Emma Davenport

Studio 4: Not allowed

Photograph of Thorp’s flat shoes next to a pair of high heels, 16 May 2016, as featured in The Daily Telegraph / Photograph credit: SWNS

Studio brief

“The field of dress codes is a site of struggle for control of the power to define situations and ourselves; to create meaning.” (Elizabeth Wilson, 1992)

One morning in 2016, Hackney resident Nicola Thorp made her way into central London for her first day at work. On arrival, Thorp was told that her chosen footwear, a pair of black flat shoes, was not in accordance with the company’s dress code. Thorp was asked to replace her flat shoes with a pair of high heels. When Thorp refused to comply with the request, she was immediately sent home without financial compensation.

Why was Thorp’s choice of footwear so offensive to her employers? On what basis did the company decide that high heels were the most appropriate type of footwear for women to wear? Who decides what we should wear to work? Who has the power to define ourselves in the workplace? How do social attributes such as gender, ethnicity and class interact with work dress codes?

Given that for most of our adult lives we will spend a large proportion of our time at work or working, it is surprising that the role of clothes and bodily adornment within occupational spaces has been paid little scholarly attention. Yet, the case of Thorp reveals that what we wear to work is not just an individual choice. We are often expected to wear something appropriate, yet dress codes are rarely made explicit and it is assumed we will wear the correct attire through observing others. This may mean a certain garment, a particular fabric type or colour, perhaps a specific sort of jewellery or hairstyle. As a result, the clothes we choose to put on each day have the potential to become critical interfaces between our individual and professional identity. When our dress choices challenge expectations of appropriate work attire, what is being contested and why?

Drawing upon a range of historical and contemporary case studies, this studio will investigate the role dress and fashion plays within occupational contexts. We will consider how the acts of getting dressed and being dressed provide the means to conform, contest or subvert the diverse worlds of work. We will investigate a range of established dress codes including uniform, casual dress and professional attire, which will also provide the basis for developing your dissertation topic. You will be encouraged to engage in research methods from both the social sciences and humanities. This may include participant observation, archival study, object analysis and individual interviews.

Indicative bibliography

  • Bell, Emma “Wearing heels to work is a game women have been losing for decades” (May 2016)
  • Damhorst, M, Miller, KA and Michelman, SO (eds) (1999) The Meanings of Dress New York, Fairchild Publications
  • Entwistle, Joanne (2000) The Fashioned Body Polity Press
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979) Subculture. The Meaning of Style London, Routledge
  • Kaiser, S (2012) Fashion and Cultural Studies London, Bloomsbury
  • Kaiser, S (1990) The Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context (First ed) New York, Fairchild Publications
  • Kawamura, Yuniya (2011)Doing Research in Fashion and Dress: An Introduction to Qualitative Methods Oxford, Berg
  • Williams-Mitchell, C (1982) Dressed for the Job: The Story of Occupational Costume Dorset, Blandford Press
  • Wilson, E (2000) Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity London, I.B. Tauris
  • Wilson, Elizabeth and Ash, Juliet (1992) Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader London, Harper Collins

Photograph credit: SWNS


Tutor Emma Davenport

Tutor biography

Emma Davenport

Emma is a senior lecturer with The Cass.

Emma teaches on Critical and Contextual Studies.

Dissertation Studios

Studio 1: Another India

Harriet McKay

Studio 1: Another India will examine, reflect upon and critique the historic use of "exotic" motifs in design.

Studio 2: Contemporary Ecology

Nabil Ahmed

In Studio 2 we will explore environmental topics through the lens of art, architecture, spatial practice, media and design disciplines.

Studio 3: Music is the Weapon: Performance, Culture and the Music Industry

Christina Paine

Studio 3: Music is the Weapon: Performance, Culture and the Music Industry is an exploration of race, gender, class and more in music.

Studio 4: Not allowed

Emma Davenport

Studio 4: What Not to Wear? will investigate the roles that dress and fashion play in our workplaces.

Studio 5: Imperfect Theories

Ektoras Arkomanis

Studio 5: Imperfect Theories allows you to critically examine any work that can be seen as theory or presents an interesting relationship with theory.

Studio 6: Curating as a Spatial Practice: From the Wunderkammer to Installation art

Nico de Oliveira

Studio 6: This dissertation studio is designed to help students who are interested in curating as a broad subject, as well as those who wish to contextualise their own practice within the scope of displaying art.

Studio 7: Souvenir

Dr Lesley Stevenson

Studio 7: This studio is concerned with those objects that are lent a particular enchantment because of their relationship with the past.

Studio 8: Post – card

Edwina Attlee

Studio 8 will look at one element of that system – the picture postcard – from a number of different perspectives.

Studio 9: ‘The Form of the Text’

Danielle Hewitt

Studio 9: Together we will explore the space of criticism; acknowledging our point of encounter with objects, places, sites and processes and the relationship between text, writer and reader.

Studio 10: Constellating

Sinead Evans

As creative practitioners we digest and produce images every day – as citizens of the digital age we consume between hundreds and thousands of images each day. This dissertation studio will slim down your daily diet to one image.

Studio 11: Science Fiction Futurity

Luke Jones

Speculative descriptions of the future reveal a magnified — or distorted — reflection of the fears and desires of the present.

Studio 12: Alternative Fashioned Modernities

Lezley George

Much is happening in the world today that foregrounds questions pertinent to our identities in a globalised world.

Studio 13: Desire, Trauma, History

Jonathan Whitehall

How does the relationship of memory to fantasy affect history? What are the links between desire, sexuality and trauma? How are these relationships played out or negotiated in visual and written practice? These questions will form the beginning of our enquiries into artworks, films and literature.

Studio 14: Design and Nature: Forms of an Entanglement

Gabriele Oropallo

We will look at how the idea of nature has been constructed over time and place, and study its impact on design practice in an age marked by the sustainability imperative.

Studio 15: Music, Technology and Ideas

Lewis Jones

Studio 15: Music, Technology and Ideas encourages you to explore how and why we make music, including its origin, relationship to technology and more.

Studio 16: Narrative and Storytelling

Jon Baldwin

Studio 16: Narrative and Storytelling will see you produce storygraphs, storyboards and various forms of narrative analysis in the seminars.

Studio 17: Knowing Audiences

Jeremy Collins

Studio 17: Knowing Audiences will encourage you to study an audience group using qualitative research methods in your investigations.

Studio 18: Time and the Image

David Howells

This workshop will address some perennial problems of writing in the field of visual culture.

Studio 19: Material in Motion

Heidi Yeo

Studio 19: This studio will explore a reading of objects focusing on the interplay between materials, the objects they form and their context.

Studio 20: The Liminal

Andrew Hewish

This Dissertation Studio examines instances of the liminal as they occur in critical theory and culture, and is open to any topic and students from all disciplines.

Studio 21: Reading the library (and nothing but the library)

Joseph Kohlmaier

This year, Studio 21 will stage an unusual experiment. It will move, unpack, catalogue, and perform readings from one private library; and make this library, without exception, the single resource for all the research and writing in the studio.

Studio 22: Meaningful work

Paul Harper

Studio 22: Meaningful work explores the value of making and the idea of craft as meaningful work.

Studio 23: A Common Thread

Gina Pierce

Studio 23: In A Common Thread, we unpick and examine the importance of textiles and how they underpin culture, industry, and global connections.

Cass Studios archive by year