“You gotta wear heels when he’s in Albany sweetie, that’s the rule,” Ana Liss, a former aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, says a senior staff member instructed her, according to Gothamist/WNYC. “He,” of course, referred to the governor of New York. Cuomo has recently been accused of many gross and sexist violations of the basic human rights of women who worked for him, including sexual harassment and assault. These charges are under investigation. But what’s striking in these accounts, from many sources, is the portrait of the retrograde office culture over which Cuomo presides, one in which the boss exercised enormous control over women workers’ bodies, setting an expectation that they wear sexy clothes, including high heels, in Liss’s case, stilettos (ouch), just because he liked it.
Many women have faced similar oppressive and discriminatory dress codes on the job. In Cuomo’s case, the culprit is so high-profile that former employees can seek redress by going public. But for most women workers, the most effective way to fight the boss’s humiliating incursions on their everyday personal freedoms has been organizing in the workplace.
The obligation to look hot in the workplace was a major target of second-wave feminism (of course, with hotness defined in the most pedestrian way; after all, some of us are much more excited to see a woman in a hard hat). Strict workplace dress codes specifically for women were common for most of the twentieth century: hyperfeminine, confining skirts, uncomfortable shoes, including heels, and stockings. Women protested these restrictions through street actions like the famous 1968 Miss America protest and also through activist working women’s groups like 9to5. Today, as a result of such activism and the cultural changes wrought by second-wave feminism, fewer white-collar office workers are subjected to these sexist expectations. That’s probably why so many people were shocked to learn that Governor Cuomo allegedly imposed such degradingly specific rules on his female workforce. (Cuomo’s office denies the existence of a dress code. Cuomo’s office is denying a lot of things right now.) Unfortunately, it’s probably less shocking to those working in the service industries, which have often catered to cretinous customers who share Andrew Cuomo’s boorish sense of entitlement to female bodies.
One of these is the airline industry. In the 1950s and ’60s, airlines had strict policies about flight attendants’ appearance: they were supposed to be conventionally sexy, even sexually available to the male customer. Policies focused on dress code, weight, looks, and even marital status. (The requirement that they be unmarried was supposed to fuel customer fantasy — at least one ad enticed the male customer with the possibility of finding a wife — but also justified pay discrimination against them, since they weren’t supposed to have families to support.) Airlines also decreed that the flight attendants be young: most were forced to leave the industry in their early thirties. (Not only did this bit of ageism leave them unemployed long before normal retirement age, but the flight attendants also weren’t given the pensions that male airline employees enjoyed.) Dress codes, often mandating high heels and tight skirts, were part of this context — the sexy in-flight experience the industry marketed to the straight male business traveler, often at the expense of the workers’ dignity. Flight attendants have often been objectified and eroticized by the airlines themselves in their marketing. In 1971, for example, National Airlines ran an ad campaign featuring a pretty stewardess with the tag line, “Fly Me.” Flight attendants complained that the outfits they had to wear as well as the sexy marketing campaigns like “Fly Me” — not to mention Continental’s later “We Really Move Our Tail for You” — exacerbated the harassment they faced in flight, including unwanted pinching and groping.
In the mid-sixties, the bosses’ fixation on the stewardesses’ clothing intensified, and the uniforms got more revealing. As Jezebel described in a fascinating 2018 article, in 1965 Braniff International Airlines introduced an “air strip” to be performed by the flight attendants, who would frequently change their outfits in flight. Heavily advertised, the “air strip” was a business success, and Braniff enjoyed a 50 percent increase in revenue in 1966. Pacific Southwest Airlines made the flight attendants wear minidresses and matching go-go boots into the late sixties, switching to hot pants in the seventies. Cute outfit, but you definitely wouldn’t want your paycheck to depend on wearing it; a dress that doesn’t even cover your ass should be consensual.
In the mid-1960s, because of the rise of second-wave feminism, and because of union organizing in the industry, flight attendants began organizing against some of these sexist indignities. The 1964 Civil Rights Act allowed them to challenge and eventually eliminate the age and marriage requirements. In 1972, fed up with the continuing humiliations of sexual harassment by customers and the weight requirement, a couple of flight attendants started Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, which eventually succeeded in getting rid of the weight requirement through legal challenges, as well as through media campaigns and consciousness-raising among the workforce.
Besides fighting the retro-horror consequences of airline deregulation for passenger safety and for their own livelihoods, flight attendants have continued to struggle and organize over retrograde restrictions on their appearance. The dress codes have been slower to change than the age or weight requirements, but they have been evolving. Many US airlines have done away with makeup requirements and allow both sexes to wear pants (at Delta, an employee of either sex can choose either a skirt or pants). In 2019, Aer Lingus and Virgin announced they would no longer require female flight attendants to wear makeup and would provide pants as a standard uniform option for all (women can still wear the skirts as well if they like). In 2018, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific conceded to female flight attendants’ demands to wear pants.
On many airlines worldwide, however, female flight attendants are still required to wear heels, as in Governor Cuomo’s office. Workers have been challenging that too.
In industries with less history of worker organizing or unions, by contrast, women have often been without recourse. A temp floorwalker made headlines more than a decade ago when she was fired from Harrods, the legendary British department store, for refusing to wear high heels. Some companies still acknowledge requiring women to wear heels and stockings.
The recent scandals have exposed liberal darling Governor Cuomo, the founder of the laughable Women’s Equality Party, as a retrograde boss. But the history of sexist rules on women’s appearance in the workplace offers a window on how powerful and transformative worker organizing can be.