ERMINE IT AIN'T Will Wiles
^Boris Johnson visiting the Crossrail dig
High-visibility work clothing bedecks Britain like no other country. And no other country is so confounded by it. British culture has invested “hi-viz” with many meanings; it has made it a rich, complicated, contradictory thing, apparently without giving it much thought at all. In return, this babble, rich in confusions and prejudices, has much to say about this country in the 21st century. Hi-viz is doing what it is designed to do: it is revealing us. The kit required by law to work in dangerous environments is collectively called “personal protective equipment”, or PPE.1 Most of it protects by shielding and hardening: hard hat for the head, gloves and boots for the hands and feet, masks and goggles for the eyes and lungs. Hi-viz doesn't shield, it reveals. Visibility means safety, particularly when one is sharing space with machinery and vehicles in motion. Not being seen can mean collision, injury and death. 1 http://www.bsif.co.uk/news/display/P1NOSU858541
Fluorescence, one of the two technologies that underlie this heightened visibility, occurs in nature. It was first exploited commercially by an American called Bob Switzer, who in 1933 damaged his sight in an industrial accident. Recovering in a darkened room, he toyed with fluorescent minerals, and later founded the Day Glo company to produce the first fluorescent paints and dyes. But rather than using his discovery to prevent accidents like his own, Switzer was at first only interested in magic tricks and advertising. To make effective hi-viz safety clothing, eye-catching fluorescent colours had to be combined with retroreflective strips, which use microscopic glass beads or pyramids to bounce light back to its source. Dull in ambient light, retroreflectors blaze under direct light, using a vehicle's own headlights to show the driver workers in his or her path. Highvisibility workwear as we know it today first appeared in 1964, when bright, fluorescent jackets – then called, with some poetry, "firefly jackets" – were issued to trackside workers on Scottish railways. Accidents were dramatically reduced. Its worth proved, hi-viz spread across every physical or dangerous job in the country. Construction,distribution, manufacturing, transport, mining: blue-collar work is now almost entirely fluorescent yellow- or orange-collar. And it is donned by anyone whose work finds them by the road, from the emergency services to traffic wardens, surveyors, council officials, cyclists and schoolchildren on excursion.2 It has even managed to penetrate white-collar offices, even where employees have no need to visit an environment where it might be required – a hiviz tabard across the back of a chair is a kind of status symbol, denoting a fire marshal. Truly ubiquitous, it has become an emblem of modern Britain, something approaching the status of national dress. As it is worn by anyone who goes outside and dirties their hands, as well as those who go outside and watch others dirtying their hands, hi-viz has also become a political prop. “The Chancellor spent the small hours in a variety of high-visibility jackets as he staged photocalls with the 'unsung heroes' of the night shift,” in the words of a laudatory Evening Standard report about George Osborne. 3 Three photographs accompany this short story, and Osborne's outfits get the kind of attention usually only paid to actresses of Oscars night. “Just after midnight he was at a Warburtons bakery in Wednesbury before putting on a reflective jacket and trousers and a white hard hat for a stop on the M6 to chat with an 2 In parts of Spain this concern for road safety extends to prostitutes, who have been issued hi-viz vests. 3 Joe Murphy, “Earning the Dough: Osborne Joins Night Workers to Show Britain's Back in Business”, London Evening Standard, 25 July 2013
overnight resurfacing team … by 1.30am the Chancellor (with an orange vest over his suit) was at a 24-hour Tesco depot in Daventry ...” As the economy has returned to laggardly growth, the hi-viz vest has become inescapable in images of political leaders – Osborne, David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson in particular – as they pay repeated visits to workplaces and engineering projects such as London's Crossrail.
^ “Britain is working. Hands-on management. Optimism. Good humour.” London mayor Boris Johnson and prime minister David Cameron inspect the Crossrail workings in safety garb. source: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/transport/crossrail-breathes-life-into-london-says-pm-as-dig-reaches-half-way-9064256.html
Writing about the construction of the Millennium Dome in 1999, the author Iain Sinclair noted the “security men in scrambled-egg vests” and included the “tweetie-pie waistcoat” as an essential element in a particular kind of propaganda image: men in hard hats, smiling and wielding brand-new shovels as they break ground on an instance of investment, something constructive. High-viz tabards over sharp suits, businessfolk and politicians project the message: “Britain is working. Hands-on management. Optimism. Good humour.”4 The money shot of the neoliberal public-private enterprise.
4 Iain Sinclair, Sorry Meniscus: Excursions to the Millennium Dome, 1999
Being utterly functional and aesthetically challenging, hi-viz is essentially beyond fashion. 5 The one place it is popular, desired, valued for something other than its utilitarian contribution to safety is in the counter-culture: in the rave scene. Fluoroescent colours and retroreflective strips might naturally be prized for the spectacular effects they produce under the flashing lights, UV and laser effects of the dancefloor. But rave's embrace of hiviz might run deeper. Early rave venues, legal and illegal, were often former industrial spaces – that is, working spaces. The Hacienda in Manchester, the birthplace of the rave scene, was a former yacht factory. After it was was converted into a club, it retained the yellow-and-black hazard stripes around its columns and signs warning that hard hats must be worn at all times. Hi-viz was right at home. And just as this space was appropriated for parties, hi-viz gear was subverted, its meaning inverted, turned from the stuff of work to the stuff of joy. And it briefly managed a kind of cultural symmetry, being worn both by young people enjoying illegal warehouse parties, and the police and private security personnel who broke up those parties. Some of what I have said so far been adapted from a short article I wrote about hi-viz for Icon magazine in 2010.6 In that article I made what I thought was the fairly original observation that hi-viz gear has undergone “a kind of conceptual collapse: it has become invisible.” Because it is used across so many jobs, it conveys very little information about the wearer beyond the fact that he or she is working. It fits unmemorably into the urban background. This has made it very useful to people who don't want to be seen. It is often worn by scrap-metal thieves, for instance, and has played a role in some high-profile heists, such as the 2006 raid on a Securitas depot in Tonbridge. One robber wore a policeman's hi-viz jacket, another a hi-viz tabard. The latter was nicknamed “Hi Viz” by police.7 However, reading around the subject since that Icon piece I've learned that the invisibility of high-visibility is so widely remarked as to be unremarkable. To take one eloquent example, this is journalist Jon Ronson in the Guardian in 2005: Bryan Ferry's son Otis and the other fox hunting aficionados got into the House of Commons to disrupt a debate last year. They put on fluorescent jackets and told the first policeman they met that they were "going to inspect the electrics". The 5 There are exceptions, but they mostly prove the rule. See for instance the Visper Hi-Viz Corset. 6 “Icon of the Month: Hi-Viz”,Will Wiles, Icon magazine, 7 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6946006.stm
policeman shrugged and waved them on. The surveillance specialist Peter Jenkins – who teaches private investigators how to follow people without being spotted – is a fan of the fluorescent jacket, too. He says that if you're observing a target in a rural environment, use hedges and ditches and trees. But if you want to be invisible in a city, just put on a fluorescent jacket and sit in the passenger seat of a transit van, or queue up at a telephone box. (Remember to turn off your mobile phone first.) 8 And he cites other instances of hi-viz serving organised crime. A 2004 raid on a lorry carrying cigarettes in Killeen, Northern Ireland, was attributed to the Provisional IRA as the robbers wore hi-viz, apparently “a recognised Provo trick”. And the 12 men who conspired to steal the De Beers diamond from the Millennium Dome in 2000 “were fluorescent from head to toe”: They must have glowed like fireflies, yet they went unnoticed by the 64 members of the public enjoying the Dome that day. Little did the robbers realise, however, that 200 undercover police officers were stationed around the Dome, waiting to swoop. The thieves didn't notice the police, though, because they were disguised as cleaners. “Maybe ubiquity is to blame,” Ronson says – and in the nine years since that piece, hi-viz has become even more pervasive. According to the BBC, UK workwear specialists Red Oak Direct say sales of its high-visibility gear rose 22% in 2008/9 and 26% in 2009/10. 9 This ubiquity has attracted a backlash. “Since when has been compulsory to wear hi-viz?” asked Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn in February this year. It's a rhetorical question, of course, crafted to head straight down the well-worn neural pathways that lead straight to the Mail reader's overworked sense of exasperation. Enjoying the straw-man conceit of his opening line, it's some paragraphs before Littlejohn gets to his actual point: I’ve remarked before about the zeal with which the Jobsworth Tendency has embraced the hi-viz culture. If Warden Hodges from Dad’s Army was around today, he’d be wearing a hi-viz jacket and a hard hat instead of his ARP helmet.
8 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2005/jan/15/photography 9 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14720101
There is a certain mentality which assumes that donning a hi-viz vest automatically confers upon them a cloak of authority and the right to tell the rest of us what to do. … Every jumped-up council warden swaggers along in hi-viz heaven, throwing his weight around, handing out fixed-penalty notices for a variety of piddling new offences. Outside football grounds, a regiment of hi-viz car park attendants can be found lording it in the middle of the road, directing traffic and giving their orders as if they are sworn police officers. And that’s part of the problem. Now that the Old Bill have also embraced hi-viz uniforms, it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart from parking wardens and PCSOs.10
“I've remarked before,” says Littlejohn, but he is far too modest – a search of the Daily Mail's website reveals he has mentioned it in more than fifty articles as the glowing yellow symbol of “elf and safety culture”. (Littlejohn is professionally repetitive, continually returning to the same targets, the same small number of issues, the same exhausted jokes and stock phrases; argument by attrition, the rhetorical strategy of the pub bore.) He calls Britain a “hi-viz Hades”, and appeals to his readers to send in their examples of fluorescent “lunacy”. In April 2013 he was particularly upset by a picture of Chancellor George Osborne addressing supermarket warehouse workers, who resemble “a hi-viz terracotta
army”.11 He continues: “TV pictures showed Osborne wearing a hi-viz jacket, too, but he had the good sense to take it off before he reached the podium. He may have sounded like a dustman, but he wasn’t daft enough to look like one.” Not on that occasion, perhaps, but as we've seen Osborne and other politicians are now only too happy to throw on hi-viz vests, now that they are the emblem of work; not just work, in fact, but hard work. During Osborne's address to the warehouse workers his podium was flanked by banners reading “for hard-working people”. The hi-viz isn't an incidental part of the image, it's central to its message. It is marking out Osborne's audience as the honest strivers every politician and party is fanatically eager to make their sole and exclusive constituency, as opposed to the phantom, elusive, lo-viz army of scroungers. The Chancellor's 2013 publicity stunt with the night shift, reported by the Standard with such attention to sartorial detail, was intended “to show that 'hard-working people' were at the heart of his recovery plans”. Nevertheless, the symbolic power of the hi-viz vest must be wielded carefully in association with other accoutrements; it only works for the worthy. In an Evening Standard column extolling the “tough toffs” - Osborne, Cameron, Johnson - willing to muck in with the lower orders, Nick Curtis says a hard hat is the vital part of the outfit: “A hi-vis vest alone makes a leader look like a nervous cyclist (I'm looking at you, Ed Miliband).” 12
^ “For hardworking people.” Chancellor George Osborne addresses warehouse workers from supermarket chain Morrisons. Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2304168/And-crime-hate-Sex-Pistols.html
11 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2304168/And-crime-hate-Sex-Pistols.html 12 Nick Curtis, “Hard Hatters”, London Evening Standard, 25 February 2014
It's clearly tricky stuff, and Littlejohn appears to be confused â€“ how hi-viz make you look like a policeman, and also look like a dustman? Another columnist who sees inherent authoritarianism in hi-viz gear is Littlejohn-wannabe Rod Liddle, who found that if he put on a hi-viz vest and barked orders at people, they generally complied. 13 Quoted by the BBC, Liddle said: "It has become this symbol of spurious authority â€Ś I find it totally bizarre and depressing that people will do what you tell them as long as you're wearing highviz."14 The completely fair and balanced BBC reporter takes Liddle as his word, adding: â€Ś enthusiasts point to its success in reducing traffic accidents and making the jobs of thousands of workers much safer. What is perhaps most significant, however, is the manner in which this mass-produced garment, available from pound shops the length and breadth of the country, has come to lend its wearers the mantle of officialdom, licensed to give orders by virtue of their outerwear.
Pound shops! The horror. Ermine it ain't. Imagine anything so lowly, so cheap, enhancing the respect afforded to the wearer. Never mind the lives saved, for the BBC's man the far more important impact of hi-viz is its smudging of status boundaries. This outright psychic disaster is held to be a matter more significant than life and death.
13 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article762885.ece 14 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14720101
Hi-viz, then, is both cloak of invisibility, garb of honest toil and robe of authority – an uneasy combination of roles. The multiple symbolic meanings of hi-viz become even more confusing if you stir in the fact that hi-viz is also considered to be abject or humiliating. In 2008, the Labour government ordered that all offenders doing community service would have to wear hi-viz bibs with the words “Community Payback” on them. Jack Straw, then justice secretary, told the BBC: “The purpose of having these high-visibility jackets is, above all, to strengthen the confidence of the public in community punishments because too few of the public believe at the moment these are effective and are other than a soft option.” But this was rejected by Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, who said: "Wearing the so-called vests of shame introduces unnecessary risk. … The real intention of the vests is to make the government look tougher on crime and to demean the offenders."
Within a month there were reports
that offenders wearing the “vests of shame” were abused and attacked. 16 And it's interesting that no one raised the thought that by trying to associate young offenders with hi-viz in the mind of the public, they were denigrating the thousands of working people who wear it as part of their jobs – no, the assumption was that hi-viz was already shaming.
^ “Carlos Tevest.” Hi-viz as humiliation: the premiership footballer's uniform for community service is a central element of his public disgrace.
15 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7757908.stm 16 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7803653.stm
Hi-viz is certainly regarded as automatically demeaning by the tabloid newspapers. When footballer Carlos Tevez started his 250 hours of community service for driving offences earlier this year, The Sun took pictures of him wearing an orange bib and ran a drooling report on his humiliation under the headline “CARLOS TEVEST”. The Community Payback bibs identify the wearers as offenders, but The Sun's approach makes it clear that the effect stems from the vest itself, not what is written on it. How can something be at once demeaning and a symbol of authority? Hi-viz emerges as a leveller: it brings its wearers to the same level of society. The supervisor visiting the construction site or the warehouse comes down to their level. Offenders are being forced into the garb of, to use that obnoxious phrase, "hardworking people", to make it obvious to an apparently unconvinced public that people doing community service are in fact working hard. Working hard, but not ennobled by that work, humiliated by it. The mighty, Porschedriving, millionaire Tevez is brought low. This sense of hi-viz robbing a person of social status is made vivid by the agony of Sam de Brito, an Australian columnist reporting a week spent working as a council garbage man, or “garbo”: “The irony of donning the 'highvisibility' fluoro clothing most garbos wear is you actually become invisible to much of female population; women look through you, you cease to exist because you've fallen below some threshold of desirability or respectability.” 17 It's not the garbage that's the problem – it's the garbo's garb.
^ “Polite notice.” A tabard for cyclists that trades on the similarity to police uniform. Source: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/cyclists-join-highvis-polite-force-to-be-seen-by-motorists-8568155.html
17 “Hi-viz invisibility”, Sam de Brito, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/executivestyle/culture/blogs/all-men-are-liars/hiviz-invisibility-20130601-2nias.html
As we've seen, it's the use of hi-viz by the police that primarily inflames reactionary commentators like Littlejohn and Liddle. In their view the levelling influence of hi-viz should be one way only: down. It should never enhance respectability. They are right about one thing: someone wearing a hi-viz jacket can be taken for a police officer at a glance. This symbolic entanglement of hi-viz with authority and law enforcement was quite deliberate, a matter of policy. When the Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) scheme was launched in 2002, creating a volunteer auxiliary force to assist the police, hi-viz was central to its recruitment drive. Volunteers were lured by fluorescent-yellow posters and the slogan “make a visible difference”. The fluorescence of this force was the entire point: it was about providing a reassuring presence on streets where (in popular perception) regular police had become rare. It makes sense that police authorities would want the new force to be treated with the same respect as the old, but it has never won much affection on either left or right. In London, at least one poster was doctored to read “make a risible difference”. Meanwhile cyclists have tried to trade on this association to wring more careful behaviour from motorists, cheekily encouraging the misapprehension by wearing fluoro jackets with “POLITE notice” written on the back, the “notice” writ small. But clearly something else is going on in Littlejohn's case against hi-viz. “You rarely see a British bobby in a traditional blue uniform, except on ceremonial duties,” he writes. “Last week I saw two mounted policemen, who once would have been dressed in smart equestrian clobber, plodding along on horseback outside the Houses of Parliament in ridiculous hi-viz coats.” The mixing of the police into the hi-viz masses demeans them. They are being associated with the working class; precisely the association the photocalling politicians want, but here it is making them “ridiculous”, undercutting their dignity. The contours of Littlejohn and Liddle's objection to that “unwarranted authority” become clearer. Imagine having to pay heed to someone wearing hi-viz, when that person might be no more than a petty council official, jumped-up volunteer or common labourer! This plainly intolerable. Ostensibly aesthetic objections to hi-viz raised by these commentators – and others like them – clearly have more to do with class than anything else. Ronson puts it nicely: “Perhaps, as dazzling as high-visibility clothing is, even more compelling is the public's desire not to notice those people who scurry around at our feet, fixing holes, mending tracks, cleaning up after us. We trust them and we don't want to
think about them.” The invisibility of hi-viz might, then, not be merely blindness induced by ubiquity or aesthetic editing but a social response – a subconscious but purposeful unseeing of labour, a collective social delusion. Hi-viz has had a destabilising effect on British class perceptions, and while the hard right has launched a direct assault against it on a broad front, the more general response is simply to tune it out. There is some historical precedent for hi-viz. We can think of it as the 21 st century equivalent of the clog. Clogs, wooden overshoes, were workwear. They were practical and protective. They were also unlovely and only ever desirable when the alternative was going unshod. As boots became more affordable in the 20 th century, the clog disappeared. But during their heyday in the industrial 19 th century, clogs were a central part of the social and sensory universe of many working people. George Orwell includes “the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill-towns” as part of his anatomy of Englishness in “The Lion and the Unicorn”. The footwear of the labourer and peasant, the clog was disliked and derided by the gentry. Madame Bovary wants to escape her clogs. Trying to impress the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, Mr Donne tries to show his sophistication by denigrating everyone in Yorkshire, particularly the poor: Just look at them when they come crowding about the church-doors on the occasion of a marriage or a funeral, clattering in clogs; the men in their shirt-sleeves and wool-combers' aprons, the women in mob-caps and bed-gowns. They pos'tively deserve that one should turn a mad cow in amongst them to rout their rabble-rank – he! he! What fun it would be!18 The distinctive racket of the clog – like the visual racket of hi-viz – might be simply offensive to the gentry, but turning a more sympathetic ear to it revealed whole worlds. This is the Annales-school historian Alain Corbin on 19th-century France: The countryside and its empty spaces are filled with the echo of clattering clogs as they mark the presence of other people and of oneself. It is clogs which give their rhythm to dances and, if necessary, cover the noise of inopportune voices. It is no accident that folksongs mention clogs so often. … On occasion, clogs can constitute redoubtable weapons. … Clogs constitute one of the decisive markers of the identity of the person they reveal. Placed outside a door, they can signal the 18 Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, chapter 15: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/cbronte/bl-cbronte-shirley-15.htm
presence of an unwanted guest as well as that of a beloved person. In the countryside 'you were announced by the sound of your clogs'; old people were recognised by their slow steps, young people by their quicker steps,and weary labourers returning from the harvest by their dragging gait. Not forgetting the difference â€“ picked up straightaway â€“ between the hasty busyness of feminine clogs and the tranquil heavy tread of masculine clogs. In short, just as much as the song of the labourer in the fields, just as much as the noise of those familiar voices, whose meaning it was not even necessary to perceive to feel assured of a certain person's presence, the rhythmic clop of clogs here contributed to the very sound of one's environment.
^Rachel Corrie in Gaza
If we have learned to make hi-viz invisible, can we learn to see it again? What potential is there for political reclamation of fluorescent yellow? It already has strong associations with protest, thanks to its use by the volunteer stewards who flanks and direct marches and
demonstrations. The “invisibility” it confers is naturally useful to the activist as well as the private investigator and the criminal – I was first made aware of that property by a guerrilla photographer whose work involved penetrating closed sites and documenting the treatment of labourers. And more dangerous direct action demands hi-viz as a basic safety measure. In 2008, climate change activists protesting the Drax power station in North Yorkshire used orange hi-viz gear to stop a coal train bound for the plant. 19 This last point – ensuring that protestors are seen - has ramifications of the utmost gravity. The death of the pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie in 2003 was followed by highly political confusion over whether she had been seen by the driver of the Israeli armoured bulldozer that killed her. She was wearing a hi-viz vest. Parts of this essay were adapted from a talk originally given at the conference “Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working” at Auto-Italia SouthEast on 11th May 2013, and an article written for Icon Magazine
19 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/04/drax-protesters-sentenced http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jun/14/activists.carbonemissions