Are you what you wear?

I’ve been watching too much Sherlock Holmes lately. In the BBC’s faithful modern makeover, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the latest denizen of 221B Baker Street. He can reel off your entire biography and what you had for breakfast just by glancing at the egg-stain on your old Etonian tie.

My own efforts at deduction have been more elementary. Delayed at an airport over the weekend, we passed the time people-watching. A woman sashays past in painted-on stonewashed jeans, stiletto ankle boots and figure-hugging jacket. “Eastern European,” I tell my girlfriend. Two young guys slink past: skinny jeans, nice haircuts and over-the-shoulder courier bags. “Probably gay,” I observe. She agrees, but only on the basis that they were checking me out. “Because, well, you look a bit metrosexual yourself.”

So, clearly, fashioning your prejudices from fleeting impressions isn’t as clever as we like to think. But that’s not what’s interesting about modern dress codes. The phrase itself is revealing. In every culture, there are socially-accepted rules about what we wear. But, equally, we understand that clothes are signals to be decoded.

At an obvious level, our society is filled with uniforms. From Edinburgh’s traffic wardens to Glasgow’s football tops, clothing is delivers overt and subtle cues about status and identity; to intentionally deceive and mistakenly reveal.

For example, among the Twitterati, many claim they always knew that Craig Whyte was not to be trusted. Not because he’d been disqualified as a company director – but because his clothes didn’t fit. And it’s true. If you check the picture from the Ibrox directors’ box, you’ll see Whyte flanked by Gordon Smith. The former SFA chief looks sharp in nice dark suit. The Rangers’ owner looks like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards: his tie askew, the sleeves on his coarse-clothed jacket too long. Literally, he doesn’t fit the role.

Before the upsurge of Silicon Valley’s casual style, decisions about business dress – at least for men – were simpler. You wore a suit, shirt and tie to work. Today, in most businesses, every day is dress-down.

Back in 1990, when we started our business, the employee handbook only ever had one sentence pertaining to dress code. It stated that if you came to work without wearing a belt, you would be sent home. We meant it as a joke, but weren’t really kidding. Those empty loops weren’t just lapses in our style Bible: drooping trousers signified dropping standards.

In over 20 years as a manager, I’ve only ever sent one employee home for being inappropriately dressed. He had come to work, on a day with a client meeting, in a crumpled v-neck woolly jumper, and no shirt underneath. Fans of Michael Douglas may be shocked at this point. The Hollywood A-lister has inflicted that look on cinema audiences over the years and it hasn’t harmed his career. But let me clarify: I don’t have a problem with any particular item of clothing. It may seem like a subtle point, but I’m taking issue with the decision to wear the said item. More importantly, it’s the disorganisation and lack of foresight implied in that decision which are worrying traits in a project management role.

The trouble is that clothing has complex, often contradictory functions, in our society. It’s little wonder we’re so choosy – and conflicted – about what we wear. Clothes are worn for warmth and comfort and protection. They designate official roles, as well as trades and life stages. They signify social and economic status, cultural identity, tribal loyalty and individualism. Legally, they’re for modesty; biologically, they’re for sexual display. They embody class distinctions, racial stereotypes, moral judgements, ancient ideologies, power complexes, superstitions…

In this complicated fashion, we create the visible fabric of our society: our dreams woven, our hopes in tatters.

But it also shows you just how downright weird we are as human beings. On this entire planet, we’re the only animals to wear clothes. Every culture, in every age, distinguishes between attire for men and women. Nowadays, women may wear men’s outfits – but the reverse would still be generally seen as strange.

Irrational or not, women’s wear remains one of the touchiest subjects in our troubled world. From the head-to-toe modesty of women in the sweltering heat of strict Muslim countries to the tiny outfits of teenage girls in our midwinter metropolises, we can see how out-of-whack the world is. The imposed and self-imposed values reveal the tensions between public image and private reality.

Of course, short of saying “Yes, it fits” and “Yes, you look lovely in that”, the subject of female clothing is still risky for any man get into. Remember the Canadian cop Michael Sanguinetti? He made an ill-judged attempt to introduce the concept of sexual display to law students in a speech on crime prevention. It resulted in worldwide protests. Women rightly pointed to male violence as the real problem, even if the highly PR-able ‘SlutWalks’ were perhaps equally ill-judged. Obviously, any person should be able to walk around without fear of molestation, even in their birthday suit. But it’s interesting that the women were not protesting the right to go nude in society – just to dress as they please.

As a friend of mine recently noted, all clothes should carry the warning label ‘contains nudity’. For women, just how much nudity your clothes contain can be an economic indicator. In 2004, researchers at the Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group at the University of Durham concluded that the amount of skin exposed in Western fashion varies with the state of the economy. The data suggests that in an economic downturn economically-attractive men may be in shorter supply. In turn, women’s wear tends to be more competitive: to show more skin (especially ‘up top’) and to be tighter fitting.

That may seem a controversial idea but considering the opposite may convince you of its truth. If you’ve ever watched a football match on telly and seen a half-naked, football fan with a wobbly belly, you can understand immediately why there is no evolutionary benefit in seeing more man-skin.

It’s true that a football top is not a fashion item. Over-priced, synthetic, indestructible, it’s a badge of belonging. But worn on its own in our sub-Arctic winters, it’s also a sign of poverty. Like the young women’s skimpy sexy attire, it’s the look that says “I don’t own a coat”.

Thus, the great ‘unmentionables’ of the fashion world aren’t our undergarments. They’re the poor and the old.

They say that middle age begins when your age starts to show round your middle. But when exactly does the slide start from James Dean denim to the elasticated waistband, the cushion-soled shoes, the shapeless carcoat in muted colours? Why are we so critical of someone hanging on to their youth – the ageing punk, the sexily-dressed older woman?

It shows the power of dress as communication. We’re wary of affectation, of deceit, of people pretending to be what they’re not. That’s why, in bye-gone years, it was against the law for the lower orders – even those who could afford it – to dress like aristocrats.

Today, it’s an irony that the poorest, most disadvantaged, least healthy males in our society usually dress like sportsmen. The thin tracksuit and trainer brands have become the instantly recognisable uniform of urban deprivation. Willingly, as well as unwittingly, they’re signaling social exclusion for all to see.

And you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to spot it.

Perhaps, if we wish to re-model Scottish society, we should start by re-shaping our sense of style. It sounds superficial but one of the main functions of clothes is to signal success. The question is even more pressing than the referendum, at least as far as our trousers are concerned. Should we bring back the belt? For men’s trousers, certainly. And while we’re at it, let’s have ties at work too. Because, as the government’s own strategy insists, our future depends on a Scotland that’s successful – and smart.