THE picture was of a line of schoolboys headed for class. At first glance, nothing remarkable about them. At second glance, something very remarkable about them, writes Terry Prone.
They were wearing skirts. Uniform skirts in one of those repellent yellow-based plaids usually inflicted on schoolgirls.
The boys had appeared in school the previous day wearing shorts, this being their sensible method of coping with last week’s heatwave, and had been sent home immediately, because shorts breached the school’s dress code.
A bright spark among them, perusing said dress code, worked out that it didn’t preclude lads wearing skirts, perhaps because the likelihood of this happening had seemed small when the dress code was dreamed up. So up they pitched in their pleats.
The boys may have been following the example of a 20-year-old working in a call centre, who just a day earlier had been sent home to dress properly because he had decided shorts would be cooler than long trousers. He had returned to work in a borrowed dress, confident that the call centre rules would not have addressed such garb. He also shared the two outfits, with him in them, on Facebook. It’s unclear how the call centre reacted, but the school’s reaction was classic. They announced that, following a process of consultation, they envisaged a change to shorts next summer. To which the 14-year-old pupils responded by saying next summer mightn’t be as hot, and it was right now the exception needed to be made.
We have always had dress codes, formal or informal, and we have always had people who break those dress codes. Not so many people back in medieval times, when the Church and the monarchy in almost every European state reserved particular colours and fabrics unto themselves. At that time, a peasant who decided to wear purple might find himself or herself good and dead, although the very possibility was remote, given that survival to the next day kept most peasants preoccupied beyond the chance of getting wardrobe notions.
Inevitably, when dress code breaking came about, it did so from within the inner circle of the aristocracy. In Lord Byron’s time, Lady Caroline Lamb — the one who described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” — constantly broke the unwritten but coercive dress codes of her time, partly because she loved to scandalise and partly because she was madder than a box of frogs.
Particularly in the summer, she used to have her muslin gowns heavily dampened before heading off for a ball. It was, on the face of it, quite a good idea, because the dampened fabric might help to keep her cool throughout the hot summer evening. Although the received wisdom was that she had worked out that damp muslin clings to the body, and her body was, she believed, worth displaying in this way.
Modern dress codes grew up in the corporate world towards the end of the last century. They get adopted by companies for a number of reasons.
First of all to respect customers or context. Stand outside any of the big law firms and you’ll be struck by the similarity in dress adopted, particularly by the young female lawyers. Basically black suits — trouser suits or skirt suits — crisp white blouses and heels are the accepted uniform.
The second reason corporations claim as their rationale for a dress code is to respect co-workers. This rather depends on the corporate culture involved. If you’re working in a start-up techie company, the dress code is basically unsmart casual. Everybody, from the boss down, dresses in the same way and nobody feels disrespected. Rather the reverse.
The reason dress codes get laid down in the same file as the health and safety rules is because some companies want to avoid the situation where a staff member doesn’t get it. Doesn’t look around them and ask themselves the question “How do people who get places in this company dress, and what should I do on the wardrobe front if I want to blend in and make progress?” Doesn’t realise that the black bra under the transparent shirt is a great nightclub look, but maybe not for the office. Or doesn’t care. Some younger people see their dress as a statement of their rugged individuality, which they also assert by queuing overnight to buy Kanye West sneakers along with dozens of other eager individualists.
The first thing to be said about the dress codes breached last week is that, in the case of the school, it’s weird that they didn’t opt for shorts in the summer anyway.
In the case of the call centre, inflicting a dress code on a notoriously transient workforce which isn’t visible to any customer is even weirder.
In each case, exceptions to the rules are needed when freak weather happens. Even Royal Ascot caved into the heat, last week.
Royal Ascot has always had a bizarre dress code designed mainly to establish a hard border between rich and poor.
Women could wear hats like feathered toilet seats if they want to — and Princess Beatrice did precisely that one year — but men must always wear jackets. However, in the face of exceptional heat, they sensibly announced that gentlemen would be permitted to remove their jackets if they so desired.
Some dress codes always cause problems to the employees during the summer and nevertheless never change. The one affecting the lads and lassies who take part in the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, for example.
They have to parade in summer on cement that’s been roasted, usually at midday, wearing tight formal uniforms, belted and booted, topped off by a bearskin helmet that’s nearly as tall as they are.
The footage goes up, every summer, of them standing in serried ranks, row on row, until one of them faints forward like a falling statue. Out come the stretchers, off goes the unfortunate and just as order is restored — bang, another one down. On a day where the temperature hits 35 or 40, a bearskin must constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Most dress codes are pretty standard. That said, now and again, oddities surface, like the owner of a company a few years ago who had a serious issue with toe cleavage. He was opposed to high heeled shoes that showed the bit of his female employees’ feet where the toes diverge from the rest of the foot.
He seemed to believe it was ground level seduction of some kind. His female employees told him to get a grip. Forcefully, they told him to get a grip. Eventually, he did.
Nobody seems to have anticipated that climate change would cause dress code problems, especially in schools or businesses which are not air-conditioned. Now is the time to re-examine such codes in the light of increasing temperature. With a little common sense thrown into the re-examination.
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