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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.