How your clothes speak about what you stand for

Recently I wrote about wearing jeans for work, and had a day long Twitter conversation about the subject. Anyway, for those of you who don’t know, Housing Associations in the UK come from very humble, often radical, beginnings. My own organisation was founded in 1964 by left wing Christians, and beardy beatniks. Here are some charming old photos from the archives.

two long haired hippies, 1960s, Notting Hill Housing Trust
Two of the early Notting Hill Housing Trust team

Long natural hair, untrimmed beards and  “NHS” glasses (often known as John Lennon glasses these were the old fashioned frames you could choose, free of charge, with your eye test prescription. They had a plastic coating which could be stripped off to leave metal rims). These housing workers both wear almost identifcal denim shirts, as a jacket, over a T-shirt or shirt. Enthusiastic young people like these two worked their socks off for a low wage, or as volunteers, doing repair work to run down homes to help homeless families in west London. The clothes they chose were pratical and radical.

1960s hippy volunteers at Notting Hill Housing
Two volunteers help an elderly lady move into her new home

In this photograph we have an old lady dressed in the fashions of the 1940s, with her fitted wool coat, sturdy leather shoes, thick woolen stockings and a fetching furry hat. The two young men helping her are from a different era. One wears a beard, flared jeans and carries what maybe an old Singer sewing machine. The other man wears an ethnic Indian block printed jacket over his polo neck. He carefully holds the aspidistra aloft.

Most of these committed young people were fired up with concern about homelessness and the terrible circumstances people were often forced to live in, facing intimidation from private landlords as well as sharing grim, run down homes with countless others. They were very hands on, practical people – doing repairs and improvements, driving vans, organising fundraising as well as being anti-establishment. It is no surprise therefore to hear from retired CEO Tom Murtha (@tomemurtha) that “When I started in housing we all wore jeans”, before Robin Lawler (@robin_lawler) added “And beards!”.

Man wearing bleached jeans, 1970s
Tom Murtha, in bleached jeans in 1968

Housing Associations did much good in those days and if you want to read more please have a look at our own website. But over time the demand for cheaper homes for people on low incomes became pressing and it was vital to do much, much more. It required huge sums of money, most of which had to be borrowed from banks. In the 1970s this is what a bank manager looked like (women were not allowed into the Stock Exchange until 1972).

Conservatively dressed bank manager 1975
Bank Manager 1975

In order to get loans the Housing Associations had to become more respectable, more conservatively dressed, as by the 1980s many of those working for Housing Associations were qualified professionals. We still worked with homeless people but many of us had to work with other professionals and we started to copy their styles of dress. There was a joke when I started out that the property development teams all wore double breasted grey suits, had BMWs with car phones (remember?) and boasted about the size of their building programme.

Grey Hugo boss suit
1980s Grey Hugo boss suit

During the 1980s, as you will have appreciated if you watched Wolf of Wall Street, it was all about the money. Although people were still committed to the objective of building homes for low income families they were now running substantial businesses, and they had to look the part. Donald, one of my predecessors, was a Labour party activist as well as a CEO and his slightly random fashion sense (checked shirt with patterned tie can work, but it needs a bit more thought) showed that doing good was far more important than looking good.

Donald Hoodless, CEO of NHHT in the 1980s
Donald Hoodless, CEO of NHHT in the 1980

Personally I feel indepted to the previous generations, and am inspired by their efforts. Some could not be parted from their denims and remained on the front line until retirement. But many realised that they had to appeal to new audiences and changed their clothes accordingly. Dressing appropriately means respecting those you work for and with – as true today as it ever was.


6 Responses

  1. Kristy

    Thanks for a really interesting post. As a town planning I am loving your insights into the changing urban landscapes and city history. And I fully agree with you about dressing with respect to your role and colleagues, sadly not enough people do in the government agency I work for

  2. Cedi Frederick

    I remember making my way in the housing association world in the early eighties as a black CEO thinking that I had to look the part to be taken seriously. There were so few of us in those positions and we felt we were under such scrutiny that any slip in our sartorial standards would be seized upon as evidence that we were not up to the job of being a CEO! I remember talking to Darra Singh and Steve Douglas about it at the time and I think we were all of the same mind! My sense is that it was very similar to being a woman CEO in the housing association sector at the time? Has much changed???

    • fabrickated

      It is interesting that the three BME ceos you mention were particularly good dressers – stylish, elegant, fashionable and just a notch above the average ordinary look. I remember Darra’s tie pin, and your suits with shocking pink linings. i felt all three were saying – I am exceptional, which of course is a double edged message. Not sure if we read this across to the women CEOs, but I will think about it. Thank you.

  3. Stephanie

    What an informative post. I loved reading this history and getting a sense of the movement behind the associations. It made me wish I were still an idealistic young person, out to change the world.

    In the government sector in which I work, there are still many people who do not dress very well considering their roles. When you move up the executive structure, however, people have received the memo about presentation… That said, something interesting happened recently in that the only luxury retailer in my city selling top end fashions for women announced that they will be closing their store as of 2015. I never shopped there, but I know executives in my department who did. The shopping options otherwise are pretty bleak, unless you are very much at the top of the pecking order and can afford to have clothes made for you, although some new retailers will be moving in. Maybe I’ll be able to convert some people to sewing!

  4. Joyce

    Wonderful morning read as always Kate. I think that although we judge people by the way they look, and make assumptions, it’s wise not to be too quick to judge. As I mature it has become very evident to me that looks can be deceiving. Having knowledge to dress in a way that you want to communicate to the world is valuable information – a stepping stone for those to get to know you. You can say a lot with a tie, jacket and dress shoes and you can say a lot with beards and plaid shirts, even the colours we choose — we don’t want to be accidently lying about ourselves with our presentation.
    This is what upsets me about the artists in my community that get stuck in the hippy or grunge style, and yet they want to raise money for the arts.
    Anyway, I know this is not exactly the line of discussion you are directing, but that’s the thoughts that surfaced in my mind. Because we judge we should be careful what we present, and try to get as close to the truth as we can, if nothing else to make it easier for other people to reach the information.
    Have a great day, its nice and sunny here in Sudbury Ontario (we’ve had a lot of rain)
    Joyce :~ )

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