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 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.

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

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.