The following article was published in the Financial Times on 7th February 2009.
As wildcat strikes loomed large across Britain last week and world leaders gathered for a global recession summit in Davos, the Bank of England was debating a different topic … high heels and lipstick.
“Always wear a heel and some sort of make-up, even if it’s just lipstick,” female employees of the Bank were advised by image consultants at the Dress for Success event held at its City headquarters. Also included in the advice was a list of items not to wear such as ankle chains, double-pierced ears and “an overload of rings”.
The theme of the seminar – as well as the timing – ruffled a few significant feathers. Katherine Rake, director of women’s rights group the Fawcett Society, complained that setting down such codes for women contravened equal opportunities practice.
Yet despite the potential for controversy, companies such as the Bank of England, as well as several British law firms, evidently take the image of their staff seriously. As a topic it may stick in the throat and incur accusations of sexism, but evidence suggests that many firms have good grounds to invest in appearance.
A 2006 study by Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College and L’Oréal Recherche found that when 152 men and 171 women were asked to assess photographs of four women with and without make-up, their responses suggested that women who were presented wearing make-up were perceived to be more confident, and thought to have a greater earning potential and more prestigious jobs than those without make-up.
And Bank of England is certainly not the first institution to advise its employees on dress. Last November Ernst & Young, the professional services firm, sent 400 female employees on a course to learn how to dress, while in January the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer advised female staff to wear stiletto heels with skirts, rather than with trousers, to embrace their femininity and to improve posture.
Such an approach may seem extraordinary in the post-feminist, post-Thatcher, Michelle Obama-groomed 21st century, but in some ways attitudes haven’t changed at all. “People move on in their careers because of communication, influencing skills, being able to create the impact that conveys leadership and authority, and that comes from a range of things including grooming,” says personal branding coach Mary Spillane, a partner in the London office of executive search firm Whitehead Mann. “It diminishes the age issue: by the time you are in your late 30s and 40s your skin has discoloration and you get dark circles; make-up takes that away,” she says. International make-up artist Bobbi Brown agrees. “In any situation make-up can be a great way for women to look and feel like themselves, only prettier and more confident,” she says.
Caution is needed, however, in order to strike the right balance between sexy and severe. “People want to look feminine but not vampish,” says a female co-director of one PR firm. “As a woman, you are often in the minority in a meeting, and you want to be remembered for the point you made, or for changing the course of a debate, not for the colour of your lipstick,” she says.
Even so, women in significant working roles, make-up can be crucial in overall appearance and perception. “Learn how to do it,” says Spillane. “Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier and MAC do [work make-up] makeovers. Tell them that you are high-powered, you don’t know how to do it, you want it to be quick, easy, effective and not disappear and they will teach you.”