Getting dressed for work each morning is a routine activity for most professionals. However, when tax time rolls around, many are surprised to discover that clothing costs related to their jobs are not necessarily deductible. The rules around work wear deductions can be complex, vague, and subject to interpretation.

Our Tax Advisors have discussed tax relief for work clothes, including key precedents and qualifying uniforms in this blog.

The basic deduction rules

First, cover the essential guidelines governing work clothing expense claims. For employees, any cost incurred must be an essential expenditure solely for genuine business purposes to qualify for an income tax deduction. More precisely, the statute dictates it must have been incurred:

"wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the performance of the employment duties".

Self-employed taxpayers face a slightly less stringent assessment, with expenses only needing to be:

"wholly and exclusively."

For business objectives, because everyone must wear some form of clothing for reasons of decency, warmth, or comfort, any expenditure typically fails on the 'duality of purpose' principle. Ordinary work clothing will usually also provide personal benefit as well as professional utility. Attempting to apportion costs accurately between private and employment uses is practically impossible in most cases.

The Mallalieu v Drummond case

A pivotal case in this area was Mallalieu v Drummond in 1983. Ms Drummond was a barrister who aimed to claim a tax deduction for the standard black court attire required by Bar Council rules. She contended that such clothing would not be purchased ordinarily for private purposes. However, her claim ultimately failed. The judge concluded no apportionment was viable, and wearing the clothing enabled Ms Drummond to be suitably dressed for warmth and decency and legally present her case in court. This set the important precedent that clothing forming part of a standard professional wardrobe for the job in question would not qualify for tax relief.

Protective clothing

Given those restrictive criteria, what workwear exemptions enable tax deductions? Protective garments required solely for health and safety reasons or to prevent damage provide one such category. Common examples where claims are often agreed upon include:

  • Safety boots/shoes
  • Hard hats
  • Ear defenders
  • Overalls
  • High visibility vests

Essentially, items that specifically protect the wearer from physical harm related to their occupation or shield ordinary clothes from soiling and wear and tear tend to qualify. Some safety gear may be mandated under specific regulations for hazardous trades such as construction, manufacturing, or chemical processing. Helpfully, during the pandemic, HMRC also confirmed that the provision of PPE and uniforms for NHS frontline staff would constitute a tax-free expense.

Distinctive uniforms

Uniforms identifying the wearer as having a specific trade or occupation represent the other main area where clothing expense deduction stands a strong chance. Traditional attire like nurses' or police uniforms are oft-cited examples. HMRC guidance also indicates they tend to allow claims for company-branded clothing provided to construction workers, electricians and plumbers. The key distinction here is that such attire is readily distinguishable from ordinary clothing and not worn outside work hours. However, HMRC stresses that decisions depend on individual circumstances - simply having a logo or badge attached does not automatically qualify an item as a uniform.

The exotic dancer case

An interesting 2018 legal case saw self-employed "exotic dancer" Gemma Daniels succeed in claiming for expenses including lingerie, dry cleaning and hair styling as claimed in her self-assessment tax return. The First-Tier tax tribunal agreed that her work clothing was unusable for ordinary purposes; hence, no duality existed. Additionally, because she did not wear her distinctive professional garb outside her acts, the full cost was allowable against tax. An anomaly perhaps, but it illustrates how closely tribunals examine stated work requirements and the uniqueness or otherwise of clothing when judging eligibility for relief.

Practical steps

Based on prevailing legislation and precedents, these remain the key standards to satisfy for employees and self-employed individuals to secure tax deductions for work apparel costs:

Required solely to undertake the specific duties of a safety-critical trade or public service duty with regulated uniforms. Branded workwear with no private use may qualify.

It is essential to prevent bodily harm or solely preserve ordinary clothing in an intrinsically damaging workplace.

Some other practical points to note:

Where possible, keep purchases of protective gear or specific company uniform items segregated from ordinary clothing expenditure. This will simplify supporting any claim.

Employees in trades with negotiated national agreements may qualify for flat rate reductions to cover uniforms and laundry, even if they are not deductible under the above guidelines.

The reality is that the bar remains high regarding purely work-related clothing expense claims for most. However, being aware of the qualifying categories and tailoring any case around legislated precedent does give the best chance where costs are legitimately and exclusively incurred for business purposes. And with observers highlighting increasing tribunal sympathy for workers' costs, the dial may slowly shift.