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Monday, October 25, 1999 Published at 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK


Is it curtains for the suit?

East and west, the suit is the uniform of business

If it is true that clothes maketh the man (or woman), you might be excused for thinking human cloning has already arrived.

For whether they are single-breasted, double-breasted, pinstriped or whatever, the business suit - in male and female versions - can be seen nearly anywhere.

People's reasons for wearing suits doubtless include creating the right impression, smartness and practicality. But high on the list will be employers' expectations.

[ image:  ]
But now lawyers are warning that when the Human Rights Act becomes law in the UK next year, employers may no longer be able to insist on a dress code - leading some to predict curtains for the suit.

The reason for a ban on dress codes? Doing so in some cases could infringe rights to freedom of expression and personal privacy, lawyers say.

School precedent

If someone does not fancy wearing a suit but is told to by their boss, the case could even end up in an industrial tribunal with suits, shirts, ties, skirts and even trainers at issue.

If it all sounds a bit like the discussion for a headmaster's office, that might be understandable. Earlier this month 14-year-old Jo Hale got the backing of the Equal Opportunities Commission in appealing against her school's dress code which required girls to wear skirts.

The courts have generally been favourable to employers, giving them the right to expect their employees to dress as they wish.

It is not the first time the law has tried to get involved in what people wear. Penelope Ruddock, curator of the Museum of Costume in Bath, said there had been various attempts to impose "sumptuary" laws, regulating what people could and couldn't wear.

Rules that only people of a certain standing in society may wear garments of a particular nature, for example silk, were known in medieval and Elizabethan times.

'Advertises professional standing'

But, she said, the laws failed: "Human nature doesn't want to follow rules about what to wear."

[ image: On the catwalk at the London Fashion Show last year]
On the catwalk at the London Fashion Show last year
Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas that dress not only covered nakedness, gratified vanity and created pleasure for the eye "but it serves to advertise the social, professional, or intellectual standing of the wearer."

But rules and self-expression are only some of the reasons people do things - social conventions, even if unspoken, carry their weight.

The spread of dress-down Friday, and even dress-down summer in some companies, could be seen less as a liberation from the norm and simply the transplant of another set of conventions.

There is also a move by some trendy bars, such as the Medicine Bar in Islington, to refuse entry to anyone wearing office attire.

But in case anyone should think every day will be a mufti day, a survey of people's attitudes to workwear by recruitment agency Adecco found the trend was the opposite.

[ image: Sir Hardy Amies, designer for women and men, and author of The Englishman's Suit]
Sir Hardy Amies, designer for women and men, and author of The Englishman's Suit
Seventy-five per cent of offices operated a "smart" dress code in 1998, the survey found, compared with 35% in 1976, and just 26% in 1970.

'Smart clothes, smart thinking'

A spokeswoman said it was a simple matter of dressing according to the occasion, particularly for job interviews.

"You might be up against a lot of other people. If you dress smartly, it's an indication that your thinking patterns are going to be smart as well," she said.

A feeling not so different from Virginia Woolf's line.

Whether or not it's a fair assumption, Penelope Ruddock believes people "will wear what it suits them to wear".

"Even if employers said people didn't have to wear suits, there would be an unspoken convention about what to wear, and that would be based on what feels right."

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