furor

Do we all have the inalienable right to express ourselves with apparel?

Because what United was saying with its dress code was: When you fly on our dime you are representing our brand, and our brand takes flying with a certain amount of formality, the way it used to be taken. And what everyone else was saying is: When I fly (or do anything else for that matter, presumably) I am representing me, and I get to wear what I want, when I want.

That tension has always existed, but in the past, the employer has generally won — at least when an individual was acting under the aegis of a brand, or on its behalf. Last year, however, when another dress code brouhaha broke out — this one about a temporary worker in Britain who was sent home for refusing to wear high heels— Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York and the founder of the Fashion Law Institute, told me that the pendulum had begun to swing the other way.

As an example, she pointed out that the New York City Commission on Human Rights published new guidelines in December 2015 for the municipal law that prohibited “enforcing dress codes, uniforms, and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex or gender” (e.g. If women have to wear heels, so do men).

This month, the British Parliament heard a debate about female dress in the workplace that had been prompted by the heels dispute, which had spawned a petition to have the issue formally addressed. The conclusion: There was “widespread discrimination” against women, with Caroline Dinenage, the minister responsible for women’s issues, asking employers to review dress codes.

At a time when questions of gender dress and religious/cultural dress are very much at the forefront of the cultural conversation, the ability to represent the brand that is “you,” even if that brand is a teenage girl, is increasingly seen as paramount.

And it may be why every mention of the words “dress code” seems to send the internet into a frenzy of outrage, from the idea that President Trump reportedly wanted women to dress like women, which engendered its own hashtag-of-dismay this year, to the leggings controversy. It smacks of encroachment on individual self-determination.

Yet, as the comments under the Puma post show, not everyone is entirely convinced that United was in the wrong: There were a lot of heart emojis and thumbs up, but at least one (presumed) employee wrote, “work for the company and love it!! Pass riders need to follow the rules!! @PUMA no more.”

Mr. Petrick said it was too early to say whether the promotion had had a notable affect on leggings sales but, at least internally, it had lifted morale.

And no, Puma does not have an employee dress code. Mr. Petrick did note that if an employee showed up in, say, Nike leggings, it might be generally looked down on, “but that’s more of a cultural thing.”

“As a company, we want to encourage women to wear what they want,” he added.

It sounds so innocuous. Who can argue with that?

As in all questions about one person doing what they want in a society we all share, however, boundaries need to be set. The problem is, no one seems to know where they are any more.

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