Dressed to send signals

Were the rail companies wrong to impose fussy rules on staff? Sandra Barwick reports
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The Independent Online
O brave new world that has such porters in it, unbearded and in 15-denier stockings. The regional companies that now run British Rail are, in the run-up to privatisation, issuing strict codes for personal dress and appearance.

In some areas men must cut their hair and shave their beards. In others,0 patterned socks are forbidden. At Manchester's Piccadilly station, women wearing the new navy and red uniforms of Regional Railways must complement these with near-sheer stockings in black or barely black. By some tracks women may wear earrings no bigger than a 10p coin, while men may not wear ear-rings at all.

This looks at first glance like the corporate culture of the free market being put into early effect, the dirty traces of nationalised industry being cleaned away. But is private enterprise really so heavy handed?

Certainly the free-market culture approves to some extent of corporate dressing, at least for employees who need workwear - the blue-collar workers - and for service staff dealing face to face with customers. In the back office and the boardroom a different kind of corporate dress evolves according to unwritten rules: the ambitious employee dresses like his bosses.

But the code of dark City suits, or the Bohemian touches in the dress of employees in design firms, is voluntary. Regulated dress is usually reserved for the servant classes of a company: those who meet the client face to face in junior capacities.

Management handbooks deal lyrically with the team spirit and sense of purpose to be donned along with a company uniform. Or, to put it another way, "Like any army, if you want to terrify the life out of your opponent, you march up to him all 100 of you in the same dress." That is the opinion of Janine Donovan, a consultant with the management consultancy firm Wolff Olins.

Whether the new-style dress of railway employees can be any more offputting than the old is a moot point. If the directors of the new regional railway companies are truly eager to make money in the new, privatised future, they should also contemplate thefact that modern management thinking deems their sort of approach to dress regulations hopelessly outdated.

Control of the workforce with petty restrictions about ear-ring size and whiskers was popular with a management generation that had gone through the Second World War, or at least National Service. Its employees had shared those regimented experiences andtook it more easily. But their successors see the army approach as counterproductive. Consultation and choice are the watchwords of the market now.

"Good workwear, so long as it's practical and the staff are consulted, can make people feel part of a gang. But very strict uniform, corporate dress, gives the wrong message," says Ms Donovan."It makes people who should be thinking for themselves seem asthough they can't. Customers are looking for someone in a business who can treat them as individuals, and the sight of a uniform makes them think they're dealing with a zombie."

The hostility, in the newspapers and on British Rail platforms, which has greeted the railway companies' new nit-picking regulations is reinforced because so many of them seem to have no purpose except to preserve surburban Fifties prejudices.

The mood has changed not only among customers and the corporate handbooks, but also in the courts. Last week the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that the supermarket chain Safeway was guilty of sex discrimination in sacking Nicholas Smith for wearing his hair in a waist-length ponytail. Safeway wanted conventionality from its employees. The tribunal had no truck with the idea that short back and sides was inherently masculine, and ruled instead that it was detrimental and fundamentally unfair to allow women to have long hair but not men.

This must come as interesting news for those regional rail companies that have just banned ponytails on men.

In the real world of the market those barometers of respectability, Marks and Spencer and the Midland Bank, long ago dropped any idea of enforcing a male short back and sides. The Midland, while anxious that its counter staff should be identifiable (partly for security reasons), offers them a choice of clothes, including skirts or trousers for women, suits, blazers, maternity outfits and saris. Beards and male ear-rings are fine. The denier of stockings is a choice the bank feels its female employee is able to make unaided.

For men in the back office or the City firm, dressing is relatively straightforward: a uniform familiar from school. For women it is harder: the subtle changes in their status require one moment the power dressing of the Eighties, the next the expensive discretion of women in the Nineties.

"We advise women to wear make up," says a spokeswoman for the Colour Me Beautiful image consultants. "Research done by Mary Spillane, our managing director, for her book Presenting Yourself shows that women who wear make up earn more and get promoted faster."

But even airlines such as Virgin do not make lipstick mandatory for their scarlet-clad female stewards. In Richard Branson's company corporate clothing is used to express an image of fun, friendliness - even a sense of humour. The red uniforms of female cabin crew contain a jesting allusion to the airline's origins. When Branson put his first 747 out on the licensed routes where Freddy Laker had once tried to challenge British Airway's might and failed, he had painted on it a woman in a scarlet gown, about to throw down a handkerchief in the sombre old-style corporate colours of BA.

Particularly in younger companies, the trend away from convention is marked. The managing director of Waterstone's bookshops, Alan Giles, says: "We've never asked our booksellers to wear uniform. More than 90 per cent of them are graduates. We don't see them as normal shop assistants. We want to respect their individuality."

The disadvantage was that some customers found it hard to work out who the staff were. Recently, some branches experimented with a Waterstone's polo shirt. "The general reaction was quite negative," says Mr Giles. "It was something to do with the desire of people who work in business to be individuals, not a corporate body. I think that's a view shared by our customers. Customers draw conclusions about the intellectual calibre of staff from the way that they are presented."

The idea of corporate clothing was dropped. Mr Giles has left it up to the staff in the different branches to work out their own solutions for puzzled customers - maybe just watching more carefully to spot those who need help.

These days, a new company looking at the dress of its service personnel first considers what image it is trying to put across. For Waterstone's, intellectual aptitude and innovation matter most. For the new regional railway companies practicality, reliability and initiative are the qualities the public calls for: trains that are clean and run on time, personnel who are courteous, efficient and know their facts. Socks, as Lady Bracknell would have been the first to point out, are immaterial.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union - where supplies of Eau Sauvage are even now being urgently imported for Jimmy Knapp - is trying to make sense of the regional companies' new dress regulations. "Maybe the regional companies are trying to show they're independent." said a spokesman. This may be a charitable interpretation of the regional railway companies' aims. It is hard not to conclude that what these new rules are signalling is a message to the railway workers from their employers: Do up your laces, sonny, it reads, we are in charge. Forget the bolshie independence railway workers, with their strong unions, have enjoyed in the recent past. Things are changing around platform nine. Cut your hair, smarten up, stand up straight when you are talked to. The message Mr Knapp is hearing is not that of customer service but of control.

And for the weary passenger, nothing seems to have changed down at the terminus. In the words of the song: "Oh Mr Porter, what shall we do? The ticket collector that knew the times has been fired for having a tattoo."