This is one of those questions that looks like it should have a straightforward and clear cut answer. Sadly it doesn’t.
You might think that if somebody who is self-employed buys a separate set of clothes which she only uses for work she should, without question, be able to claim the cost against tax. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
The leading tax case on this issue is Mallalieu v Drummond  57TC330. Ann Mallalieu was a glamorous blonde lawyer with a taste for “colourful clothes of an adventurous style” whose everyday wardrobe did not include the kind of dark sober clothing required of a barrister appearing in court. So she bought a set of black clothing which she used solely for her court work, and she tried to claim for the cost of the clothes as well as for the expense of keeping them laundered. Interestingly (but wholly irrelevantly), she is now Baroness Mallalieu, a distinguished Labour member of the House of Lords and prominent supporter of fox hunting. More relevantly (but much less interestingly) Drummond, the other party in this case, was one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes.
The problem with her claim was that the law only allows tax relief on expenses if they are “wholly and exclusively” incurred for business purposes, but clothing nearly always has an intrinsic “duality of purpose”: clothes are worn not just for business purposes but also to provide the personal benefits of warmth and human decency. Mallalieu and Drummond couldn’t reach agreement so the dispute went to court and ended up in the House of Lords where Lord Brightman had this to say:
Of course Miss Mallalieu thought only of the requirements of her profession when she first bought (as a capital expense) her wardrobe of subdued clothing and, no doubt, as and when she replaced items or sent them to the launderers or the cleaners she would, if asked, have repeated that she was maintaining her wardrobe because of those requirements. It is the natural way that anyone incurring such expenditure would think and speak. But she needed clothes to travel to work and clothes to wear at work, and I think it is inescapable that one object, though not a conscious motive, was the provision of the clothing that she needed as a human being.
Her claim failed because she bought the clothing not just for use in her business but also to fulfill her needs as a human being. They may not have been part of her everyday wardrobe, but they were fulfilling the purpose of everyday clothing.
In reaching their decision the judges also considered a couple of other situations. What about a self-employed nurse who has to wear a nurse’s uniform, or a self-employed waiter who has to wear ‘tails’? In both these cases the expenditure would qualify for tax relief because they are ‘uniforms’ and not everyday clothing. A barrister may not be able to claim for her sober clothing but she can claim for her lawyer’s gown and horse-hair legal wig, which are not everyday clothing.
There is one other situation, not covered by this case, when clothes will be allowable, and that is where they are the costume of an actor, performer or entertainer. HMRC’s stance on costumes is surprisingly relaxed. Their Business Income Manual distinguishes between a costume and everyday clothing, and also gives a couple of examples:
The cost of clothing acquired for a film, stage or TV performance is also allowable. The clothing in such event is not part of ‘an everyday wardrobe’; it is ‘costume’ used in a performance.
A self-employed television interviewer may deduct the costs of a lounge suit acquired solely for use before the cameras – it is the interviewer’s ‘costume’. By contrast, a self-employed architect who buys a suit in order to create a good impression while being interviewed on television may not have a deduction for the cost. The suit is not a self-employed performer’s ‘costume’. It is ‘everyday’ clothing worn in the course of the architect’s profession and Mallalieu v Drummond applies.
A film actress may acquire an evening gown solely for the purpose of attending the premiere performance of her latest film. The cost of the gown is allowable. The later private use of a gown, which as a question of fact was bought solely for use at a premiere or other such occasion, does not result in disallowance of the expenditure. But if the actress bought the gown with a view to use both at the premiere and on other private occasions, no deduction is due.
I confess I have some difficulty in seeing how a chat show interviewer is a performer while a barrister attempting to defend an indefensible client is not. I would have thought a great deal more acting ability was required to be a successful brief, but there you are. By the way, these expense rules only apply to the self-employed; there are much more restrictive rules for employees who have to demonstrate that expenses are wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in connection with their employment. The breakfast television presenter Siân Williams lost a tribunal case in which she claimed tax relief for clothes and hairdressing, but she was an employee of the BBC, and not self-employed.
Let’s try to sum up where this leaves self-employed escorts and other sex-workers. What is allowable, and what is not?
- Fetish wear or uniforms which are just used for encounters with clients should be allowable on the basis that a pvc traffic warden’s uniform or rubber catsuit does not form part of anybody’s everyday wardrobe of clothes – even a tax inspector’s.
- Lingerie which is kept specifically for working should also be allowable because it is not being worn to protect an escort’s modesty or to keep her warm. There is no duality of purpose, the expenditure is wholly and exclusively for the business purpose of enhancing the pleasure of her clients.
- Clothes worn for lap and pole dancing should be allowable: they are part of the costume of a performer.
- And any clothing you buy to sell on to your clients is allowable. So if you sell once-worn knickers you can claim for them, but you will of course need to include the sale proceeds in your business income.
- Clothes you wear for going to outcalls are not likely to be allowable. Even if you maintain a separate set of clothes which you never use in your private life HMRC will take the view that they are everyday clothes that provide you with the personal benefits of warmth and decency.
- Finally, there is an arguable case (though possibly not a wholly convincing one) for tax relief on clothes used for dinner dates. Let’s suppose you meet a client for a meal or as his escort at a business do, followed by private time. Could you convince a tax inspector that the evening was a performance and your clothes were your costume – it wasn’t a real date, you were acting out the part of his girl friend, the whole evening was an improvised role-play within pre-agreed parameters? Perhaps.
As ever with tax, the precise answer to the question “can I get tax relief on clothes used for work?” will depend on your particular circumstances. If in doubt, and particularly if you want to claim for something controversial, you should get specific advice from an accountant first. And a final word of caution: if you pursue an argument with HMRC and they don’t agree with you, your only recourse is an appeal to the First Tier Tax Tribunal – and their hearings are held in public.