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Making your employees wear a uniform is trying to blend them into sameness and insignificance

Stay strong, women of Virgin: no one should have the power to dictate your underwear, says Sarah Ditum.

A worker stands at the tills of the world's largest McDonalds, in London. Photograph: Getty Images

A uniform might convey authority or it might be the costume of the subclass, but what’s important is that it marks the wearer as the member of a caste rather than an individual. Still, even for an outfit designed to depersonalise, it’s a bit much for it to show off your tits, which is why Virgin rail’s female staff are digging their heels in over a uniform redesign that involves a strikingly see-through blouse

They’re “cheap and nasty”, complained one Virgin employee. Virgin has countered with an offer of twenty quid for staff members to spend on “suitable undergarments”, which presumably means a red bra and leaves the women of Virgin in exactly the same position: your lingerie might not be visible, but thanks to the publicity, everyone on board will know that under the blouse is something in an unprofessional shade of scarlet.

One of the problems with uniforms is that the people who design them so rarely have to wear them, and often simply being someone who wears a uniform makes you someone whose opinion is unlikely to be sought. Some of course show your devotion to a proud vocation: the doctor’s white coat, the blue nurse’s tunic, the soldier’s fatigues. But there are more cases which match justice secretary Grayling’s wheeze of putting new prisoners in a uniform: these costumes blur their wearers into sameness and insignificance, making the weakest even easier to spot.

My only brushes with uniform wearing have involved bottom-of-the-heap jobs in the service industry, and putting the costume on always involved putting off a certain amount of my dignity. Working in the Co-op required a royal blue tabbard over a polyester blouse decorated with fetching sprays of stylised yellow and red florals. I’d delay the moment of putting it on until as close to the beginning of my shift as I could manage, because once it was on, I became property of the shop and every customer had a claim on you. 

I’m fairly sure that one of the regulars had only a dim idea that there were many girls all dressed in the same outfit: he seemed to expect the check-out staff to have some kind of race memory, possibly bonded within our synthetic fibres, of whether he did or did not possess a Dividend Card. (And, incredibly rude man of Oakham, I knew you didn’t! I just kept asking because you were such a jerk about it!)

Out of the sameness, me and my friends developed a sort of perverse pride in finding ways to subvert the petrochemical nightmare of our outfits. Getting a tabbard that fitted was the highest goal of the stylish customer service assistant, and every delivery of new uniform would be fallen on furiously by teenage girls desperate to walk off with the sacred size 10. If you did really well for yourself, you might even scrounge up a spare so you wouldn’t have to serve each shift wearing yesterday’s spillage. 

Then, by taking a bit of licence with the poppers, you could wrangle the uniform into a vaguely feminine shape, and bit of skilled sweeping would produce whatever kind of ponytail had been deemed the style of aisle six that week. This stuff mattered, and that is perennial weakness of the uniform that someone doesn’t want to wear: it provides a template for subversion, a canvas on which small deviations have disproportionate power. Me and my check-out sorority knew this particularly because were only just out of school, where we’d had plentiful opportunity to practise fine gradations of skirt length and tie-knots. But no one should have to tolerate a higher power dictating their foundation garments. Women of Virgin rail, stay strong in your quest for a heavier weave.