By Sean Carey
One day last January, around 7:00 in the evening, I was coming out of Sainsbury’s in St. Albans (near a car wash described in a previous post), laden with bags of shopping. I saw a white woman in her mid-30s, getting out of her smart sports car at the supermarket’s filling station.
Why did I notice her? Despite the winter cold and gloom, she was wearing bright pink pajamas and color-matching furry slippers.
By coincidence, I recognized her as a receptionist at my local branch of HSBC, “the world’s local bank” as it says in the ads. But I had never seen her, or anyone wearing this sort of clothing in a public place before.
As a never-off-duty cultural anthropologist I was very keen to see how the cashiers in the filling station would react to the unusually attired customer. I decided that it was an opportune time to engage in some participant observation by driving my car to the forecourt and putting some fuel in the tank.
My timing was impeccable. I followed the pajama-clad HSBC employee into the filling station’s check out and stood behind her in the queue. When it was her turn to pay, the transaction went smoothly enough.
Despite their obvious curiosity, neither of the two cashiers seated behind the counter was bold enough to ask the woman why she was dressed the way she was. I did notice a twinkle of amusement, however, in the eyes of the female cashier when she caught the gaze of her male colleague. He smiled back at her. I found myself smiling as well.
At the time, I thought that going out in public while dressed in pink pajamas and furry slippers was idiosyncratic. I discovered a few weeks later that such attire is a fad in at least one other part of the U.K., where the country’s largest supermarket group, Tesco, decided that it would try and eliminate it before it became a long-term trend.
Despite the financial penalty to the company, Tesco refused to serve customers dressed in pajamas or walking barefoot in its store in St. Mellons in Cardiff, Wales. Signs placed at the entrance of the supermarket read:
To avoid causing offence or embarrassment to others we ask that our customers are appropriately dressed when visiting our store (footwear must be worn at all times and no nightwear is permitted).
“We’re not a nightclub with a strict dress code, and jeans and trainers are of course more than welcome,” a Tesco representative told reporters. “We do, however, request that customers do not shop in their PJs or nightgowns.”
Here is an anthropology connection, from more than half a century ago, to understanding pajamas-in-public.
“Ever since the middle of the 18th century, the scope and rigour of formality has been on the decline, modes of dress and of address have become increasingly casual, precedence and protocol increasingly irrelevant,” wrote British anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach in an essay for New Society in 1965. He was commenting on the deep social and cultural changes that had taken hold in most of Western Europe, the U.S., and “newly westernised” countries like Japan.
Of course, a lot has changed in the cultural organization of the societies that Leach highlighted more than half a century ago. Nevertheless, the underlying structural patterns regarding what counts as formal/informal, private/public behavior still hold good.
So, do the woman in pink pajamas and furry slippers at the Sainsbury’s filling station in St. Albans and the pajama-clad and sometimes barefoot customers at Tesco in Cardiff embody the casualization of attire described by the great British social anthropologist? Undoubtedly, yes.
In addition, the pajama wearers were violating the principle which Leach also highlighted that “every incident of regular social life has its proper position” – in this instance, the distinction between what is categorized as ritually appropriate indoor and outdoor clothing (note: this is an area of culture also explored by Mary Douglas, another British anthropologist).
There is an important distinction between the two situations: unlike her counterparts in Tesco the pink pajama-clad Sainsbury’s customer was able to get away with it, consciously or not, without sanctions because she was acting as an individual and not as part of a group. It would be a very different matter if she turned up for work at HSBC in brightly-coloured pajamas.
But the story doesn’t end there. Last week in the U.K., there has been another flurry of excitement about dress codes. A senior consultant at a leading PR firm, Bell Pottinger, was banned from Soho House for six months for wearing a suit and tie. Peter Bingle, chair of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, was informed that he had breached the “casual” dress code of the well-known private members’ club, located in an area of London’s West End that is home to a huge number of cutting-edge advertising, PR, design, music, TV and film companies – the so-called “creative industries” which are hugely important as generators of value and wealth in the world’s advanced economies.
Soho House wants to attract a different clientele to those who frequent traditional gentlemen’s clubs in other parts of the capital like St. James’ and Pall Mall. As a spokesperson said, the destination prides itself on attracting “young, expressive types” rather than “post Thatcherites.” Nevertheless, Mr Bingle was puzzled by his treatment.
In a blog post, he wrote: “Is it really the case that the wearing of a suit makes me uncreative and unrelaxed? There is no greater supporter of the creative industries than me but does everybody in it all have to look the same? Have I got it wrong or has the world gone crazy?”
No. The world has not gone crazy, but it is certainly easy to misunderstand how it works. In open societies like the U.K., it is very important for an individual or a group to be able to recognize the deep and shallow channels (or hard and soft boundaries) demarcating one part of the socio-cultural system from another (and they vary from place to place). Furthermore, it is only by applying such insights that effective and efficient navigation around the social world is possible.
Bingle’s big mistake in wearing a suit and tie at a new-wave private members’ club was similar in many ways to the loose coalition of pajama-wearing people attempting to shop at a branch of Tesco in Wales. Both parties misunderstood the relative inelasticity of the post-modern “casual” category. The big lesson, as Sir Edmund Leach pointed out, is to remember that the cult of informality is selective.