Long before he became President of the United States, President Donald Trump was obsessed with his public image, despite his apparent inability to get a decent haircut, and the image projected by those surrounding him. This obsession with how he and his staff look has not gone away since he took office, but it has come under increased scrutiny. Now, thanks to a few comments made by one of President Trump’s campaign assistants, people who have already derided President Trump’s misogynistic ways have a new reason to hate him because he prefers that his female staffers dress “like women.” This particular preference has reportedly led to women feeling pressured to eschew pants in favor of dresses when in President Trump’s political workplace.
It is legal for an employer to have a dress code and even grooming standards. For certain industries, these restrictions are necessary for safety, such as prohibiting hospital employees from wearing jewelry that might interfere with their ability to assist patients or requiring construction workers to wear steel-toed boots. In other industries, these restrictions are part of the image presented by the company, which is the case with Disney and its infamous grooming requirements for theme park employees.
If Women Must Dress Like Women, Then Men Must Dress Like Men
Even though dress codes and grooming standards are legal, they are subject to anti-discrimination laws on both the federal and state level. In terms of laws prohibiting gender discrimination, employees of one gender cannot be required to adhere to far more regulations than employees of another gender. For instance, a restaurant cannot require male wait staff to wear three-piece bespoke navy suits while allowing female wait staff to dress however they want, regardless of whether that clothing choice is a ball gown or dirty old sweatpants.
To that end, though, a company can require its employees to dress within certain perimeters, if those perimeters are comparable between genders. A company can require all of its employees to dress in jeans and t-shirts or in suits and dresses. The courts have already made it clear that the dress code can, to the average person, appear to be sexist, so long as it is equal. An example of a dress code that may appear to be sexist at first would be cocktail waitress outfits. These outfits are notoriously skimpy, and many people label them as sexist because they promote the objectification of women. However, so long as the male counterparts of the waitresses have a similarly demanding dress code, a dress code demanding skimpy outfits is perfectly legal.
Since the courts have determined that requiring women to dress a certain way is not discriminatory, so long as it is comparable to what the men must wear, it is not discriminatory for Donald Trump to request that women wear feminine attire, as long as he makes a similar request of men to dress in masculine attire. It does appear that men who work for Donald Trump are required to wear suits complete with ties. Requiring a man to wear a suit with a tie is comparable to making a woman wear a dress or other such feminine business attire. Thus, Donald Trump’s requirement for women to dress “like women” appears to be perfectly legal because he requires his male staffers to essentially dress like men, meaning that the burden for both genders is equal.
Dressing Like a Woman Does Not Mean Wearing an Ivanka Trump Dress
Now, if Donald Trump were to start requiring his female staff to wear Ivanka Trump-brand dresses, which he might start doing to increase the sales of his daughter’s clothing line, then he might wind up running afoul of the law. This is because making employees wear a specific item of clothing from a specific manufacturer or brand is tantamount to making them wear a uniform like those worn by McDonald’s employees. An employer can require the employees to wear uniforms if it is used to promote the brand or for any reasons why a dress code can be implemented. Additionally, under federal law, an employer can take the money required to cover the cost of the uniform out of the employee’s paycheck or require the employee to buy the uniform, the latter method being the one preferred by retail stores that have their employees dress in the store’s clothing. However, the amount used to cover the cost of the uniform cannot be so high that the employee is left with a wage that is below their state’s minimum wage. With the average Ivanka Trump-brand dress costing anywhere between $50 and $150, some lower-level staffers for the White House may end up facing clothing bills that would exceed their paychecks. Thus, if Donald Trump does end up requiring female White House staffers to wear dresses from his daughter’s clothing label, then he would likely be legally obligated to cover the cost of the dresses because they are very specific clothing items and their prices most likely make them cost-prohibitive to some employees.
Of course, requiring his female staffers to wear dresses from Ivanka Trump’s clothing line may lead to other problems for Donald Trump and his staff because of his position in the federal government, which are problems that President Trump may already be dealing with outside of the media’s scrutinizing eye due to his preference to see male staffers in Trump-brand ties. Employees of the executive branch are free to wear whatever clothing brands they want, but they cannot actively promote the brand that they are wearing. Doing so is seen as a “misuse of position,” and is prohibited by a regulation put forth by the Office of Government Ethics. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump, was recently accused of violating this regulation when she talked about Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on a television program and encouraged people to buy clothes from the brand. Often, employers have their employees wear clothing from only one brand in order to promote that brand, especially where the employees are working for a clothing brand in a retail store setting. Even though the White House is not a clothing retailer, requiring all of its female employees wear the same brand of clothing may give the impression that it is promoting that particular brand and, thus, a misuse of the White House’s position in the federal government.
It is also a misuse of position if a holder of a public office uses their government position for their own private gain or the private gain of their friends or family. If President Trump were to put all of his female staffers into Ivanka Trump-brand dresses at their own expense, he would be using his position as President to provide financial gain to his daughter as a private business owner. Additionally, if President Trump were to use federal funds to pay for the dresses, much like a traditional private employer would use company funds to cover the cost of uniforms, then Ivanka and her clothing line would be receiving a direct financial gain from the federal government as a result of her dad being President.
Even if Donald Trump were to pay for the dresses out of his own pocket, the female staffers would only be wearing the dresses as a result of Donald being President, so Ivanka would be experiencing a personal financial benefit from the White House female staffers wearing her company’s dresses courtesy of her father’s position. Ergo, Donald Trump would be misusing his official role as President of the United States in two ways if he required his female staffers to wear Ivanka Trump’s dresses: by promoting his daughter’s company and by providing her with private financial gain.
Ultimately, It Is Allowed
While it may come off as sexist, Donald Trump can require his female staffers to dress “like women,” so long as he continues to hold his male staffers to the same general standard for grooming and dress codes. However, if the dress code becomes more restrictive by Donald Trump making his female staffers all wear dresses from one brand, especially if the dresses come from Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, then such a restrictive dress code may be illegal and in violation of federal government regulations. If you are facing a dress code at work that seems to be unfairly restrictive or heavily biased toward one gender, then you may want to talk to an employment lawyer about your rights as an employee in the workplace.