Dressing the part

August 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Not quite a dawn raid, more an incessant thunderous knocking on the doors at 9am. It had been a late night after a long journey so I stumbled downstairs in my dressing gown, cursing the insistence of the local Jehovah Witness’ clan, to discover two burly police officers circling the house searching for a lawful means of entry. I invited them in, although loud they were relatively amiable and their English was better than my Dutch.

It wasn’t my first visit from the local police. A few weeks earlier, a Sunday afternoon, we were lazing in the back garden when a head appeared at the gate, followed by a white Lacrosse polo shirt and a pair of cargo shorts containing a tanned, fit, early middle aged man. I thought he’d got lost on the way to the tennis courts but no, he was a local police officer. We had a sociable half hour chat before he went on his way. I’m not sure what he told his colleagues back at the station about me but when the next two showed up they were side-armed, stab-vested and encased in various canisters of the pepper spray variety.

Sitting in the kitchen with the new arrivals they wanted to know if I knew the purpose of the visit. Yes, I did. I was a very minor witness in a criminal case stemming back several decades. The logistics of the case were complicated by the fact that myself, and some other witnesses lived on the opposite side of the world from where the case was being tried. The police officers informed me of the video conference arrangements being set up in a few days at the local court house, formally served me with a witness summons, and clanked their way out.

It had been a while since I had given evidence in court so I got up early. There was a moment of panic as I tried to remember if I still possessed a neck tie. I discovered a crumpled red one somewhere at the bottom of a drawer, goodness knows what I must have been doing with it the last time it had been utilized but it responded to a steam iron. I couldn’t remember much about court proceedings and giving evidence but I did recall the importance of appearance. When I first started to give evidence in court, a few decades ago, I didn’t think too much about my appearance (I have an embarrassing and hopefully false memory of having worn flairs on one occasion!) No, I wasn’t that concerned about how I looked. I was too preoccupied with the fact that the bench rarely took any notice of my reports and recommendations. There was a wise old local authority court officer in the South London court I frequented and I shared my insecurities with him. He didn’t say much but said not to worry about my reports, he’d read them and they were okay but “it might be an idea if you wore a tie, mate.” Given my timid rebellious spirit manifested itself primarily through superficial appearances it was with reluctance that I followed his advice. Oh, the slippery slope, within a couple of weeks I was polishing my shoes and wearing a jacket! Strangely my sell out was strongly correlated with the skyrocketing acceptance of my recommendations. Now, instead of basically ignoring me, magistrates were nodding sagely as they read my reports, smiling at me and largely endorsing my findings.

Experience is not however always culturally transferable. Dress codes in the Netherlands are very different. For a start people are very conformist. I sometimes feel that if I see one more 30-50 year old man, wearing pointed turd flicker shoes, drain pipe pastel chinos, and a slim fit cotton jacket, I’ll scream. And there seems to be a local bye-law requiring women to wear multi-coloured tulip skirts and leggings (why always legging?) when shopping. Paradoxically, the strict conformity of the everyday dress code is entirely undermined in formal settings. My village has an annual country and western festival the crowd of which is almost entirely interchangeable with the mourners at any local funeral I’ve attended. The dress at funerals is so casual that a local farmer barely bothers to scrape the cow shit off his Wellingtons before entering the church. The only black you see at funerals are Iron Maiden T-shirts and you see more of them there than you would see in the course of a long hot Finnish summer.

So I had some minor anxieties about my appearance when I arrived at the courthouse at 8:45. I needn’t have worried. I was greeted by a lanky bald bloke about my age, whose rumpled tan trousers and creased striped shirt (I hadn’t realised that polyester could fade and crease that badly) had stayed a considerable distance from any passing steam iron. It turned out he was an investigating judge who formally convened the video conference as part of a lawful court. I couldn’t help thinking: “I know the Dutch judicial system is based on the Napoleonic code but surely that shouldn’t mean the judges have to look like they are on the retreat from Moscow.” There were six people in court and I was the only one wearing a jacket and tie. Of the six only one was unequivocally in command, the judge. However he was dressed, he conducted proceeding with good grace and immense authority.

Half an hour later I was out in the street, enjoying the sunshine and contemplating dress sense and authority. We all know the sad seductiveness of superficiality. All the evidence suggests that we primarily judge people on how they look, and we do it quickly usually within seconds. Such judgements are profound and enduring in the way we ascribe trust and authority. One of Stanley Milgram’s central finding in Obedience to Authority was that the more someone looks like a scientist the more likely someone is to respond to their perceived authority. Okay, we may snigger at the Central Casting appearance of most American politicians but there are few bald congressmen. Even the comb-overs are masterful (yes, it’s you I’m talking about Joe Biden, though your speech at the DNC makes most things forgivable) Appearances perhaps should not matter but they are immensely influential. If you want to influence you have to, however reluctantly, accept that. Like most of us, I’m not awash with charisma or authoritative ease so I learnt to give myself an edge by dressing whatever part I was playing. I wasn’t selling out, I  just looked at the evidence and tried to get listened to.

However, not everybody needs to dress the part. Like the investigating judge there are a rare few who have such immense authority and such obvious competence that they transcend normal dress codes, although the context of the court room would have in itself reinforced his authority. Now, it is possible that the judge, knowing where the video link ended, got up that morning and thought “Strewth, I’d better dress down for this mob” so went and got changed in his garden shed rather than his walk-in wardrobe. Whatever his reasons, or lack of them, he completely commanded the courtroom. The court staff may have called him by his given name but there was no doubt who was in charge. He decided who spoke and when, and who sat in the court room, even if that overrode the wishes of the other video linked court.

Yes, there are people like the investigating judge and then there are the rest of us. Also at the far end of the continuum there are the Jeremy Corbyns of this world. I’m totally unqualified to judge someone else’s dress sense. I have after all almost confessed to perhaps, at one stage of my life, having worn flairs and even now I have a sorry addiction to ill-fitting cheap denim shirts (I cannot pass Primark without a compulsion to fork out ten quid on one) but even so Corbyn’s need to embrace grey and over-washed autumnal tones seems to almost scream “Dull, dull incompetence.”  I’m sure Corbyn and his followers believe he is being authentic and it’s Jeremy being Jeremy but for goodness sake man, accept that if you want people to listen to you, look at the evidence. However inane and superficial, people will first look at you, judge you and then decide whether to listen to you. I first started to wear a tie and jacket when I went to court not because I compromised or sold out but because I respected the people I represented. I wanted the court to hear their words and my interpretation of them. Those words and my reports were important, the way I dressed was entirely superficial, so I changed the way I dressed and became more likely to be listened to. Mr Corbyn, if you believe what you claim to, if you respect the people you aspire to represent, you have to recognise that there are few who ascribe to you the level of natural authority that I discovered in the investigating judge. So, give yourself an edge, get some dress sense. You may or may not need to change who you are and what you believe, but surely you must recognise that the way you look is entirely superficial and no great compromise to change. If you truly respect the people who most need a strong Labour Party and effective opposition, show that respect by ditching the superficial and start looking like someone worth listening to.

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