Michael Bywater: Uniforms are there for a reason

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The Independent Online

In 1998, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Proceedings of the House had to reverse its decision to tell peers not to speak with their hands in their pockets, and look where it got us: a Speaker of the Commons in a lounge suit, correctly condemned over the weekend by Baroness Boothroyd (a former incumbent of the post) for losing respect.

On the one hand, it's sheer bliss. Pure nostalgia. The years roll back and here we are, schoolboys again: no speaking with hands in pockets, no walking ditto, no doing up your middle button, only corpus praefectorum to walk on this bit of lawn, only third-year sixth to walk up those steps, that's not a dark suit, Bywater, it's got a fleck in it, those shoes don't have toecaps. Is that umbrella rolled, laddie? Sir, sir, the headmaster wants to see Bywater in his study NOW etc etc as any fule kno.

On the other hand, it's serious. It sounds like pettifogging but isn't it really a simple question of following the rituals of one's tribe? Put yourself above those rituals and you put yourself above your tribe; and then, mene mene tekel upharshin, you will be weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Your personal qualities don't matter – not even if you are Speaker Bercow – when it comes to fulfilling an office. The respect (such as it is) is owed to the office, not to the man. And if William of Wykeham was right, and manners makyth man, then dress is a crucial part of those manners: dilute or abandon it at your peril.

Most of us know this instinctively. I went to a dinner at one of the Inns of Court some years ago; as I was dressing I found that moths had destroyed my dinner jacket, so instead I wore a snazzy white tuxedo from Brooks Brothers. It would have been better to claim leprosy and chuck, not because of how I was treated – they were all very polite – but how I felt. I had broken the rules.

A woman who arrives somewhere where another woman is identically dressed feels outrage and despair; a man who arrives to find he is not dressed exactly the same as all the other men feels ... well, "uncomfortable" hardly began to cover it.

To dress differently to how you are expected to is to elevate yourself above the feelings of the tribe. Formal dress, whether cultural (like black tie) or a uniform or even clerical vestments, is never personality-driven.

When the judge comes in we all stand not out of respect for him or her, but for the Crown which the judge represents. The Pope wears vestments because that is what the Pope – not the chap who's playing the role at any given time – wears. The Speaker of the House of Commons can come in in a pointy, Seven Dwarves-style hat, shouldering a pickaxe if he chooses; but his audience of flagrant, meddlesome borderline personalities may then be forgiven if they respond not to the office, but the man.

Our egalitarianism leads us into difficulties with our pack instincts. We want a leader but our leader wants to kid us he's Just Like Us. Our priests want us to call them Ken, in their roll-neck jerseys; our lawyers want to shed their wigs and gowns; our doctors give us the bad news in chinos and open-necked shirts; only our modern psychopomps, the undertakers, cling to their old formal dress, marking the occasion as out-of-the-run by their wands and tails and top hats.

Mistaking the functions of uniform is really a cultural transgression, a solecism rather than a blow for individualism; it is an error in good manners. I learnt far too late that a non-conformist should dress conventionally.

And do we want peers in do-rags, vicars in cargo shorts, bank managers in Hawaiian shirts and Ray-Bans? Or do we want to feel that if we're to honour our tribal institutions, their office-holders should honour us by representing the institution, not themselves? Answers on one side of the paper only, to Speaker Bercow.