Robert Peston: tied up in narcissism
Robert Peston, the BBC’s former economics editor who defected to rival ITV, has made headlines in recent weeks over his ‘defiant’ refusal to wear a tie or get a decent haircut. Peston’s point is that he doesn’t like ties, nor visiting barbers, and that his clothes and appearance do not prevent him from doing his job properly – even though he regularly appears on television. It’s a view that finds favour with a lot of people in modern Britain – especially those with tattoos and piercings.
There have always been well-to-do individuals who think they’re ruffling feathers by bemoaning formality in public life. Tony Blair cultivated the ghastly open-shirt, no-tie look during his rise to power, and Sir Richard Branson claims he has never worn a tie at any high-level business meetings. While their rejection of formality is intended as a ‘screw you’ to convention, such figures always come across like vicars in red trousers: it’s always a bit on the awkward side. What’s more, when it comes to journalists such protests reflect a narcissistic desire to draw attention to oneself, rather than to the serious issues of the day.
This is the whole point of a flat, formal dress code. It’s designed to make sure there are no distractions from the job at hand and to convey your respect for your position and your seriousness towards public life more broadly. Far from the suit being a marker of privilege, it has always been a symbol of universal male citizenship. This is why, in more grown-up times, a suit was proudly worn by everyone, from the PM to the working classes. Indeed, for working-class men, donning a smart suit was designed to show that you were as good as anyone else in society.
Peston’s adolescent strop may look like a blow to stuffy dress codes; but actually his decision to dress down belittles his position and denigrates the public in the process.
Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.