16th March 2021

Religious dress codes at work

By Kristin Aune and Reina Lewis

How much control should a religious employer have over their employees’ dress? Some might want to shout ‘none’, but in the UK, employers have a legal right to set dress codes. In religious or secular workplaces, employees can be required to wear a uniform or dress ‘professionally’ to represent the employer’s brand and maintain its reputation. What ‘dress professionally’ means can be specified (e.g. no torn garments, offensive logos or jeans). Equality legislation requires employers to ensure such codes do not discriminate based on ‘protected characteristics’ (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity). For example, Sikh delivery drivers who wear a turban are exempt from having to wear a safety helmet.


Like secular employers, religious employers have the right to set dress codes. However, they might understand ‘professional’ dress differently. For example, while female flight attendants have contested codes requiring wearing skirts, heels and make-up, a religious organisation might expect an employee to cover her forearms, avoid skirts above the knee and not wear high heels – to dress modestly, according to their interpretation.   


But dress codes, and how employers interpret them, come with pitfalls. Based on our research interviews with women who travel to Saudi Arabia  to work, and women who work in faith-based organisations in the UK (such as charities, faith schools or places of worship), we think they should be enforced carefully, in a non-discriminatory way, and with maximum freedom


Balancing religious codes with the rights of individuals and with gender and other kinds of equality, is tricky. We found many women who work for religious employers are religious themselves with dress preferences that match the norms at their place of work, whilst those at secular employers who travel to areas with religious dress regulations, like Saudi Arabia, are mostly content to adapt their dress.


Consultant Jo*, 65, said wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia, increased her confidence, giving her a privileged access to the country. ‘The fact that I was wearing an abaya and showing respect actually made me feel much more confident’, she said. Healthcare consultant Anna, 28, found it practical and more comfortable than professional dress in the UK: ‘I can wear whatever I want underneath. I can just wear my leggings and a comfy t-shirt to work, instead of putting on a suit.’


For women who work as religious leaders, it was evident that workplace norms have changed significantly over time. The first generation of female religious leaders had to work hard to be respected. Rabbi Rebecca, 66, was on the receiving hand of negative comments about her dress and body from men in her synagogue when she was first ordained several decades ago, but this had lessened over the years. Younger female rabbis, like Rachel, 29, have more freedom. ‘In my generation’, she explained, ‘it’s like, can I wear a pair of high-waisted mum jeans and a shirt and trainers to the synagogue, which will be perfectly smart in the outside world?’


Most women working in religious contexts had a choice in how they dressed and navigated and challenged restrictions subtly and successfully.


But others struggled. In Saudi Arabia, Lisa, 23, a policy advisor, felt physically and psychologically uncomfortable wearing an abaya: ‘I feel like I’m more clumsy, less professional’, she explained. Wearing an abaya, education consultant Lou, 68, felt relegated to the background: ‘I felt anonymous and unimportant … I felt that I was less valued’.


Women travelling to work in Saudi Arabia experienced confusion, sometimes anxiety, navigating the code because of insufficient guidance before travel. They look to government guidance and social media. Some employers produce country guidance, which is useful but sometimes limited. Women would like more help with purchasing and wearing an abaya and guidance on Saudi norms for social interactions.


These feelings of lost confidence were echoed by a few of the women working for religious employers in the UK. Being reprimanded or mocked for dressing immodestly, or receiving a casual jokey comment, caused shame and reduced women’s confidence.


Self-described modest dresser Safya, 27, who works for a Muslim charity and wears a hijab, was reprimanded by a manager after a complaint from a visitor to the office who felt that her dress was inappropriate. This led to a loss of confidence. She said: ‘I never expected the way I dress would offend anybody. I was really upset. I started asking my colleagues, “do you think I dress inappropriately? Do you think I wear too much makeup? Do you think my heels are too high?”’. They said ‘no, if anything, you’re the most smartly dressed person in the organisation.’ If religious employers want to set a dress code, she advises flexibility: ‘it needs to be strictly professional and give people the flexibility: if you want to dress modestly we accept your own religious interpretation of modesty.’


Our research shows that in religious contexts, dress codes are enforced upon women more than men. While many women are willing to adapt their dress along religious lines, religious employers should do more to ensure equality for women and men in their dress and appearance policies and practice. 


Some recommendations based on our research:


  • Employers, HR and EDI professionals should enhance their knowledge of religion and dress, to ensure that their policies and practices are fair and non-discriminatory to all employees.
  • Employers should give more guidance on dress and behaviour to those travelling overseas to work.
  • Religious employers should ensure that any dress code they use does not discriminate against particular groups of employees.


*Names are pseudonyms

Kristin Aune is a Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Reina Lewis is Centenary Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. The research was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. You can read the research report Modest Fashion in UK Women’s Working Life: A report for employers, HR professionals, religious organisations, and policymakers at https://www.arts.ac.uk/research/current-research-and-projects/curation-and-culture/modest-fashion-in-uk-womens-working-life2