Dress (specifically the jacket and tie) is very much in the news. On 27 June, the far-left French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon and members of his Insoumise party turned up to the first session of the Assemblée nationale in open-necked shirts. Admittedly, it was a balmy 27°C in Paris, but as the député Alexis Corbiere explained, “I campaigned without a tie and I did not have a tie on my posters. I sometimes wear them, but I do not want to be given a dress code.”
The following day, the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, appeared in the House of Commons without a tie, and even dared to ask a question (a case of bare neck and brass neck); a fact noticed by the irrepressible Peter Bone MP:
Peter Bone himself once fell foul of the Speaker on matters sartorial when he (briefly) wore a ‘crazy hat’ to draw attention to a Breast Cancer charity campaign:
On the matter of ties, we might think that Bone would be better to go without a tie himself, given some of his choices in the run-up to the EU Referendum last year:
So, does it actually matter whether a (male) Member of Parliament wears a tie or not, or are such details irrelevant to whether they are able to ‘do the job’? Does the aphorism of the rhetorician Quintilian, “Vestis virum reddit” still hold true?
First off, it’s worth noting that although the Speaker’s clarification was, as usual, full of Bercowian pomposity, it was actually quite reasonable. Members, he reminded the house, conventionally wear ‘business attire’. He then corrected himself and referred to ‘male members’ wearing ties, apparently unaware that some giggling MPs were perhaps thinking of a different meaning of the ‘male member’…
Erskine May, which specifically prohibits military insignia or uniforms, interprets ‘business attire’ as ‘jacket and tie’. Given that Bercow has abandoned his own waistcoat, cuffs and winged collar, and more recently the clerks’ wigs (the Speaker’s full-bottomed wig, knee breeches and tights went under Boothroyd and Martin), he would be on shaky ground were he to be seen to be too much of a stickler for traditional formality.
We should also recognise that much ‘official’ dress was once ‘ordinary’ dress. The wigs so recently abandoned were worn by all members of parliament in the 18th century. Prior to the First World War, many members would have worn top hats, and yet the top hat was once regarded as so outré that the first man to wear one in public was arrested for breach of the peace when “several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a [young boy] had his right arm broken.” Top hats survived until 1998, having been worn to make a point of order during a division.
The obvious point to make here is that ‘jacket and tie’ is still ‘ordinary’ business attire for most British men engaged in non-manual professions. Waistcoats are no longer as common as they once were, and most shirts nowadays come with the collar attached (unless you are the Rt Hon Sir Desmond Swayne MP), but jackets and ties are hardly archaic.
But the question remains, could a male MP do as good a ‘job’ wearing shorts and a t-shirt as he can in a jacket and tie?
At one level it seems that he could. There is clearly no reason why a length of knotted silk would contribute to a man’s ability to think, ask questions, give answers, debate or vote. Indeed, in very hot weather, sweating beneath a woollen jacket and a buttoned shirt might actually impair him. Yet we enjoy very few genuinely hot days in the UK and the question at issue is not whether there should be warm weather exceptions to a sartorial rule, but about the reasonableness of the rule in general.
Therefore, I shall argue that an MP who does not wear a jacket and tie (that is, dress ‘conventionally’) is, in fact, less well able to ‘do the job’; and to understand why, we need to examine both what ‘the job’ is, and what meaning our clothes convey.
We rarely eat and drink simply for nourishment and hydration, especially when we do so with others. A romantic meal for two, a family Sunday roast, a birthday cake, a tea-break with work colleagues, beers after work, champagne to toast a married couple, drinks to ‘wet a baby’s head’, a lavish banquet, fish on Fridays — in all of these and in many more cases, what is at stake is something far more than merely taking in calories and liquids. In each case there is some deeper human, and therefore social, significance.
Clothing is similar. Ostensibly to cover nakedness and provide comfort and protection, clothes have significance beyond this. We’ve probably all found ourselves, at one time or another, watching crap TV wearing nothing more than a rather grey pair of underpants and a dishevelled t-shirt . And just to complete the example, we might have been eating a microwave ready meal as we did so. That is one extreme. The purely private experience: calories and clothing, outside of any social context.
At the other end of the spectrum we can point to examples of dressing which are highly stylised and have little to do with practicalities (unlike, say, the practical hard-hats or overalls worn by builders or manual workers). The Queen does not wear a crown to keep her head warm, but to indicate who she is. Or, rather, she wears it to show whom she is not. The woman who opens parliament is not Elizabeth Windsor, but the Monarch. The crown is the constant in our Constitution, which is why at this year’s State Opening, the crown came along too, even though the Queen dressed down in a hat. Other kinds of uniform and vesture perform similar functions in drawing attention away from the wearer and directing it toward the role they are performing or the office that they hold. A bishop wears a mitre and vestments when he functions qua bishop (that is, during the litugry of the Church). When he’s playing golf or eating breakfast, he doesn’t do it qua bishop, hence, no vestments or pointy golden hat.
Other obvious examples are the military and the legal professions. Military uniforms, medals and braids denote rank and gallantry in service. Wigs and gowns make it clear that X or Y is a barrister or a judge. When General John Smith is greeted with a salute, the salute is for the General, denoted by his uniform, not for John, even though John is also a General. A court rises when the Mr Justice John Smith walks in, but the chaps in the smoking room of the Athenaeum do not stand up when he enters, because he does not do so qua judge, but qua member, and is in that persona an equal.
And, be we not so exalted, the clothes that any of us wears are also socially appropriate costumes. Some people, it is true, are remarkably consistent in their dress regardless of the situation. Many of us know someone who wears jeans and a t-shirt on every occasion. Recently, Jacob Rees-Mogg cradled his newborn son in the maternity room wearing his trademark double-breasted suit (Jacob, not the baby). Most of us, however, modulate and vary the clothes we wear depending upon the situation. Like the food and drink we consume, and the way in which we consume it; what we wear, and when we wear it, has meaning. It says something about us and about our relationships with those around us.
We all have ‘schlepping about the house’ garb, but those who are not our family or close friends are unlikely to see us wearing it. There’s a joke that in Newcastle, Sports Direct has an ‘evening wear’ section, but in reality, most people tend to dress up at least a little bit for a night on the town. There are plenty of pretty ordinary city centre pubs that have ‘no trainers’ and ‘no sportswear’ rules. Most men will wear a tie, and more likely a suit, to attend a wedding, and will probably have a black one for funerals. Whether we are out on the pull, going for an interview, going to work or going to a wedding, what we wear in each situation will be slightly different. Clothes are about more than covering nakedness or staying warm: they are about the role that we play in a given social situation.
If we are dressing to go on a date or attending an interview, we will probably want to look our best, to be as visually appealing as we can be. Our clothes, we understand, make a statement about us, however much we might wish it were not the case. Whether we like it or not, the way we dress is as much a matter of tradition and convention as it is of personal style.
But crucially, they also make a statement about what we think about others and about the importance we attach to particular social occasions and relationships. The paint-spattered and oil-stained polo shirt you wear for DIY may be your most comfortable garment, but it would obtuse to wear it to a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. You may think that canary yellow really suits you, but only the socially inept would wear it to a funeral. And given that there are no rules about what is to be worn by a defendant in court, why do male defendants almost always wear suits (however uncomfortably and self-consciously)?
The answer is simple. They want to make a good impression, to show that they are taking their trial seriously and not treating it as a joke. If our bank managers met us wearing jogging bottoms and faded Metallica t-shirts, we might be inclined to worry about their seriousness. Perhaps we shouldn’t — it makes no difference to their financial acumen, after all — but we probably wouldn’t be able to help it. Taking out a mortgage, for example, and signing up to decades of debt, is a serious business. It’s natural to want the other party not only to take it seriously, but to be seen to take it seriously. (This is not to say that a jacket and tie is always the correct garb, of course: Gieves & Hawkes would be out of place in Abercrombie and Fitch, and vice versa.)
And this is why it is reasonable for male Members of Parliament to wear jacket and tie when in the House of Commons. Legislating is a serious business and an MP is only sitting in the House because he has been elected by us to do so. Thus he has a duty to his constituents both to take the task seriously and be seen to take it seriously. He may take the view that he can be a perfectly good MP clad in cargo shorts and a sleeveless vest, and in some ways, perhaps he can. He may work hard, ask pertinent questions, vote thoughtfully and so forth. But in effect, his desire to ‘dress down’ draws attention to himself; towards the man, away from the office. (Likewise, Tony Benn’s pride in kissing his own thumb made joining the Privy Council about himself, not about the monarch he had been appointed to advise.) An MP may be ‘John Smith MP’, but he sits in the House of Commons not by virtue of being John Smith, but by virtue of being elected as the Member for Nether Wallop, or wherever (and it remains the convention that members are referred to by their constituencies, not by their names).
Naturally, when he is being ‘John Smith’ — at home, on holiday, playing tennis, sitting in Moncrieff’s — he can dress however he likes. But when he is publicly and visibly ‘doing the job’ of being an elected Member of Parliament in the chamber, he ought to show the appropriate respect both to his constituents and to the institution in which he serves. He ought, therefore, to dress in a ‘businesslike’ or ‘professional’ way, and in a country where most professional men still wear a jacket and tie to work, that means the same rig.
Finally, just consider how Jeremy Corbyn’s clothing has changed in the last year. When first elected leader, a photo used frequently in the press showed him with his bicycle wearing a shell suit. In the chamber, he wore a (sports) jacket and tie, but in the manner of a chalk-dusted geography teacher. When he first wore a suit in public, he wore it uneasily, like a schoolboy going to a university interview. Now, however, he wears well cut dark navy suits. I’m don’t want to over-egg the pudding here, but there can be little doubt that people now find it easier to think of Corbyn as a leader and a potential Prime Minister, at least in part, because he now ‘looks the part’. It’s but one factor among many, but his attire suggests that he is taking his role seriously. Other politicians (yes, I’m looking at you Boris Johnson) should take note. Politics in a serious business and demands to be taken seriously.