Emma Davenport

Studio 4: What Not to Wear?

Thorp’s flat shoes next to a pair of high heels, 16 May 2016, as featured in The Daily Telegraph.

Studio brief

One morning in 2016, Hackney resident Nicola Thorp made her way into central London for her first day at work. She had been hired as a temporary receptionist but, on arrival, 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's 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. Often, we're 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.

Programme of study

  • Week 1: introduction to the studio, teaching and learning expectations, programme of study, setting up studio blog/wiki, proposal discussion.
  • Week 2: theoretical approaches to understanding fashion, dress and identity within the context of work – discursive seminar/workshop, updating blog/wiki.
  • Week 3: Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) visit to see permanent fashion/dress collection.
  • Week 4: researching fashion, dress and identity with emphasis on social science and humanities methodologies – discursive seminar/workshop, updating blog/wiki.
  • Week 5: archive visit to Clothworkers' Centre, Blythe House.
  • Week 6: students present their dissertation ideas for critical feedback.

Indicative bibliography

  • 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 (1990) The Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context  (first edition) New York, Fairchild Publications
  • 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, IB Tauris
  • Wilson, Elizabeth & 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 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: What Not to Wear?

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 Contemporary Art: From the Wunderkammer to Installation art

Nico de Oliveira

Studio 6: Curating Contemporary Art examines the impact of curatorial practice on art.

Studio 7: Fashioning culture: clothing and the shaping of identity

Dr Lesley Stevenson

Studio 7: Fashioning culture will examine critically the links between fashion, clothing and identity.

Studio 8: Pleasure, Excess and Dirt

Edwina Attlee

Studio 8 explores ideas of category, definition, identification and belonging through the examination of a series of objects and behaviours that appear to be in the wrong place instead of the right place.

Studio 9: The Continuing Lives of Objects

Danielle Hewitt

Studio 9: The Continuing Lives of Objects uses debates about change and preservation explore ideas within architecture.

Studio 10: Critical Theory and Critical Design. Artefacts, Images, Sites, Processes in Graphics and Illustration

Dipti Bhagat with Christopher Emmett

Studio 10 requires deep commitment and completion of critical theory and design for graphic design and illustration.

Studio 12: London Walking

Clare Qualmann

Studio 12: London Walking looks at walking as a mode of creatively appropriating the city, with particular attention to our own city, London.

Studio 14: All in the best possible Taste

Dr John Cross

Studio 14: 'All in the best possible Taste' examines the historical influencers of taste, style and fashion.

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 19: Material in Motion

Heidi Yeo

Studio 19: Material in Motion will explore why an audience will put time, money and thought into acquiring an object.

Studio 20: Image ethics: Form, meaning and context

Dr Nick Haeffner

Studio 20: Image ethics: Form, meaning and context explores the aesthetics of the image and its role within fantasy, desire and social memory.

Studio 21: The Nonsensical Realm III

Joseph Kohlmaier

Studio 21: The Nonsensical Realm is a cross-disciplinary studio. This year it will engage with the idea of metaphor in art, architecture, design and music.

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: A Common Thread examines the relationship between textiles and everyday life, including its design, trade, sustainability and more.

Studio 24: Words in Space

David Price

Studio 24: Words in Space reflects on the role that words play in our visual world, performative spaces and the urban environment.

Cass Studios archive by year