Labor and Employment

Your Work-Related Appearance: What Are Your Rights?

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Your employer can create a restrictive dress code, as long as it doesn't discriminate based on a protected class.

Does your employer have the right to tell you what you can or can't wear to work? The answer depends on whether your company’s dress code violates state or federal laws prohibiting discrimination.

Dress Codes and Company Culture

Generally speaking, employers have the legal right to establish dress and grooming codes for employees. Some companies require formal business attire, some companies allow employees to dress down on “casual Fridays,” and others adopt a more relaxed dress code throughout the week. Some employers, particularly in the retail sector, require employees to wear uniforms bearing the company logo or to dress in particular types and colors of clothing associated with the store. For example, many restaurants require wait staff to wear black slacks and a white, button-down shirt. All of these options—and many more—are perfectly legal, as long as they do not discriminate.

Dress Codes and Discrimination Laws

A dress code might be discriminatory if it treats employees differently based on a protected trait (such as sex or disability) or if it has a disproportionate effect on members of a protected class. And, even if a dress code doesn’t discriminate against certain employees, an employer might be required to make exceptions to a dress code in order to accommodate an employee’s disability or religious beliefs.

Race and National Origin Discrimination

Employees have challenged dress codes that prohibit styles or outfits associated with a particular ethnicity. For example, an employer that prohibits employees from wearing traditional African Kente cloth but allows other brightly colored fabrics could be accused of intentionally discriminating based on ethnicity.

An employer’s policy might still be discriminatory, even if the employer didn’t intend to discriminate. In a “disparate impact” case, a seemingly neutral policy is discriminatory if it has a disproportionate impact on employees in a particular class. For example, a policy that requires male employees to be clean shaven might have a disproportionately negative effect on African American employees, who are more likely to have a skin sensitivity to shaving. In this situation, the employer must be able to show that its requirement is related to the job and consistent with business necessity. If, for example, the employer’s policy is based simply on the owner’s preference for clean-shaven employees, that’s not a good enough reason to justify a policy that has a discriminatory effect.

Sex Discrimination

In our culture, it is generally acceptable for employers to impose different dress codes on male and female employees. For example, an employer might prohibit men from wearing jewelry and make-up while allowing women to do so, or it might require men to wear slacks and women to wear skirts. These types of rules are allowed as long as they don’t place a heavier burden on one gender—by, for example, requiring women to wear formal attire while men can wear casual clothing. (However, state law may impose additional requirements; in California, for example, an employer may not prohibit female employees from wearing pants.)

Religious Discrimination

If an employee’s religious beliefs require particular attire, a company might have to make an exception to its usual dress code. In a recent Supreme Court case, for example, clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch decided not to hire a Muslim applicant who wore a head scarf for religious reasons because the company’s “look policy” prohibited caps of any kind. The Supreme Court found that this blanket policy was illegal, because the employer’s decision was based on its desire to avoid having to change its policy to accommodate the applicant. If complying with a dress code would violate an employee’s religious beliefs, the employer must make a reasonable accommodation—by for example, allowing the employee to wear a head scarf or other religious garb—unless doing so would create an undue burden on the employer. (See Religious Discrimination in Employment for more information.)

Disability Discrimination

Employers must also create exceptions to their usual dress code if necessary to accommodate an employee’s disability. If an employee must wear special orthopedic shoes due to a disability, for example, the employer must typically allow this modification. An employer isn’t required to accommodate an employee if it would create undue hardship, but allowing an employee to deviate from the usual dress code usually won’t meet that standard.

If You Need an Accommodation

If you need an exemption to your employer’s dress code policy because of your religion or your disability, ask for a reasonable accommodation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act give you the right to a reasonable accommodation for your religious beliefs or your disability, respectively, unless it creates an undue burden for your employer.

In general, you must tell your employer that you need an accommodation because of your disability or your religious beliefs. Once you make this request, your employer must work with you to try to come up with a reasonable solution. Your employer has the right to request more information about your disability or your religious beliefs, as part of this process.

Some accommodations are straightforward. If, for example, your religious beliefs require you to grow a beard, your employer might simply grant you an exception to its “no facial hair” policy. However, if your employer’s policy is based on legitimate business concerns, you may need to work harder to find an acceptable compromise. For example, if your employer’s policy prohibits dangling jewelry based on safety concerns for employees working with machinery, you might be required to wear your rosary under your shirt for safety reasons.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does an employer have to accommodate my sincerely held beliefs if they are not religious— for example, may I refuse to wear animal products if I am a strict vegan for ethical reasons?
  • Can my employer require me to pay for a company uniform?
  • Can my employer ask for medical information about my disability when I request an accommodation?
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