John Bercow’s decision to allow MPs in the House of Commons to dispense with ties has been hailed by some as a great liberation, and by others as an insult to tradition cast by a man who ought to be wearing a wig. But Tina Stowell, who joined the government as a secretary and ended up Leader of the House of Lords, has a different view: that ties (and, indeed, standard dress code) are a social leveller. She writes on her blog:-
‘As someone without a degree who travelled a long path myself, I can see now that one of the most insidious ways those of us in powerful positions have diminished opportunities for non-graduates over the last 20 years is by undermining the importance of some standards hard-working people of all backgrounds used to share…. Some people will argue I’m making a fuss over nothing. A tie is just a tie, they will laugh – a piece of coloured cloth with a knot in it. But these are the people – most likely highly educated – who don’t understand. They have created so many other ways to signal their status and importance, they no longer value some basic standards other people have to rely on when trying hard to succeed.’
I can see what she means, in Westminster at least. A friend of mine who joined David Cameron’s team in opposition told me there was a dress code which was applied with military precision. The oiks wore ties: it was a symbol that you were from the provinces, a worker bee. The more senior ones – better-bred types like Francis Maude and the lower ring of the Cameroon set – would not wear ties. My friend thought that while they did it in the name of modernity, it was really about affirming their social status: they wanted to signify that they didn’t need to work. Then, at more senior level up, you didn’t wear a collar: Cameron and Osborne would turn up in T-shirts or polo necks. When they were going into the chamber, they had to get suited up like the rest of the MPs, but in general they tried to avoid it. Then, at the very top, you had Steve Hilton, who went without shoes. It was the equivalent of the uniform of a four-star military general: it was, of course, unthinkable that a junior in No. 10 would do the same.
After three years working for Team Cameron, my friend detected a theme: the top social set generally disliked the idea of dressing for work and were baffled by the idea of doing so as a mark of respect to an employer. He said the idea of a ‘dress code’ appalled them. But the MPs from other backgrounds were proud to dress for parliament, and believed their constituents expected them to dress for work. As he saw it, the idea of a ‘dress code’ is viewed with abhorrence by the British ruling class but makes sense to those from more modest backgrounds.
Outside of Westminster, it’s more simple: you dress for the sector you work in. It’s not really about you, it’s about the people you deal with. You’re unlikely to wear a suit if your colleagues don’t. In the intelligence services, no one wears a ties because staff there they tend not to meet anyone from the outside. The rest of the civil service are suited up. The tech world has its own dress code: Mark Zuckerberg wears a grey T-shirt as regularly as Jacob Rees-Mogg wears a double-breasted suit. Soho House recently banned ties, perhaps to keep out the petty bourgeoisie. So I can see Tina Stowell’s point: in certain circles, even now, dress and social class tend to go together – and they ought not to. A general dress code, painful though it may be for some, does help reinforce this point.
PS There is one other take on ties. I once interviewed Steve Forbes, and at the end he asked me about my background: was I the first person in my family to need to wear a tie for work? I replied that I was: my father left school aged 15 then spent his life in RAF uniform – go back further and it’s butchers, farm workers, the same as for most Highland families. Forbes then gave me a present (I assume he has a bunch of them): a tie with the words “capitalist tool” written all over it. His point was that capitalism is the name given to the system that makes social progress possible, that there is a great dignity in office work. That there are millions of farm workers in India and China who’d love for their children to have the security, comfort and prospects of an office job. The tie, he said, was the symbol of this social and economic progress. A lovely idea, but the tie was green and gold and hideous.