IN HER 20 YEARS AS A HAIRDRESSER, Diane Carter had never once worn a skirt to work. "I have always been chunky," says the 38-year-old mother of two. "I am much more comfortable in pants." But on Feb. 1, the J.C. Penney store at the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrence Township, N.J., where Carter has worked since 1984, adopted a dress code forbidding women to wear trousers. And for the first time in her life, Carter, described by her maintenance clerk husband, Carl, 40, as "usually a passive person," was fighting mad.
"Employees were told to either comply or we would be terminated," says Carter. "I was outraged." On Feb. 5, after two warnings, she was fired. "I was shocked," says Myra Terry, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. "It's not unconstitutional, but it's sexist and unfair." On Feb. 10, Penney's rescinded the ban, but Carter was still uncertain about whether she would be rehired.
Until this month, the Quaker Bridge Penney's had allowed the kind of tailored dress pants that Carter wears. But when some female employees began to wear jeans and leggings, local management instituted a blanket no-pants policy—one similar to dress codes that have been adopted by other stores in the chain, says Penney spokesman Henry J. Rusman, "because of the great difficulty in defining what appropriate pants are."
To further help employees define appropriate attire, Quaker Bridge Penney's new dress code listed 30 other taboos—including sleeveless tops, miniskirts and knits, as well as denim, corduroy or twill for men and women. "I don't think you find those kinds of rules on Wall Street," says fashion designer Michael Kors. "You couldn't gel dressed!"
Of course, many of the items forbidden to Penney's workers are those that the chain sells. Which is why Carl, noting that the family's combined $30,000 income has been cut by one third since Diane lost her job, believed all along that the decision would be reversed. "They are offending their shoppers," he says, "the majority of whom are women."
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