Sophie Morris: Stop bossing women about what to wear

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The Independent Online

It is our little secret, of course, but every working woman faces the same dilemma when stood in front of her wardrobe each morning: should we dress like a hooker for the office today, or keep it simple with a sombre suit? Would leopard print or pinstripe work best? Fishnets or opaques?

The odds are that women working in a corporate position will go for the latter every time, because they know which side their bread is buttered. So why did no one at the Bank of England predict a furore over the "Dress for Success" workshop it held to instruct female employees how to dress appropriately for work? There are a number of passable excuses for failing to foresee the credit crunch, but who imagined that women bright and steely enough to work in this male-dominated environment would take kindly to any sort of style tips, never mind these retrograde nuggets designed to clarify the difference between dressing like a deal-breaker and a street-walker?

The advice doled out gives the impression that women working in the Bank of England's headquarters have a fairly sloppy, slutty approach to office attire, something I find hard to believe. The no-nos highlighted by the image consultancy company brought in to run the course included white stilettos, overstuffed handbags and ankle chains. The last time I spied an ankle chain was on the beach in Goa. Overstuffed handbags? What do you expect when women need one pair of shoes to sidestep puddles and another (no more than two inches, please) to negotiate business deals?

Recommended instead were matching skirts and shoes, "proper" jewellery (gold, silver and diamonds rather than quirky pendants and chandelier earrings) and make-up.

Naomi Wolf must be having a field day. Yet it is highly irritating, and somewhat depressing, that The Beauty Myth remains such a useful reference book 18 years after it was first published. You can scratch at our glass ceiling, the Bank of England is saying, but only if you play by our rules and present yourself appropriately.

Please. As if their employees don't know this already. What renders such proscriptive dress codes absurd is the idea that women who work in such places do not understand that certain items of clothing and accessories are inappropriate. The specific rules vary from firm to firm and country to country (in the US, peep-toe shoes are considered one titillating step too far), but working in the corporate sector requires a type of professional conformity in which dress plays a part, rightly or wrongly.

The battle for wholesale female emancipation will not be over when women win the right to wear trashy shoes and multiple ear studs in important meetings. Still, whoever planned the Bank's workshop was dumb not to send out a memo to the men at the same time, requesting that they ditch the polyester shirts, get their shoes shined and wear only status watches.

So are the few renegades who show a bit of leg and not enough lipstick in the office rebelling against the status quo, or just slovenly? We could ask the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Teresa May, left, who was spotted in Parliament earlier this week in a snug leather jacket. But her outré dress sense has served her rather well and it would be unsisterly to criticise her. There you have it – we have women's magazines, friends, colleagues, mothers and partners to tell us when we look cheap. We don't need our bosses to weigh into the argument.

Could it be that they just get rather turned on by the idea of a perfectly-coiffed female colleague poured into a pencil skirt, à la Mad Men? Fair cop guv, but Mad Men is set in the 1960s.

The face of suffering? I don't think so...

Sensitive types are always complaining about the nasty pictures that aid and news organisations use to illustrate crises. You know the sort: footage of children with missing limbs and swollen stomachs, which make us feel so guilty about our own relative comfort that we are forced to dial up and make a donation, or switch over to A Place In The Sun and pretend it's not real.

Using a celebrity to publicise certain issues is one way to take the sting out of them, but quite how we're supposed to guess that the Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen is raising awareness of Aids sufferers in Africa with her photoshoot for the March issue of Elle, out today, is beyond me. In one image she is painting in a pair of shorts and a Panama hat, in another leaning over a saucepan of pasta in a perky Nigella-esque pose. If this seems incongruous to the cause, Bündchen points out that "the face of suffering isn't an abstract thing for me" because she grew up in Brazil.

That's the same Brazil which is one of the most unequal places on the planet, where the rich hide from the poor behind dark windows and fortified security gates.

* Usually what is lost in translation is truly lost, and we miss out on whatever has fallen between the shifting tectonic plates of different languages. But the translation of the title of the German book Feuchtgebiete into English as Wetlands has been to everybody's gain.

Charlotte Roche's book explores an 18-year-old woman's close, inquiring and unabashed relationship with her genitalia. Another way to translate Feuchtgebiete would have been Moist Patches. If that makes you squirm, don't read any further.