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Suggesting that women could look 'discreetly sexy' and ditch cardigans at work is sexist  

As a leaked email reveals that London law firm Vardags has advised staff on how to dress, Radhika Sanghani speaks to some ex-employees

“Be elegant, sophisticated, classic but with glamour and style. If in doubt, just be classic. Simple and classic. Never be tacky or tarty and at the same time, never be drab.”

This is not an extract from a 1950s women’s magazine. Nor is it from a Pan Am air hostess manual. Instead it’s a direct quote from an email sent by the head of a top divorce law firm to its employees in the 21st century.

The 1,000-word missive from Ayesha Vardag, founder of law firm Vardags in London’s Old Bailey, was sent to staff in 2018, but has recently been leaked after she sent a shorter version to employees this week fuming about “seeing cardigans in the office”. It’s clear that unlike most office dress codes, which generally rely on common sense and advise suits for men and appropriate smart attire for women, Vardags dream dress code goes further. A lot further.

While men are advised to “be classic, tailored, formal, but that can still be super-chic” (suits, double cuffs, no pointy shoes and “never wear brown in town”), the recommendations for women are much more extensive.

“Women are to be similarly formal but you can still of course be discreetly sexy and colourful and flamboyant at the same time according to your preference,” writes Vardag in her original email. “It's a Chanel/Dior/Armani look.”

She makes a point of telling women that she doesn’t expect them to wear heels – which is something – and that it’s fine for them to wear trouser suits. But she’s apparently appalled by anything that looks “like you might stuff in your backpack on your gap year”, and has a zero tolerance policy on cardigans.

“Cardigans are almost never OK,” she wrote in 2018. “I once sent a trainee in a cardigan out of a client meeting until she could borrow or find a jacket to wear.” Her words were echoed this week, as the weather turned colder, when she told employees: “Woollies are verboten. Nothing you could get comfy in by the fire. Look like a pro, not a pretty young thing.”

Her staff have been left speechless by these emails, which are now infamous in the firm. Both former and current employees have told The Telegraph that they were “horrified”– particularly as this week’s email was sent shortly after redundancies had been made and was widely viewed as “insensitive.”

“Everyone is a professional,” said one ex-employee, who received one of Vardag’s emails while still at the firm. “The idea that you have to tell them what to wear at work is patronising. Telling women they can be discreetly sexy is not appropriate.”

Another former employee said: “It’s quite sexist because it’s clearly aimed at women. It made me feel the way I look is more important than my legal work. It made me feel I was under scrutiny as a woman and for the way I appear. 

“As a woman, I felt demeaned. I felt she only included in the caveat about men to not seem sexist, and that it was targeted at young women in particular. It’s hard enough for young women to be respected in the workplace, and comments like this just make it even harder.”

She’s right; battling to break the glass ceiling is hard enough without being encouraged to dress like “you're running for prime minister or head of a major global corporation and you want to inspire awe, respect, credibility and universally slavish adoration every single day. Easy!” (Another direct quote from the email.) 

It’s one thing asking employees to respect a professional dress code, but another thing entirely to advise them to dress for “slavish adoration”, that they can look “discreetly sexy” and that “baggy, billowy, shapeless things are not good.” 

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Hopefully it’s clear by now that these posts are not intended to be ‘prescriptive’ ie telling anyone what to do - my hope is that they will encourage you to feel ever more confident about your own personal style at work (as well as pooling all our collective tips!). But when it comes to working from home I think it’s best to have some ground rules. 1. No wearing PJs 2. Take time to do your hair and make-up as usual 3. Get some fresh air and exercise. 4. If you have to do video calls make sure the background behind you isn’t distracting or unprofessional (I once made the mistake of having the ironing board in full view, groaning under mountains of ironing 😳). See pic 2 for the learning-from-my-mistakes set up! The experts - and common sense - tell us that the first three help our mental health, which is so important at a stressful time. When it comes to ‘what to wear’ I’ve learned that a jewel- coloured poloneck with a necklace looks both polished and appropriate for remote meetings (a structured jacket is too ‘fake news’ when people know you are at home) - if polonecks don’t suit you then a simple coloured blouse or shirt is a good alternative. Black is too draining for most of us on video and white is too stark. I have an ‘important’ video call this morning so have decided to make it feel like I’m in an office by wearing my skirt and heels but then I’m going to change into my jeans and trainers. Buddy is confused by this new look!! I hope you are as well as you can be. Love Helena x #dressforyourday #workingfromhome #takecareofyourself #adapt

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While Vardag herself was unavailable for comment, Emma Gill, Director of Divorce and Family Law and Head of Vardags Manchester, said: “As a top law firm, our clients demand high standards of professionalism and this is reflected in our dress code policy. Alongside providing a sense of collegiality across our several offices, our dress code also demonstrates to our clients the attention to detail and the exceptional level of service we provide. It provides them with reassurance that we take ourselves seriously and therefore we take them and their needs seriously. While this is embraced by staff, the occasional reminder is in order to make sure we maintain our high standards.”

A professional dress code is naturally to be expected in a law firm, but there’s a difference between ‘high standards’ and forcing employees – particularly women – to look “fabulous at all times”, ideally with their hair in “a chignon”. That might be necessary for a job that’s entirely based around looks but, for lawyers, it’s plain sexist.

Not to mention that many women at the top of their professions are busy busting the myth that you need to dress in a traditionally corporate way and mimic men to get ahead. Take British financier Baroness Helena Morrissey, who recently started an Instagram feed dedicated to showcasing her soft feminine style and encouraging other professional women not to feel as though they have to dress for the often male-dominated environments they work in.

As one ex- Vardags employee adds: “Why would I need to be discreetly sexy in the workplace? It’s a really anti-feminist thing to write, and it’s not an appropriate or professional way to talk to employees.”