Abstract: Practically the Uniform of the Tribe: Dress Codes among Commercial Travellers

Andrew Popp and Michael French

Abstract

What is it to wear a uniform? Why—and to what effect—do some occupational groups voluntarily adopt tacit dress codes? Descriptions of English commercial travellers have frequently highlighted their physical appearance and in particular their modes of dress. These descriptions show remarkable continuity over long periods of time. Travellers were noted for their exuberant, "flashy" clothing. These modes of dress were a significant element of the vibrant occupational culture in which travellers participated but, at the same time, such ways of dressing marked out travellers among their fellow citizens and were often highlighted in broader critiques of the traveller's character and, by extension, role in society. The ways in which travellers chose to dress and the ways in which they and others reacted to and spoke about those choices can tell us much about the ways in which this significant occupational group negotiated the task of creating for itself meaningful roles and identities. However, as with other aspects of their occupational culture, travellers faced significant challenges in using dress to positive effect. Dress was part of the process through which the emotional labor involved in this occupation was, literally, embodied and, sometimes, resisted and subverted. In the twentieth century, travellers' dress codes underwent some significant changes. The "dandyism" with which they had long been associated was reduced but not eliminated. However, there persisted an (albeit altered) tacit dress code or "uniform." These changes reflected the changing societal and organizational contexts within which travellers were working, changes that imposed a new set of pressures on them and increasingly restrained their independence. "Embodying" still took place but did so in way that was more repressive. At the same time, travellers' dress spoke of their relationships to wider issues, including class, masculinity, sexuality, and, ultimately, modernity and the self. Sharing characteristics with other archetypes of the modern urban scene, such as the flanêur, the dandy, the masher, and the swell, the protean commercial traveller, with his shimmering and alluring but shallow surface appearance, appeared to presage the passing of the solidities and certainties of the world pre-modernity. Thus, attention to dress codes among occupational groups such as travellers has the potential to illuminate not only organizational shifts and effects but also much wider processes in society.