I never thought I’d miss that navy blue polyester dress. Every time I buckled the skinny belt around my waist, it felt like I was leaving my individuality in my bedroom. Even though I brought my own twist to the uniform as much as I could, through my jewellery and how I styled my hair each day, my shoes still had to be regulation and comfortable. My section of the department was furthest away from its area of the stockroom, and the store card holders had a habit of requesting items in a different colour to what was on display. The walk was long, but a brief break from the shop floor was always welcome.
The dress itself, although comfortable, was nothing special at the time. Styled like a 1940s tea dress, with small shoulder pads, gold edged buttons and a slim belt to cover the elasticated waist, it looked suitably respectable for the shop floor at John Lewis. It was the late 1990s and this was my first proper job, so I was keen to make an effort to look presentable and, I have to admit, slightly relieved that the provision of a uniform meant that I didn’t have to work out what to wear. Female ‘partners’ had the option of a navy woollen skirt worn with a bright green open necked cotton blouse, or the navy polyester dress. We’d usually get at least one of each, but anyone who wasn’t keen on ironing would opt to wear the dress on a far more regular basis.
I worked at the store full time and my younger sister was part-time. I’d drive to work alone during the week and quickly ended up playing taxi driver to a group of four of us every Saturday. The store opened earlier on a Saturday than it did on weekdays, plus we had to get there half-an-hour earlier for departmental meetings, so it was always a tough one after the inevitable Friday night out in town. The great thing about that polyester dress was that you could just pick it up off the floor and still look immaculate. It dried in record time after washing too.
As much as that particular uniform item liberated us from laundry drudgery, the dress code was perhaps my first insight into gender inequality. The peculiar thing about John Lewis uniform regulations at the time was that, for non-management shop floor staff, women were required to wear a uniform whereas men could simply wear a suit. On top of this, the uniform was not free. It may have been cheaper that buying a suit, even on staff discount, but it’s not something that we would have any use for outside of work. Not only did our male colleagues end up with a bargain outfit that they could use for formal events such as weddings, funerals or other job interviews, but they also were often mistaken for managers on the shop floor.
I don’t know when John Lewis changed their business dress regulations as I was long gone by then, but I’m glad they did. My next job was in an office at a university where I could wear whatever I wanted. Work day mornings became a time when decisions on colours and styles were made, depending on my mood. However, now that I’m into vintage style and avoid ironing even more than I did back then, I do miss that navy blue polyester dress.
The image above of me and my sister (who I have blurred out to save her blushes!) wearing that navy blue polyester dress was taken by our mum, back in 1998. Image of the John Lewis store in High Wycombe via the Bucks Free Press.