Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Code of Conduct?

According to Immigration Minister Damian Green, "telling people what they can and can't wear is a rather un-British thing to do.” Okay, the statement was made in response to questions about whether the UK was set to copy the law recently established in France and ban the wearing of a burka in public places. But putting that singularly contentious issue aside, isn’t telling people what to wear A Very British Thing indeed?

The following is an excerpt from an email confirming a dinner reservation at a nearby country house hotel restaurant: “May we politely take this opportunity to remind you that we operate a strict dress code policy. We ask all our guests to refrain from wearing denim, shorts or trainers in the restaurant and suggest that gentlemen wear a collared shirt, tie and jacket, while ladies dress in a similarly demure fashion. Non-adherence to our policy could result in your booking being cancelled without further explanation”. By issuing this formal assertion, the hotel isn’t breaking any kind of law at all. It is, however, strictly adhering to the kind of subtly condescending code of conduct that today represents an image of ‘exclusivity’. But when ‘guests’ are voluntarily paying a minimum price of £80 per head for dinner in such an establishment, isn’t it up to them to decide how to dress for the occasion?

Despite what the overall sartorial sense of the average Brit may lead you to believe, most men are not Neanderthals who have never set foot in a restaurant before, and few are stupid enough to think that a rugby shirt, tatty jeans and stinky trainers is suitable attire for a posh dinner. But What Not To Wear (and when not to wear it) still represents a difficult code to decipher - especially if you consider where many of our social customs spring from. Several social anthropologists, for example, argue that a tie subconsciously directs the attention downwards to the wearer's genitals; if this is the case, then that’s a very distasteful diktat indeed. Surely a cravat - much more of a supercilious symbol of faux-elegance than the wretched noose so beloved of middle managers and call centre bosses (who may or may not be hung up on the location of their manhood) - would be much more in keeping with the pompous image that any establishment that issues such severe guidelines goes to great lengths to uphold. And if female hotel guests are to subtly distinguish themselves from the paid escorts who frequent the bar, how much cleavage is too much, and is the thigh the limit when it comes to dress length? Blimey! At times like this, a girl needs Gok Wan on speed dial. But would he - with his bum-crack revealing jeans, off the shoulder T-shirts and stylishly distressed Converse trainers - be allowed to set foot in the hotel at all? According to the dress code, no. But according to the kudos that a Wan booking would afford them, then very much yes. It’s wholly relevant to add, at this juncture, that when I went to eat at the hotel in question, the guy at the table next to ours wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the shop he brought it from, jeans, and deck shoes without socks. His guest, meanwhile, was wearing a far-from-demure semi-transparent minidress, and they both flaunted multiple accessories so heavily branded (including four mobile phones between them, none of which were turned off) it was clear they’d totally lost the plot on making an independent decision as to what does or does not constitute good taste. So why wasn’t their booking cancelled without further explanation? ‘Cos they were clearly loaded - that’s all the explanation you need.

In Britain, a dress code applies to every situation; whether you can get away with bending the rules depends on your wallet, not your free will.