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The future of dress codes: Virgin Atlantic flies the flag with gender neutral policy.

Written by Brabners LLP 


Virgin Atlantic has introduced a gender-neutral dress policy for its cabin crew, pilots, and ground staff in a new branding campaign to reflect the diverse nature of its workforce and customers. Staff working for the airline will now be permitted to wear the uniform they feel most comfortable in “no matter their gender, identity or gender expression.” It will also introduce mandatory inclusivity training in some regions, gender neutral ticketing in countries which use titles in passports, and use of optional pronoun badges to be issued upon request for both crew and passengers. This change falls in line with business trends to adopt more inclusive policies and modern working practices.

The airline industry has previously faced criticism for setting strict guidelines on appearance and dress codes, such as mandatory requirements for women to wear makeup whilst working. Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic subsequently dropped such standards to provide staff with options on how they choose to express themselves at work. In 2017 a public petition led to a parliamentary enquiry following demands that employers be prevented from forcing women to wear high heels. The report noted that many of those affected by unfair dress code policies are young women in insecure roles who may already feel vulnerable in the workplace and concluded that the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) is “not yet fully effective” in addressing the issue.

Umbrella companies should be aware of changes across different industries to introduce other gender-neutral initiatives including the use of neutral language in documents and calls from business leaders requesting Companies House to replace use of the word “Chairman” to “Chair” in its model Articles of Association.

The legal limits of dress code policies in the workplace are not specifically addressed in legislation. However, the Equality Act 2010 rules it unlawful to discriminate, directly or indirectly, in the workplace against those with protected characteristics, such as on the basis of sex and disability.

In the case of Sethi v Elements Personnel Services Ltd, the Employment Tribunal ruled that the claimant had suffered indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 when a temporary work agency refused to take the claimant on after he told them that he could not cut his beard for religious reasons. The agency argued that the requirement to be clean-shaven was not imposed by them but their clients, but the Judge criticised this approach and the agency was held liable. Umbrella companies need to be aware that just because an agency or end client mandates a certain dress code, this does not mean that the policy is lawful, and the umbrella company could inadvertently be held liable.

Case law and external guidance should be considered when looking to define the parameters of acceptable dress code policies. For instance, Acas advises that companies should first consider whether a dress code is required and only specify one where required by business needs. Dress code policies and restrictions can, however, sometimes be justified as a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” such as to alleviate health and safety considerations.

Key considerations:

  • Where it is considered that a dress code is required in order to set a clear standard about appropriate dress in the workplace, criteria imposed should be equivalent across all employees regardless of gender, identity, or gender expression.
  • Research by Culture Shift in February 2021 found that almost half of the UK’s legal workforce think that diversity should be more of a priority in the workplace, and 52% reported that their employer could do more when it comes to diversity, therefore, more companies may look to move towards more inclusive dress code policies.
  • It is good practice to provide employees with the reasoning behind new or additional dress code requirements. Employees, staff organisations and trade unions should be consulted, where possible, to ensure that policies are understood and acceptable for that organisation.
  • Dress codes must be objectively reasonable and proportionate to the work being undertaken. Personal circumstances should be considered when enforcing policies, such as reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, or religious and cultural practices.


This bulletin is for general guidance purposes only and should not be used for any other purpose.

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