Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The ties that bind

When I was at school, I had very little idea of which career to follow, and no great desire to follow any. One thing I knew- I didn't want to work in an office, mainly because I didn't want to have to wear a suit. I ended up in archaeological fieldwork, where that seemed a safe prospect. In the 70s there was still the vestiges of the tradition of ill-dressed eccentric academics and minimally-dressed students. When you know for a certainty that by the end of the day you will be caked with mud, it is hard to care too much about which clothes will be ruined. As digging moved to a year-round activity, the rigours of the climate dictated the wearing of more clothes, but not better clothes. Army surplus clothes were the thing to set off your beard and long hair.

What was hard for outsiders to appreciate was that although an excavation workforce looked like a gang of vagrants, it was a highly-disciplined and highly-trained team carrying out very specialist work. Archaeologists were therefore used to applying a different set of standards to people, almost inverted: the scruffier the better, since this showed how committed you were. And in order to maintain their credibility, the upper parts of the hierarchy continued to dress as if they might have to go down a Roman well at a moment's notice, even if, or perhaps especially if, there was absolutely no likelihood of this happening (because, for example, they were spending a three--month sabbatical doing library research).

In the 1980s, a beneficial side-effect of the dramatic rise in unemployment as monetarism bit was the introduction of employment schemes under the umbrella of local councils, which were seized on by archaeologists as a source of labour and money for work that would not otherwise take place. This led to some head-scratching by the councils, who maintained a strong class distinction in their staff: the diggers worked on site and got muddy (blue collar), but were graduate/professionals (white collar); paid badly (blue) but given a lot of responsibility (white). The council staff (in their ties and suits) and the diggers (in their floppy hats and jumpers) stared at each other in mutual incomprehension and contempt.

The change came in 1990. The introduction of the 'polluter pays' principle to planning led to a shift in funding for archaeological projects to the private sector building companies and developers. Within a matter of months, the razor, once as foreign to archaeologists as wealth, ruled supreme. All across the country, favourite jumpers were consigned to bonfires or dog bedding, as the strange new world of short hair and clean clothes opened out. For the die-hards, it only took a couple of occasions on which their opinions or assistance were dismissed by busy businessmen because they looked like the people who cleaned the site toilets to recommend a change.

And so, despite my original intentions, I ended up working in an office and wearing a suit, along with everyone else. It didn't go too deep, though: ties were only worn when a client meeting was likely.

There was a point in the 90s, when leisureware ruled supreme, when everyone began to talk of the death of the suit-and-tie office uniform. This proved to be just another bit of 90s nonsense. Offices with hierarchies need badges of rank, so short of colour-coded overalls, we're stuck with suits.

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