Four employees stood outside the Park Hyatt Hotel recently, asking passersby to sign a petition about allowing women to wear pants in the workplace. Many stopped and stared at the signature-seekers with confused smiles that said, "What? Am I on Candid Camera? Or some U.S.-based retaliation show for Talking To Americans? You're kidding me, right? Right?"
"You can't wear pants?" one woman asked with indignant disbelief. "You can't wear pants?" she repeated, her voice rising. I wondered briefly if her head was going to explode. It did seem kind of unbelievable.
I was there because I had read the listings in NOW. "Protest the Park Hyatt Hotel's rule enforcing women to wear dresses or skirts to work," it read. Nah, I thought. But I'll watch. I had envisioned a massive demonstration of female voices raised in song and solidarity, maybe some skirt-burning in the name of knocking down patriarchal oppression, so I was a little disappointed to find only a few people.
Park Hyatt public relations director Stephanie Carpenter, clad in a skirt, surveyed the proceedings with what looked like mild bemusement. "Seventy-five to 80 per cent of our female employees are allowed to wear pants," she tells me. Those who aren't, she says, are cocktail waitresses, room service and housekeeping workers. I pointed out that it seems bizarre to require housekeeping staff, of all people, to wear dresses, even though I must note that it does seem to be the practice pretty much everywhere.
I tell Carpenter that I've never once put on a dress to clean my apartment, and ask if she has. "No," she replies. The uniform, she says, is a hotel tradition, and there has never been an uproar in the past. The reason behind the requirement is that the hotel wants to present a "luxurious image." Employees, she tells me, are informed of the uniform requirements when hired.
Not so, says Danii Desmaras, a bartender at the Hyatt and organizer of the petition, when I speak to her later. "They said, 'We prefer it if you wear skirts, but if you want to wear pants that's OK. '" It's only in the last year or so, she says, that management has started to insist on skirts - and the requisite wearing of pantyhose.
"A lot of people are afraid they'll lose their jobs if they complain," she says. "They don't understand that if you're in a union (in this case the Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees, local 75) there's a process you can go through." Housekeeping staff, she clarifies, are members of the Service Employees International Union, which has not joined the campaign.
Part of me has a hard time getting all worked up about all this dress dust-up. You have a decent job, I'm kind of thinking. Count yourself lucky, put on a skirt and shut the fuck up. I've worked in bars where I was required to wear a dress and others where I was required to take it off. Many men work in places where they're required to wear clothing they'd rather not, like ties and business suits.
But I'm not the most active person on the planet, and what if everyone in history had been like me? We'd still be in corsets and bustles. It's a good thing I wasn't in charge of the suffrage movement. Voting? That sounds like effort. I'll just wash these clothes, cook dinner, clean the house, care for these seven kids and make sure I look all fresh and fancy when my breadwinning husband gets home. Damn. It's a good thing someone else had the initiative to take care of all that for me.
But from my privileged, cushy, position that was handed to me on a silver platter, I would like to ask, what exactly is it about women in skirts that adds a sense of luxury to any experience?
If the hotel is attempting to create an experience that harkens back to old-school "luxury," then it seems unavoidable that they're trying to recapture an era when women enjoyed less freedom. The skirt, after all, when worn relatively fitted, within a few inches above or below knee-length (skirt lengths at the Hyatt do vary) and with pantyhose (as opposed to floor-length and commando), suggests a limited amount of functionality, which translates into an image of suggested vulnerability.
And yet there was a time when men were content to walk around in many variations of the skirt or dress, including togas, caftans, kilts, kimonos and robes, and they even did manly things like ride into battle clad in them (though these, admittedly, weren't as restrictive as the straight skirt).
The innovation of trousers is generally credited to people of the ancient East, though they only gained their current prominence around the 16th century. There have been times when wearing pants was considered unmanly, and times when men pranced around in high heels and tights. If you want luxury, why not look to the court dress of pre-Revolutionary France? Dress your waiters in powdered wigs and pantaloons. For that matter, nothing says "decadence" like a toga and crown of laurel leaves.
Oh, but wait. I'm confusing the costume of the serving staff with that of the customer. The server, after all, is not the one required to feel luxurious, or even comfortable.
Somewhere along the line, the skirt or dress became "women's wear" until brave fashion innovators and maybe some suffragettes and stuff stood up and said "Enough!" These days women are supposed to be able to wear pants. Men, for that matter, are supposed to be allowed to wear skirts. Now, there's a trend that never took off. Gee, I wonder why? Obviously, it's partly because men are afraid of being laughed at by their manly friends, but it's also because skirts are just not very convenient. For that reason, I guess it is worth battling over. Says Desmaras about her rebellion, "I'm not sure how effective it's going to be."