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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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Teaching Conventions, Teaching Critique: A Subtly Subversive Dress Code Assignment in a Professional Writing Class

Jamie White-Farnham, University of Wisconsin-Superior



Although critiques of professional dress codes regularly expose injustices towards US workers along racist, sizeist, ableist, Islamophobic, and other lines, when I introduced the dress code as a workplace practice and document in a Professional Writing course, students were resistant to the idea that truly willing workers would critique or challenge an unfair dress code. In exploring the politics surrounding dress codes and accommodations for workers, I have found that, despite cultural claims that millennials have "killed the dress code," many traditional-aged students today are willing to toe any line, the least of which may be a dress code, at the expense of their own personal comfort and feelings to achieve their career goals. While that reflects an admirable work ethic on the part of students, it also motivated me to ask students to use rhetorical principles to understand, critique, and create dress codes in service of helping them hone professional skills such as critical thinking and written communication, which are among the goals of this general education Professional Writing class.

Since examples of workplace discrimination currently abound in the news -- for instance, in regards to trans people’s bathroom use as well as “acceptable” gendered clothingattention to the complicated politics surrounding dress codes forms the first half of the dress code assignment. Students learn of the conversation around workplace discrimination by studying examples of resistance and comparing them to accommodations listed in the Equal Opportunity Employment Act. The second part of the assignment is to actually create dress codes. Here, the assignment foregrounds rhetorical concepts such as purpose and context, orienting students away from deeming articles of clothing and, by extension, people and bodies, "in/appropriate." Considering the relationship between dress practices and rhetoric, this essay offers an explanation of how I attend to the twin goals of creating professional documents and resisting hegemonic dress practices when I teach the dress code as a multimodal rhetorical project.


Approaches to Dress in Rhetoric, Then and Now

One vein of scholarship on dress practices is historical, centered on the dress practices of women in various rhetorical circumstances as an empowering tool for gaining attention or to enhance their rhetorical prowess. For instance, Carol Mattingly’s (1999) explanation of how 19th century American women speakers used dress practices “as a means of resistance because women speakers often recognized that their dress discourse might discipline [in the Foucauldian sense] what and how their audience heard” (p. 25).

On the one hand, the radical dress of Frances Wright, who had short hair and wore harem-style “trousers,” was often taken less seriously or looked upon negatively, even by other women who supported her cause of antislavery (p. 32). On the other hand, women like Lucretia Mott, who wore the traditional and modest dress of Quaker women, were highly regarded. Upon seeing Mott in her Quaker garb, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Mott was “an entire new revelation of womanhood” (Stanton cited in Mattingly p. 33). As another example, even though they left the Society of Friends, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke continued to wear Quaker garb because it offered them a “measure of protection from and credibility with audiences” (p. 40).

Attending to a different era, I (White-Farnham, 2014) have also argued that a female public figure, a state senator from Massachusetts who served between the 1960s and 1980s, used dress practices in rhetorically purposeful ways. In the mid-20th century, Mary “The Hat” Fonseca exaggerated her feminine persona by wearing elaborate hats (long after they were stylish, into the 1980s) and distinguished herself from her majority-male colleagues. As a wife and mother, Fonseca emphasized that she did not have a full-time job other than as a homemaker, while, of course, her male colleagues in the state senate were also lawyers or businessmen. A 1952 campaign slogan of Fonseca’s hits her point home: Your fulltime state senator (White-Farnham, 2014, p. 173, emphasis added).

In these historical cases, women played into traditional and mostly conservative views of women’s roles as humble and homebound to advance their political agendas, a move that may be seen as a measure of expedience for longer-term political gain (that is true for both the abolitionists and Fonseca, who had an excellent legislative record). Today, such rhetorical moves may perhaps be less prized than overtly feminist approaches to embodied rhetorics, or the understanding that “all bodies do rhetoric through texture, shape, color consistency, movement, and function [which] encourages a methodological approach that addresses the reflexive acknowledgement of the researcher from feminist traditions and conveys an awareness or consciousness about how bodies -- our own and others’ figure in our work” (Johnson et al, 2015, p. 39).

Through a stance of embodiment in rhetorical work, scholars such as Katie Manthey, this issue’s guest editor, is more attuned to using dress as a constituent part of a rhetorical message of resistance and change. For instance, Manthey calls attention to and counteracts definitional assumptions about professionalism with her public activist project, “Dress Profesh.” Similar projects with the goal of expanding the assumed identities, genders, shapes, and dress practices of people of several professions have also recently emerged on social media, such as #ilooklikeanengineer, #ilooklikeaprofessor, and the tumblr site “This is What a Scientist Looks Like.”

Projects such as these dovetail with what Kristie Fleckenstein (2001) has called “biorhetoric,” or how bodies and language are inextricably intertwined in ways that rhetoricians should acknowledge, especially in the effort to have students critique the world around them and produce arguments to make change. Fleckenstein writes: “Such a linguistic orientation [acknowledging the both/and relationship between the linguistic and the material] offers students the opportunity to disentangle the ways in which discourse writes them, constrains their identities, and limits their opportunities for growth. Simultaneously, this perspective offers them the means to rewrite those identities” (p. 765). Grounded in a Foucauldian biopolitics, Fleckenstein’s claims about the body do not neglect dress when she writes: “the insight that the material details of life – such as what we wear, how we sit, and where we eat – all conspire to maintain the dominance of a particular discursive arrangement of culture” (p. 770).

This frame suits the work of Manthey and other dress-practice activists on the internet because the arguments they make to expand understandings of their professions rest on their understanding of the material details – namely, bodies and dress. The multimodal affordances of social media – a 21st century blend of the discursive and the material/visual -- sharpen Fleckenstein’s point about the necessary togetherness of the discursive and the material/visual in critiquing and changing the dominance of a “particular discursive arrangement of culture.” In other words, multimodal rhetoric adds a specificity to the argument that women, women of color, women in dresses, women in scrubs, women in hardhats, etc. not only exist in certain professional spheres – in fact, their material presence comprises them. These rhetorical takes on bodies, biorhetoric, and embodiment inspire the dress code assignment; I teach from the position that bodies are always already part of a rhetorical situation and in the particular rhetorical situation that asks a person to write about bodies, the writer must purposefully recognize and counter any assumptions of a neutral or normal body or dress practice.


Dress Code, Part I: Critique

Foucauldian biopolitics offer the theoretical basis upon which I ask students to begin to recognize their assumptions in regards to bodies and rhetoric. We start with the dramatic yet accessible introduction to Discipline and Punish in which Foucault compares public execution with a prison timetable. His purpose is to note the swiftness of Enlightenment-era changes in conceptions of punishment from torture to penitence, as well as to focus attention on how documents made agreements for the way people will proceed: “how important is such a change [away from medieval methods of torture], when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure” (p. 7).

Foucault’s point is not a straightforward one; of course, he complicates what seems to be an improvement in society (the decline of torture) by illustrating the inhumanity of other types of control over humans, even in a “civil,” documentary society. Yet, the idea that documents become central to ordering bodies is laid down for examination. To bridge this theory with a contemporary example, I also share a case study regarding two protests made by a group called Fund for Animals in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Courtney Dillard (2002) studied the methods of this activist group, which used civil disobedience to protest a live pigeon shoot. In 1994, the group considered their protest a failure, as it attracted negative attention, and the media portrayed its members as angry and dangerous (p. 52). After reflecting and strategizing, the group created a code of conduct emphasizing principles of civil disobedience such as focusing their attention on the wounded pigeons rather than shouting at shoot participants, which won their group positive attention in 1996 and which eventually helped end the shoot in 1999 (p. 60).

Considering how codes order behavior, we turn to dress codes themselves. In the rural area where I teach Professional Writing, students do not have much experience with professional dress codes, although, occasionally, students remark on how a middle or high school dress code has been debated in their towns as being too focused on girls, a common problem with school dress codes. However, students share their experiences with wearing uniforms in their jobs at grocery stores, restaurants, or on sports teams. Students often advocate for the dress code, citing their usefulness in looking professional and keeping people free from distraction.

To offer multiple points of view on dress codes, I present some examples of public critiques. One is the case of the US Army’s changes in rules around black women’s hairstyles. Helene Cooper’s 2014 New York Times article reported that the Army banned twist styles in favor of cornrows, chemical straightening, weaves, and/or wigs, hairstyles well-known for creating hardships on black women soldiers in the field in terms of time, cost, and hair health. The change came after a period of looser restrictions on personal appearance for all soldiers at the peak of enrollment in Iraq and Afghanistan (para. 4). Cooper cites Loren B. Thompson to explain the looser restrictions: “There’s a tendency during wartime to permit personal styles and variations in approach simply because more important things are at stake than how your hair looks or what tattoo is on your arm,” (para. 7). Once the Army began to draw down forces, bans on various personal styles (such as twists and visible tattoos) were reinstated. Public criticism and a request by the women of the Congressional Black Caucus to reconsider the standards were eventually heeded, and in 2017, both twists and dreadlocks of certain dimensions were allowed (Mele, 2017, para. 6).

Discussions by students of the US Army’s flip-flop decision around black women’s hair usually center around two main arguments: that soldiers should follow the rules no matter what or that, to be truly fair to all, all soldiers should have to shave their heads. These arguments perhaps reflect a preference on the students’ part to avoid claims of inequity in the workplace. However, in an effort to teach how one might approach such a topic in a professional setting and not to ignore it, we turn to the Equal Opportunity Employment Act (EOEA), which explains what constitutes discrimination at workplaces, including rules for dress codes. The law lists the types of accommodations employers must make in regards to categories of people who most often face discrimination in the workplace, including pregnant women or people of minority religious groups. Accommodations around dress practices mainly concern religious discrimination, and the EOEA website and lay-language offer clear examples:

Unless it would be an undue hardship on the employer's operation of its business, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices. This applies not only to schedule changes or leave for religious observances, but also to such things as dress or grooming practices that an employee has for religious reasons. These might include, for example, wearing particular head coverings or other religious dress (such as a Jewish yarmulke or a Muslim headscarf), or wearing certain hairstyles or facial hair (such as Rastafarian dreadlocks or Sikh uncut hair and beard). It also includes an employee's observance of a religious prohibition against wearing certain garments (such as pants or miniskirts). (para. 10)

Closely linked are accommodations for people who would experience what is known as disparate impact, or the effects of a policy that does not discriminate on the surface, but which negatively and unfairly impacts only one group: “For example, a "no-beard" employment policy that applies to all workers without regard to race may still be unlawful if it is not job-related and has a negative impact on the employment of African-American men (who have a predisposition to a skin condition that causes severe shaving bumps)” (para. 8).

Another recent high-profile example illuminates disparate impact. In the 2005-6 season, the NBA instituted an off-court dress code that banned items such as chains and pendants, headwear, and team jerseys (of other teams). These changes affected mainly black players who dressed in the hip-hop style. In their study of this dress code and its attendant criticism, Stacy L. Lorenz and Rod Murray (2014) noted that “According to the NBA, the dress code was not about battling Blackness, it was simply about bringing ‘professionalism’ (Lage, 2005; Smith, 2005) back into basketball in order to rehabilitate a league image that had gone too far in its embrace of hip-hop culture” (p. 24). Given the public backlash at the disparate impact, the dress code was not renewed in following seasons.

These examples prompt important questions in regards to workplace dress codes: is the dress code truly job-related? And, does it belie a certain value or assumption on the part of its writers, unconsciously or not? These questions are the jumping off point for the second half of the assignment: to produce a dress code for a professional context.


Dress Code, Part II: Creation

Creation of dress codes follows from the discussions of rhetoric, bodies, control, and resistance. The assignment asks students to create their own professional dress codes that are focused on purpose and context of a certain type of job or professional context. Popular professional contexts that students choose reflect the majors at our university, small businesses such as day care centers and golf courses, as well as the K-12 school setting.

The assignment calls for two documents: the first is the dress code itself, a policy document that is modeled on samples provided by the Society for Human Resources Management and which emphasizes the policy’s professional rationale, accommodations, and avoidance of disparate impact. And, the second is a visual illustration of the policy, a multimodal document using graphics, photos, and other design elements to illustrate the policy. The two documents are meant to work together to clarify and deliver the spirit and the letter of the policy, distinguishing the rationale and values from specific items of clothing. While items of clothing are of course important, these types of lists can turn problematic pretty quickly.

Therefore, the idea is for students to shift their perception of dress codes from simple rules for workers to a rhetorical act of policing bodies with all the attendant politics previously discussed above. When writers make that shift, the multimodal and visual nature of the second document supports well their efforts to depict a body-policing policy that also considers people’s bodily and material realities with care. This section will share examples created in Fall 2018 by students Cassie and Niharika, who gave me permission to include their projects in this article. I chose Cassie’s and Niharika’s dress codes and graphic illustrations because they exemplify the concerns of embodied rhetoric and the politics of dress practices in a practical writing situation.


Professional Rationale

Cassie’s dress code is inspired by her real-life job as a driving instructor. There, her own personal style had clashed with unwritten expectations at her job since there was no policy against facial piercings, but she had been reprimanded for having one. She changes that rule in her own policy in order to rectify the problem of unwritten rules and to emphasize the purpose of the dress code, which, in the context of driving, is mainly safety. Therefore, her written policy contains the professional rationale for the dress code (emphasis added):

All instructors will be expected to wear business casual attire with shoes that are appropriate for driving. Business casual includes jeans or dress pants, a sweater, polo shirt, or blouse, and shoes that are secured to the foot such as sneakers or boots. No pants with holes or skirts are allowed. No low cut shirts or belly shirts. No flip flops or high heels. Instructors must be able to move freely in order to demonstrate driving maneuvers for students. Instructors will be required to wear name tags, however instructors can decorate their name tags as they please so long as their name is legible. Tattoos do not need to be covered unless they may be considered offensive. Ear and facial piercings do not need to be removed unless the piercings become a distraction. If any instructors are unable to abide by this dress code due to a disability or religious beliefs, reasonable accommodations will be made.

This paragraph also provides insight into how many students perceive dress codes: as a list of Nos that over-represent what are often mainly women’s clothing, such as belly shirts and high heels. To me, Cassie’s dress code exemplifies the difficulty in attending to body politics while trying to police bodies; these tendencies are nearly mutually-exclusive. In the next section, attempts to strike this balance are explained further.


Accommodations and Avoiding Disparate Impact

In the above example, Cassie includes a final sentence on accommodations similar to what is suggested by the Equal Opportunity Employment Act to accommodate those who may be disenfranchised by her dress code based on disability or religion. This example does not provide much nuance, but Cassie is acknowledging that her ban on skirts may disenfranchise women who wear modest religious dress. The inclusion of this statement is the result of carefully considered reasons why skirts might be more dangerous in fast-breaking situations, but Cassie conceded that a ban on them would disproportionately impact women of certain religious minorities and are not an employment deal-breaker.

In a more explicit take on accommodations, Niharika’s dress code for a veterinary clinic offers an entire section devoted to explaining them:


1. Disabilities and Religious Beliefs

The Clinic recognizes the need for accommodation for people with disabilities and for religious beliefs. There will be reasonable accommodations for staff who require this unless such accommodations would cause a problem in safety of either the staff person, other staff, or the patients.

2. Emergencies

If an emergency occurs and a staff member must attend to patient when not on call, it is acceptable to perform duty in business-casual clothing. It is not necessary to change into scrubs as the patient’s safety comes first.

Niharika’s dress code provides an example of how, when she considered the circumstances in which a dress code might oppress or restrict some people, she actually expanded her conception of why even further accommodations might be made. Interestingly, in this case, Niharika landed on the idea that, in an emergency, an employee would not be held in contempt of the code if they attended to a patient wearing street clothes.


Multimodal Affordances

The Do/Don’t list is a popular organizing principle for the graphic illustration of dress codes. Cassie chose this organization, but some elements of her document stand out among her peers’ in its care to avoid making assumptions about bodies, especially around gender. Consider Figure 1 in which Cassie arranges photos of clothing items without bodies in them. This is a purposeful choice to lend focus to the clothing items and not necessarily the bodies in them. Based on my conversations with Cassie, I know that she had some difficulty in finding stock images of clothes that were not gendered or on actual gendered bodies. The reader might argue that the right-hand side, the “Inappropriate” options, are actually less gendered and therefore, Cassie’s sense of professionalism as evidenced by the clothes on the left-hand side reinforces gender norms. However, Cassie wanted to emphasize her expectations as closely as possible to the written words of her policy, something that had been lost in translation in her real-life experience.


Tees and blouses with slacks and jeans under the

Figure 1: "Appropriate" vs." inappropriate" clothing.


A visual dress code for all staff shows different colored scrubs and black shoes.Additional dress code for surgical and specialty staff shows surgical gowns and a white lab coat.
Figure 2: Context-driven examples.

In Figure 2, Niharika resisted a binary Do/Don’t list in her illustration for the veterinary clinic. She takes a more context-driven tact with her two-page document organized around the workplace’s office and surgical settings and presents the clothing items that are expected, rather than juxtaposing them against “inappropriate” items.

Like Cassie, Niharika also expresses her expectations through photos of clothing without bodies in them, as well as line-drawn images of body parts that allow for interpretation of whom they represent. The dress code’s professional rationale centers around safety and sterile conditions, which are emphasized in the clothing requirements, as well as the reasons why some jewelry must be removed on some occasions.

In an earlier draft of this essay, I had planned to make a joke about the desire of both of these students to allow piercings and tattoos at their workplaces. I realized, eventually, that such an attitude on my part is anathema to my argument here. These students’ attention to preferences of personal style that, in many professional settings, make no difference to the purpose or context of the work itself, exemplifies the calls that Manthey and others have made to expand what is perceived as “professional” or “acceptable.” I appreciate the students’ willingness to expand the status quo around the human subjectivities that are important to them and also those which they now know need the same kind of attention.



Reflecting on my experience teaching the dress code as an object of critique through a rhetorical lens, as well as a rhetorical act with multiple attendant legal and political aspects to consider, there are at least two areas that may be addressed by future work and re-iterations of this assignment. First, there are further subjectivities to consider in regards to how people are “read” in their workplaces. For instance, Manthey writes: “Seeing dress practices as multimodal composition offers a valuable, everyday learning moment in the form of ‘ethical reading.’ Ethical reading is the idea that in a visual culture bodies are ‘read’ everyday, often in subconscious ways that reveal personal biases and systems of power. For example, fat people are often assumed to be lazy (Wann, 2009), while attractive people are often seen as successful and approachable” (Rhode, 2010) (340). In my attention to the main concerns of the EOEArace, religion, and genderI have not drawn the students’ focus to issues of sizeism or attractiveness, as Manthey mentions.

Second, I have allowed and encouraged students to elide considerations of bodies as one way to attend to bias and discrimination. This is evidenced by Niharika’s line drawings and both students’ stock images of empty clothing, and I recognize it is not the most progressive way to attend to the goal of resisting hegemonic expectations of bodies in the workplace, a goal of a stance of embodiment. To rectify this, I could provide models of and encourage multimodal documents that in fact feature people of different genders, races, sizes, abilities, and so forth. Confronting stereotypes and attitudes more directly might better prepare students for the types of situations they may encounter when they enter their professional spheres. This limit is a sign of my own positionality and privilege in regards to dress politics, something that has and I expect will continue to grow and change.

Considering the relationship between dress practices and rhetoric asks students to see and question the values and biases implicit in workplace dress expectations and conventions in the US. While I suggest using baseline resources provided by professional associations and the US government for models of these conventions, examples of oppression and resistance in the culture inflect this type of project with an imperative of care for other humans. When applying these principles to their practice in workplace writing, students have evidenced that kind of care in ways I hadn’t seen when teaching professional writing as a series of rote, mundane documents. I have found that dress codes in particular provide a chance to employ an embodied stance on (bio)rhetoric in critical and productive ways, to focus attention on the problems and purposes of policing bodies, and to use multimodality to imagine (and perhaps create) material changes one might not have expected from the professional writing curriculum.




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