Old hat: A dinner suit for hire. Photo: Flickr/faungg
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Ed Smith: Black tie used to be about dressing up, now it’s a precursor to throwing up

Black tie is still a code, of course, but not really a dress code. It is code language. It shouts to the sober world: we are on a serious bender here, so give us a wide berth.

My first experience of “black tie” was attending a ridiculous teenage “ball” – in other words, visiting a London nightclub that could only break even by selling tickets and then alcohol (on an epic scale) to overdressed and underage drinkers. We all stood outside in our “black tie”. Once the bouncers let us in, each of us removed the tie, loosened our top button and slipped on a baseball cap, presumably to look casual and American. Black tie was just a wrapper, quickly and easily discarded, intended to legitimise the serious business of getting drunk and hooking up.

It proved a good inoculation against a ghastly dress code. The same principles that guided the mob of teenage boys still inform most adult black-tie events. The dressing-up is not about elegance or style; it’s a pretext for falling over drunk. The purpose is not to add meaning, but to eliminate memory. The point is not the possibility of elevation but the certainty of descent.

It is time, surely, to decommission the whole charade. The fate of black tie is so complete that its meaning has done a somersault. It used to be about dressing up; now it’s a precursor to throwing up. I often speak to large audiences and you learn, generally, not to prejudge a crowd. The most difficult evenings, however, almost always share the same combination of an advancing clock and a multitude of dinner jackets.

Black tie is still a code, of course, but not really a dress code. It is code language. It shouts to the sober world: we are on a serious bender here, so give us a wide berth and hope not to get caught up in the melee.

There are two annual peaks for black tie. This is one of them, the Christmas and New Year jamboree; the second is high summer. City centres are now heaving with packs of men dressed as identikit penguins, falling out of pubs in the early evening, merely warming up for the serious party that follows. (My sense of chivalry will not quite allow me to let women off the hook entirely; many of them seem to be wrapped only in several layers of clingfilm, then suspended uncertainly and unsteadily on two improbably high heels.)

The only good thing to say about winter black tie is that it’s preferable to summer black tie. Anyone who has walked through central London at 6pm on a balmy June evening will have observed a familiar spectacle: perspiring men holding pints of lager while wedged into winged-collar white shirts and shiny black suits that have been progressively let out at the waist – only now, sadly, to the point of bursting.

The question naturally arises: “Can’t you guys find something more comfortable in which to get plastered?”

There is a wider point about behaviour and uniforms. Deliberately superimposing a strict dress code on a humdrum event has a precise purpose: it confers anonymity. In dressing with the crowd, you give up a measure of personal autonomy and join a collective. Put differently, it is an excuse, a precursor to the sentiment, “It wasn’t my fault – I was just doing what everyone else was doing.”

Apart from the armed forces, no one spends more time in strict dress code than professional athletes. Some players prefer the kit to the competition. The county colleague of an injured England player once quipped: “He needed two operations when he got home – one on his leg, the other to get the England tracksuit off him.”

As captain of Middlesex I tried to reduce the cult of uniforms. A county cricketer wears playing kit or practice uniform, 9am to 7pm, five days a week. Surely, I argued, we didn’t need to travel to away games in tracksuits as well?

Tracksuits, I thought, subliminally reinforced groupthink. Team meetings when we were all wearing them seemed to be even more banal and cliché-ridden than usual. On the principle of individualism and self-expression, I encouraged people to dress how they wanted.

One coach, a devotee of blanket solutions, saw things differently. When one of our players turned up in combat trousers before a flight to an away game, the coach came to me in a rage.

“Skip,” he demanded, “what the hell is he wearing?” My reply – “If he bowls well out on the pitch, I don’t care what he wears sitting down in 47F” – wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

I’m not against all dress codes. They are supposed to help. Basic manners (usually) lead me to follow the dress code of any invitation I accept. I hope I’ll be considered merely polite rather than a hypocrite when I’m next spotted in black tie having written this column.

Phoney dressing-down leaves me cold, too. At the awards ceremony for a literary prize, I observed a television personality – who knew he would be giving a speech and must have deliberately scrunched up his shirt overnight to confer an especially tousled and casual insouciance – begin with a special message to his wife. “Babe,” he said to the assembled group, “we need to get me a proper shirt.”

The political columnist standing next to me whispered, “He must have been at Eton.” And indeed he had been.

Having warned against the misuse of the term “authenticity” in last week’s column, I hesitate to invoke it as a principle now. But there is a way of dressing more or less honestly, which is quite separate from and unconnected to dressing more or less smartly. That sentiment, not censoriousness, leads me to my New Year’s request: ditch the black tie. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.