National enthusiasm for dressing alike is as strong as ever, writes Hester Lacey
RICHARD MORGAN likes his suits. They were chosen with care, cost him a lot of money and they make him feel like a proper solicitor. He also likes wearing a crisply ironed white shirt and a neatly knotted silk tie with a discreet pattern, and having properly polished lace-up shoes. So when his boss told him that Fridays were "dressing down" days and that he could wear what he wanted, he stuck to his pinstripes, thank you very much.

Alan Sidderley, of the city works department in Manchester, virtually lives in his green sweatshirt and boilersuit, but he doesn't mind. "I'm on call 24 hours so I wear it all the time. It was new last year - before that, we provided our own clothes. It's much better now. I'm happy, the guys are happy. It's tidy, it's clean and it saves me money."

Richard and Alan are far from alone. Dress codes are a British institution, and the British love their uniforms, which is just as well because there are a lot of them about.

For a society where formality is supposed to be disappearing fast, it seems we are as eager as ever to bundle everybody into a uniform: judges, barristers, traffic wardens, council workers, dustmen, waiters, park keepers, bus drivers, schoolchildren, hairdressers, doormen, bank clerks, shop staff - and the businessman in the ubiquitous business suit.

Widespread privatisation has created a whole raft of companies eager to establish and maintain corporate identity by decking out their staff in identical vermilion jumpsuits or mustard combat jackets. There are between 500 and 600 suppliers of "workwear" in Britain, turning out everything from nylon overalls to bespoke legal robes. Workwear is a serious investment: one survey, by Cleaning Tokens, a dry-cleaning voucher company, showed that 89 per cent of respondents were maintaining or increasing their workwear budgets, while 69 per cent had redesigned or upgraded within the past two years.

The Continent, the United States and Australia have a more relaxed approach, tending to reserve formal gear for the police, the armed forces, the medical professions and McDonald's staff. "We have a general impression that people are more conscious of uniform here - the Marks & Spencer type of corporate dress style," said a spokesman for the Australian High Commission. "And the old-school-blazer dress code is definitely much more predominant here. In Australia we dress for the weather and adopt a more casual approach. In summer we go to work in shorts and long socks." But attempts in this country to prise workers out of their suits have not led to a joyous casting- off of the traditional British sober garb.

At the Ford Motor Company, a new policy of allowing casual wear has "not received universal acceptance", says the corporate affairs manager, Don Hume. He puts this down to "the old British reserve and tradition. We are just so used to wearing suits. Our colleagues in Germany, Spain and Portugal are much more casual - sports jackets, short-sleeved shirts and slacks are the norm - and in the States the casual dress policy was taken up widely and quickly, right across the board." Dressing down, he says, is a Very Good Thing - "surveys have shown it has very beneficial effects on the attitudes of the workforce." So what is he wearing? "Erm . . . a suit. But I'm in meetings all the time, and for meetings a suit is still the norm."

Suggestions a few years ago that judges might like to abandon their cumbersome but distinctive robes met with outraged harrumphs. Lord Hailsham leapt on to the defensive: "I am extremely conservative on the matter of wigs and gowns. In court the short wig and the formal robes of barristers and judges add to the dignity of the profession. One cannot," he added severely, "let professional people in court wear just what they like, otherwise they might well come in kiss-me-quick T-shirts."

Quite so, says Richard Morgan, with a delicate shudder at the horrors that slouch in on dressing-down days. "One of my colleagues came in wearing a baggy short-sleeved T-shirt thing. His hairy armpits were on prominent display. I don't wish to be confronted with such sights across my desk."

Startlingly fulsome endorsements of corporate dressing can be found on all sides. "Stylish, comfortable, practical, feminine," says Josette Blonski, British Airways stewardess, of her Paul Costelloe-designed suit. "We have such a lovely hat - it makes the uniform. Your individual personality still shines through - rather than making us conform, it enhances us. Driving to the airport, people see my hat and smile and wave."

Jan Mallalieu, manageress of the Ashton British Gas showroom in Manchester, said: "It gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of being a team, and it takes all the hassle out of wondering what to put on in the morning. I'm looking forward to wearing my summer uniform - it's a two-piece skirt and blouse in a pale blue print."

"I'm very happy to wear my uniform, it makes me feel very proud of my school," says Haribo Kamara-Taylor, aged 12, of Kingsdale School in Dulwich, London, who says he even irons his own shirts in the mornings.

The right uniform can make or break a company. "One of the reasons we are so successful is down to our uniform," says Ian Murphy of the Corps of Commissionaires, which recruits ex-armed forces and police staff for reception and security duties. "Commissionaires are hired because of their image, which enhances the image of the building."

The Corps supplies its staff with "everything except the underpants", including the distinctive black police-style suit, with big leather bandolier cross- belt and epaulettes. "Any security man can just stand at the door," says Murphy, "but in our uniform, our staff often say `people who wouldn't normally notice me stop and say good morning'."

Given this enthusiasm for uniform dressing, it's not surprising that even off-duty, the British insist on dressing alike. At weekends, shopping centres and parks swarm with clones in jeans, sweatshirts and trainers. So why are we so keen to blend in?

The anthropologist Desmond Morris puts it down to a syndrome he has called "costume echo". "People who are very similar in attitude dress in the same way," he explains. "It occurs because people have a deep-seated need to display allegiance to a group. Even if there is no official rule, we impose our own. It goes beyond following fashion. It happens unconsciously, and means people feel very uncomfortable if they are not dressed like their friends because it means they are not showing similarity of outlook, they are not one of the gang."

According to the social psychologist Halla Beloff, work and leisure clothes send out important social signals. "How we dress has much more to do with identity than personality. When we wear a uniform, whether formal or informal, we don't want to show our inner selves, we want to project an image and show that we are competent and we fit in. Choosing and interpreting is a highly developed skill, though people don't recognise it as such.

"You can see when you go into a department store that it's hard to choose an outfit, even if you're not a funny shape, because of the connotations of different clothes. I went with my daughter, and she said `Oh, I can't have that because I don't want to look like a secretary'. You see, we all know what a secretary's uniform looks like. I could afford to buy more expensive clothes than I do, but I want to keep a touch of Bloomsbury about me and look like an intellectual woman."

Despite the fact that we are now officially a classless society, the British do like to know exactly who's who. "We deny that what people wear matters," says Liz Baker of CMB Image Consultants, "but in fact we do judge people on the way they dress. It's very important to the British and we make very specific judgements on the way people look. It's very important to get it right: a banker who turned up in the office in a brown suit would be sent home to change."

She believes formal work uniforms and the universal casual uniform are simply cause and effect. "When people have to dress up for work, they love to dress down outside the office in either jeans or leggings. But people who don't have to bother so much for work actually find dressing up at the weekends much more enjoyable."

A few renegades still refuse to believe uniforms mean happiness in the workplace. "Marks & Spencer is a really overheated store, and we have to wear our jackets even in summer so we sweat buckets," complained one hot and bothered assistant.

"I have grim memories of washing up in a uniform in a pub in Fulham," recalled one (happily de-uniformed) journalist. "I had to wear these horrible tight white pants, which really scraped the skin off the inside of my thighs, with a smock thing on top, all in man-made fibres, so it was incredibly sweaty. On top of that we had stupid paper hats that got really soggy and kept coming apart."

But oddly, while even the humblest washers-up are required to stick to their prescribed outfits on pain of dismissal, the Army seems to be sidling into the non-uniform camp. For 20 years the threat of IRA assassination has obliged them, when out in public, to cover their army gear with non- descript raincoats and sweaters - uniforms are to be worn only when on duty. And now they are clinging nervously to their incognito. "I couldn't wear my uniform in the Tube, some yob might have a go at me!" wailed one nervously anonymous officer last week. Seems unlikely. Much of the population, far from having a go, would be secretly jealous.

All dressed up

Uniformed: police, military staff, judges, nurses, traffic wardens, schoolchildren, shop staff, waiters, vicars, commissionaires, bus drivers, airline staff, hairdressers, firemen, ambulancemen, hospital doctors, council staff, dustmen, train drivers, Underground staff, chefs, bank clerks, postmen, sportsmen, British Gas, British Telecom, electricity and water board staff, beauty therapists . . . Un-uniformed: teachers, social workers, undertakers, journalists, florists, landlords, GPs, dentists, lecturers, MPs.