Ties with tradition still appeal

When Tim Davie, the new acting director-general of the BBC, fronted up for his first day on the job earlier this month, it was a given all eyes would be on him as the corporation tries to resurrect its reputation in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse allegations.

While the job was never going to be an easy one, Mr Davie quickly managed to make headlines - for all the wrong reasons.

His decision to wear a suit but no tie on his first day, which included several television interviews, was criticised by a retired public relations executive who emailed him telling him he looked "silly" and "lightweight" without one, triggering much debate on the issue. Mr Davie also walked out of a reportedly less-than-impressive live Sky News television interview, forcing the BBC to explain later the interview had overrun.

Social etiquette can undoubtedly cause people to get tied up in knots. But the jury will no doubt be out on whether Mr Davie's dress decision was simply a fashion faux pas, ill-judged or disrespectful - or whether in fact his critics are old-fashioned and out of touch, and the story out of proportion to the "offence".

Of course there is nothing like a sideshow for diverting attention from serious issues - as many a politician and senior manager will know - but, if nothing else, Mr Davie managed to fail the first impressions test with some public. And there is no doubt that is still considered important, particularly for many in the business and political sphere and those in the public eye.

Maybe it shouldn't matter. But it seems it does. Clothes still maketh the man or woman, not only because they contribute greatly to that first impression - which some may argue is only a shallow, superficial, don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover prejudice - but because of what they symbolise - often a person's opinions, beliefs and practices.

Members of the emergency services, armed forces and religious leaders are often visibly defined first and foremost by their uniforms, an easy indication to the public of their profession, and a way of identifying members as effectively one unit representing one organisation with a common goal.

By doing so, that also encourages respect from the public for that organisation, and also respect from individuals within that organisation. School uniforms encourage the same, and in the political and corporate world, it is no different. The suit and tie are the uniform that symbolise a professional, business-like approach.

Mr Davie has been appointed temporarily to the BBC's top job following the resignation of George Entwistle after the corporation's Newsnight report wrongly implicated former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine in child abuse allegations. That followed hundreds of allegations against late BBC presenter Savile and questions about what the corporation knew and why nothing was done.

Mr Davie's senior executive role also includes damage control and reputation rescuing - and presenting a united front. It also involves reassuring the hundreds of alleged victims they are now being listened to, and the BBC is serious about examining its failings to do so in the past.

And to be taken seriously, one must look serious, professional and respectful. A "casual approach" in dress could be seen to symbolise a casual approach in professional dealings. If a person cannot be bothered to put on a tie or iron their shirt, for example, what else might they take a casual attitude towards?

That is why, in this case, Mr Davie's fashion choice sent all the wrong messages. And for those who think the argument is only one for the fastidious or the upper echelons of British society, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull is someone closer to home who has also copped criticism for his tieless approach.

Western society clearly values individuality and freedom of choice, but it seems in the office - and particularly at a senior level - in order to be dressed for success, a tie is clearly much more than just a tie. (And it appears Mr Davie is now wearing one to work.)


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