Annemarie Quill: Uniforms still come in handy

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CHANGE: Will ordering a cup of coffee be more difficult now that Starbucks employees' dress code is changing?
CHANGE: Will ordering a cup of coffee be more difficult now that Starbucks employees' dress code is changing?

No one likes a sick kid.

You feel sorry for them, but you don't want one next to you if they are not your own offspring.

I learned this on a long-haul flight during which my daughter projectile vomited from Dubai to Melbourne.

A long-haired white fluffy toy cat that she was clutching - purchased in the airport - was showered in spew. We used every sick bag on the plane. People were sympathetic at first, passing their own unused sick bags down the seats like a brown paper bag relay. But when the vomit dried and crusted on the cat - which the air hostess insisted I keep on my lap - and wafted through the plane's air conditioning, sympathy drained as fast as the colour from her face.

The captain came to see us. I knew he was the captain by his hat and white uniform. He moved us to somewhere "more comfortable". When my daughter stood up, she retched. He gamely whipped off his hat to catch it. I looked in horror at the murky liquid pooling in the inside of his cap.

"Don't worry, I knew this silly uniform would come in useful one day," he said, but his face told a different story.

When we touched down in Melbourne, the plane heaved a collective sigh of relief. It was shortlived - the capless captain announced the plane would be grounded while biosecurity officials checked for infectious diseases.

This week I relived that feeling of touching down on the runway after a long flight, only to be told you can't get off, when I happily sent the children back to school after two weeks of school holidays.

On the first morning, my 9-year-old said she didn't feel well.

"You're fine," I said.

"But my throat is sore"

"Have a drink of water."

My colleague said his kids had tried the same trick, and we gave ourselves mutual kudos for not falling for their crafty tricks.

I felt mean that night when it emerged she was really sick with tonsillitis enforcing a week off school.

With me forced to work from home, it was liberating not to have to get into work wear. Not that we have much of a uniform, but I did enjoy slumming around in what the fashion magazines call "lounge wear" but which I call "staying in the clothes that you slept in".

On the way back from one of our doctor visits we stopped in at a trendy city cafe. The sort of place where the baristas are intimidatingly stylish and edgy, all sleeve tattoos and pink hair. They, too, wore slouchy pants and sneakers, but theirs were sports luxe and "athleisure", mine were Kmart fluffy and a little bit stained. The barista had a man bun. I had a rat's nest. As I doled out antibiotic pills on the saucer of my daughter's hot chocolate, I wondered when baristas became so scary.

We should have gone to McDonald's. Or Starbucks. You know where you are with a frappuccino, the same anywhere in the world, frothed by a coffee maker in a familiar green apron.

But not any more. Starbucks is having an overhaul of its uniform.

The green apron is still a go. But in a new dress code announced this month the coffee giant said it was going to loosen up its requirements for what baristas should wear in its restaurants, promising that the new rules would allow for more "self-expression,", NZME reported. Baristas can add colours and patterns and can even don hipster hats such as fedoras. Very James Bay. Also very handy if a customer with a sick child happens to regurgitate the frappuccino.

A closer reading of the new code revealed that there was a limit to the "self-expression". Colours were listed and even the types of pattern dictated.

The Washington Post said the move was to keep employees happy, saying "the labour market is getting tighter, and retailers have to work harder to attract and retain talent. By giving employees more flexibility in how they dress, Starbucks is trying to distinguish itself from other employers with comparable schedules and wages".

A little self-expression is a good thing. Some company dress codes seem arcane. In May, a London woman was sent home unpaid from her temporary receptionist job for accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCooper when she wore flat shoes. She was told that she could only come to work wearing 5 to 10cm high heels.

Such gender bias in dress code shouldn't exist but still does - unsurprising when it is cemented in our schools where still many schools require young girls to wear skirts or dresses while boys enjoy the freedom of shorts or pants.

Some relaxing of corporate dress codes is a good thing. Last month PriceWaterhouseCooper ditched its traditional dress codes for Australian staff. The company previously requested men wear suits and business-appropriate socks, while women wear tailored dresses or trousers and business style shoes, reported the UK's Daily Telegraph. Now it is letting employees decide what's appropriate for the workplace.

This is commendable trust from an employer, that employees will use common sense. Personally I would hate to work in a place where you couldn't choose what to wear. But an employee must still exercise judgment and a bit of common sense - dressing appropriately for the occasion, whether that is mud-appropriate shoes to interview farmers or smart dress to attend a function.

Employees do represent the company and customers do judge a company by its employees, particularly its front-line employees. If an employer does not have a dress code and an employee dresses inappropriately then it is harder to address.

You might think you look good with pants that are so baggy they show your undies, and your chin whiskers that reach your navel but, if you are trying to negotiate a business deal, you might have a hard time, unless you're selling drugs.

When I go into Bunnings Warehouse, I want to look for that familiar brown apron telling me if I find a lower price on the same stocked item they'll beat it by 15 per cent. I don't want a bearded hipster with erotica piercing skateboarding down the garden hose aisle.

Without the uniform, the customer has to play "spot the retailer", eyeing a suspect line-up in Mitre 10 to determine who exactly you should ask about grinder accessories. There is substantial room for error and embarrassment when you mistake a shopper for a salesperson.

Likewise when you take the aforementioned sick child to hospital, it used to be easy when doctors wore white coats. Now that everyone dresses in mufti, you risk asking the man who refills the paper towels what he thinks of your rash.

So there are professions that still cry out for a uniform. I like to know who is flying the plane, selling hardware or operating on me.

A green apron might not be ice-cool hipster, but it makes ordering a coffee more relaxing. A brown apron might not be catwalk couture, but it sure makes hardware shopping less confusing.

A white coat is a lighthouse in the storm for a parent with a sick child, signifying a wealth of medical knowledge and a person that really does like sick children. It is also a great protective barrier for all that projectile vomit.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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