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Mufti, the great leveller

shirts colurful_coachmetpassie
coachmetpassie via pixabay

Do clothes really make the *man?

I was on holiday in Croatia recently. In Trogir marina, some truly jawdropping yachts rode gently at anchor. One boat that likely cost more than my house to buy and more than my annual salary to run attracted attention and photos galore. A young blond man in chino shorts and deck shoes polished the gleaming windows, and it was impossible to guess his identity.

Back home, children are back in school and wearing uniforms for the most part, here in the UK. It’s assumed that uniform gives a sense of community and belonging. Once or twice a year, schools have mufti days; wear your own clothes in return for a charity donation. On those days no self respecting child would be seen dead in uniform.

Although many jobs don’t explicitly require uniform, there is nonetheless an unspoken code in the workplace. Dress down Fridays can be a trial, because the code changes subtly and it can be hard to pitch it right. You can’t actually wear whatever you want. Too formal, you look rigid and overcautious. Too casual, you look sloppy and gauche. We aim for limited individuality within the accepted norms of our industry or profession, safe in the body of the herd.

What is the function of a uniform?

It tells us what to expect.
If we need a police officer or a nurse or a shop assistant, seeing a person in uniform is useful. It’s been shown that we make judgements about people within 0.1 seconds of meeting them. Jumping to conclusions is a mental short cut that can cause as many problems as it saves mental processing space, but it is hard-wired in us.

It saves time and mental effort.
No worrying about what to wear today. No worrying about fashion. Some entrepeneurs emulate Steve Jobs, who famously always wore the same black turtle neck. He had the designer make about one hundred for him – a lifetime supply. The entrepeneur wants to avoid decision fatigue so that he or she can focus on the important issues each day.

It shows status.
The Forces operate on rigid hierarchy. The basic uniform is embellished with pips and stripes and medals that say, I am different to you. I have achieved more, I am paid more, I am more important.

So when we strip that away, how are we to judge people? The children in their various coats and trainers all look the same to the untrained eye. They know the rules of their own dress, which trainers are right, which coats are wrong. But outside their group, they’re homogenous.

Back on holiday, I wondered which of the many people strolling around might belong to that fabulous yacht. Holiday clothes are democratic, often brought out from year to year and thereby acquiring a faded familiarity. Which man is a hedge fund manager, which woman is an advertising executive? I can’t really tell. New shoes don’t always guarantee deep pockets.

Be yourself

A uniform can be a shield to hide behind, or a way to stand out. But mufti can function as a form of camouflage. I am away from work, and nobody knows who I am or what I do. Freed from the shackles of our working selves, on holiday we can relax. Maybe the young man I saw is boat crew, maybe the owner’s son, or even the owner, proudly sprucing up his pride and joy. I can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter.

We are all hiding in plain sight, outside the boxes, just for a while.

*man, woman, child, or other