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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.