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The sartorial challenges of radio

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Catherine Carr | 09:09 AM, Thursday, 28 October 2010

Picture of Catherine Carr at her desk at work wearing a black dress with black tights and boots.

It started with a "tsk."

Having stayed at my mum's in Bath - before heading off to record a feature for You and Yours at the Roman Baths - she looked me up and down and - as is customary, provided full subtitles to her raised eyebrow: (my mother hates to be misinterpreted when criticising. Crystal clear comprehension is her sole aim.) "Is that what you are wearing?" she asked. "To go and do an interview?

I looked down too. (Up is harder when you are both the subject to be appraised, and the appraiser. Try it if you don't believe me.) Shoes? Check. Tights? Check. Skirt, top, cardie? Check, check, check. Massive rucksack with recorder, notebook and three months worth of detritus? All present and correct. Still finding the looking up trick, well, tricky, I patted my head in case my hair was missing. Nope. All there. I looked back at her and raised my own brow. "It's just not very smart." she said. Then she softened a little, like an iceberg which had been attacked with a hair-dryer (i.e. not much.) and added "for a top-level reporter, (pause) Darling." Leaving aside the top-level thing, it did start me wondering about the dress code at work. Were we all hideous scruff-bags, in need of a brisk shake down and an iron from my mother, or not?

To be clear: there are no rules that I am aware of, which dictate what we should wear for work at Radio 4. I personally avoid denim, as my first ever boss at Radio Cambridgeshire told me to. I still stick to that rule because she was so frightening, that if she ever caught me wearing jeans now, I would still have to escape to the loos for a little cry. It also makes me feel a bit more professional when I'm out and about meeting people. In the office, however, there is a sliding scale from lycra cycling gear (which gets changed after a cool down) to chinos and jeans, to jackets and sharp little skirt suits. Nothing crazy. Just clothes.

Apparently it was very different forty plus years ago. Thena Heshel devised the original 'You and Yours' programme. As part of her contribution to our anniversary celebrations, she wrote to tell us about the sartorial advice she received when starting out in radio production in 1964: "I was expected to arrive very formally dressed. " she typed "it was even suggested that it might be appropriate on some occasions to wear a hat!" Evening dress for evening recordings was recommended, and Thena recalls wearing "a suit skirt jacket and gloves to produce a weekly live programme called 'Week's Good Cause'. She did point out though, that by the time she joined the BBC, the young ones had started to ignore such advice, which came from "the older generation of producers who were then retiring".

Now it has completely changed. Obviously. In fact, the dressed down approach took on a whole new meaning a few years ago when a new reporter jogged to work and kept on his extra brief running shorts for the morning news meeting. He would then sit in a typically bloke-ish fashion with his legs up on the table requiring everyone else to look primly away, or face a very human exposé. What would my mother have said to that?

Back to her then, and to me in the hallway in Bath. I defended my outfit, reverted to being a teenager, got a bit grumpy and stalked off for my interview. When I arrived, the beautifully dressed woman from Bath and North East Somerset Council looked me up and down and uttered a soft "Oh.." I am still not sure why, and whether it had anything to do with what I had on. I hope not. After all, surely the whole beauty of radio is that no one knows what most of us look like, and no one should really care. That's part of the reason I love the medium, and as my mother has often remarked - probably part of the reason they still let me work in it.

Catherine Carr is a reporter on You and Yours on BBC Radio 4


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