Livery. It is what makes ordinary everyday folk distinguish between fellow ordinary folk from servants and staff. It is therefore crucial for any host or establishment to make sure the way their servants and staff dress is clear enough for their guests and customers to make that distinction in order to avoid embarrassment of having another guest or customer going to another guest or customer and asking for a glass or wine or where the toilets are.
Why am I talking about this? Well, it just so happened that I was in London a few weeks back. This was a few weeks before the Royal Wedding and I was in full morning dress with top hat, meeting a group of friends in London for High Tea & Cake. There was still time before tea so I decided to wander around. I never been to Fortnum & Mason so I decided to pop in. After a few minutes of browsing, some one came up to me and asked about where I can locate a certain product. I told her I wouldn’t know as this is the first time I’ve been here. She took one step back then apologised to me.
Next, I went up a level and the same thing happened! Someone asked me where the book section was. Same response. He went off and then came back and told me it was up a level. This happened again for the third time elsewhere. It was at this point I noticed that some of the staff were in morning coats. It took some time for it to sink in after my departure that the customers had mistaken me for the staff! This is inspite of me being dressed better and me wearing a top hat inside (meaning I just walked off the street). I suppose you could blame the customers for their ignorant knowledge of morning dress to make such an error. However, you can’t always count on the great unwashed to understand the intricacies of formal dress and livery, even for those who end up shopping in the most expensive supermarket in the country. Therefore, it is the fault of the establishment for not creating a more distinctive livery in the first place.
Now, I know that morning dress isn’t everyday wear and you could say that because of this it is suitable for livery. Have you heard of weddings? Investitures? Formal day events? These require, 9 times out of 10, morning dress and it is no leap of the imagination that someone who is in morning dress attending one of these said events could in all likelihood go into a place such as F&M to buy an item or two enroute to the venue. It is a given especially that F&M is so close to (in fact in) the sartorial centre of London and the World.
There are several ways of making livery distinctive. One way is to dress the servants in an old and archaic form of dress worn commonly in the past but is so far removed from the modern day that no one wears it in normal everyday life or to formal events. An example is the tailcoats heavily rimmed with gold lace worn with breeches, stockings, court shoes, wigs and tricornes. Another way is to use normal forml dress but mix and match the elements so that they are sartorially wrong such has pairing a full dress evening coat with morning cashmere striped trousers worn with a black bow tie. No normal person would wear this so it is distinct. Also, one could wear normal formal dress but add things to it that make it distinctive such as lines of gold lace, gold buttons, an odd but distinctive waistcoat and/or tie, etc. Then there is the practice of dressing your servants up or down one notch in formality to what everone else is wearing or dress incorrectly for that time of day so if everyone is in the country during the day wearing tweeds, the servants wear morning dress or black tie, or when everyone is in white tie in the evening, the servants wear black tie or morning dress.
Once you have decided on this, everyone must wear the same thing (with appropriate variations as to sex and rank and department). This will ensure that mistakes (and I’m not saying there won’t be any even if everything is done to perfection) are kept to the extreme minimum.
So, I wrote to F&M advising them of their error of livery. They replied to me today basically saying that ‘our livery is distinct enough for no confusion to happen Sir!’ Well, clearly as I have demonstrated it is not distinctive enough! I was mistaken for staff three times in the space of 30 minutes. That is clearly unacceptable and embarrassing. Also, they told me that all their staff wore buttonholes during the day of the Royal Wedding like they think it is impossible that people never wear buttonholes (I did on the day as a matter of fact). You may tell me that with such a traditionalist view of sartorialism and livery, I ought not have gone into a supermarket in the first place. That is beside the point. One ought not to have to find out what the staff are wearing before deciding whether or not to go into a given public space fearing one might get mistaken for the staff. That should have been ironed out beforehand by the host through consideration of their guests. There is no dress code in place so you can’t blame the guests for wearing what they want.
Livery is there to avoid the embarrassing situation of the guests being confused with the servants. If there is such a confusion then it is the failure of the host to not make his livery distinctive enough to avoid said embarrassment and is almost insulting to his guests for not being considerate enough.