Ironic that, just as other employers are experimenting with dressing down, further education gets it into its collective mind to dress up. Strange too when in most colleges a code of sartorial orthodoxy already exists. Or should that read codes? Because, like so much else in the sector today, how the employees clothe themselves reflects a distinct state of polarisation.
Take that staple of conventional
men's-wear, the suit. There are still a lot of them about in FE, but they are not evenly distributed. To put it crudely, there are the suits and the rest. Managers wear suits. If anyone else comes into work in a suit, the cat's out of the bag straight away: they've got an interview.Yet the real problem with suits in colleges is not so much the apparel apartheid as that we are simply not very good at wearing them. At the smart end you can divide the suit-wearers into the spivs and the funeral directors.
At the unsmart end there is only one design: the SLOSCH. SLOSCH stands for "Swing Low Sweet Chariots" and reflects the striking resemblance between the FE suit and tapioca pudding. The lowest swinging section of the SLOSCH is inevitably the crutch, normally worn around six inches above the knee. It is fair to say that in colleges the term "ballroom" tends not to mean dance hall!
The SLOSCH is available in a variety of colours, all of them dull. The cloth comes ready shine; it's an unwritten law that no one can be a manager in FE without a fully-shined bottom. Ultimately though, the real point about the SLOSCH is to say of the man inside: I am not an Italian. In this it is stunningly successful.
Female managers have their own
version of the SLOSCH, sometimes known as the Widdecombe. Originally designed for newly-promoted heamistresses, the Widdecombe has now found its true habitat in FE. The female
SLOSCH comes in brighter hues than its male equivalent, although John Major Grey is still seen as a safe bet. It is constructed around the paisley cravat, worn limp as in yesterday's lettuce leaves. In liberal parts of the country trousers can be substituted for the sensible skirt, the only proviso being that they should be just as badly pressed.
But what, I hear you ask, of the non-suit wearers - that dwindling band still doggedly clinging to the handle of lecturer? Here the one great imperative is that what they wear must state loudly and clearly: I am not a manager.
For this they turn to the ubiquitous denim. We are not talking about the upper end of the jeans market here. As with the SLOSCH anything that smacks of "design" is frowned upon. For the full effect the non-manager must throw caution to the wind and go for the denim shirt and jacket as well as the jeans.
Women non-managers are eligible for the "denim statement", but they have their own outfit, sometimes known as the "Last Exit from Kathmandu". A genuine relic of the hippie trail, this consists of a voluminous trailing skirt and a top so aggressively psychedelic it carries a health warning. At one time the Kathmandu was not
complete without a hand-crocheted waistcoat, but nowadays crochet is
considered passe even in FE.
Finally we come to the men and women in the middle - those poor confused souls who can never make up their minds whether they are managers or not. These people do not have it easy. Caught in those much-maligned margins known as "smart casual" they serve out their careers with one eye
permanently on their backs. After all, when the firing starts aren't the first bullets always stopped by the inhabitants of no-man's-land?
Stephen Jones is an FE lecturer in London