A World Aglow: Article for DAMn Magazine on the widening use of High visibility clothing and Fluorescence in everyday life. The article is the outcome of a larger research project with Janice Turner, director of Uniform design practice, Field Grey.
A World Aglow: Invisible Dangers
'In a post modern world the symbolic baggage of the uniform may lie more in its excessive, parodic, erotic and comedic elements than its denotation of order, discipline, authority and control.'
In the UK, since the Health and Safety at work act of 1974 there has been a remarkable rise in this increasingly risk adverse society of a fabric that makes people highly visible. Health and Safety in the UK is now based on European Council Directives, which requires similar basic laws throughout the European Union. What is the rationale behind the rapid growth of the fluorescent vest and jacket?
'High Vis jackets should be worn where there is an identified need. This should be spotted in a risk assessment of an activity. It should fall under the obligation for employers to do all that is reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of its staff.'
So, is it simply the result of individual employers interpretation of 'identified need' and 'risk assessment' that has caused this increase or is it our obsession with feeling safe that has made way for this unruly appearance of high visibility on our streets, now with miniature versions for dogs and small children.
Is this pseudo safety? Does this make the individual or the environment any safer? You could argue, the unsystematic use of this generic garment has made society vulnerable by confusing identities, as putting a fluorescent garment on can make an outfit immediately 'official'. 'When suspecting a terrorist threat in London do we run to a police officer or to an HV clad builder or bus driver?'
As Nicoline suggests these garments, which are 'securing' public spaces, could easily be abused. With our urban spaces becoming ever more closely monitored and controlled, fluorescent garments it seems, are there to highlight controlled environments rather than
the original purpose, which was to provide practical visibility for employees.
'Wearing a uniform properly - understanding and obeying rules about the uniform-in-practice-turning the garments into communicative statements is more important than the items of clothing and decoration themselves.'
Conversely the high vis jacket can actually be a danger to some workmen. For example welders tabards are regularly caught smoldering from the sparks produced by angle grinders and the generic shape of the garment means that many site workers cut the bottom off the tabard to stop themselves getting caught up on site equipment, such as scaffolding.
'It gets in the way that's why I had to cut away the bottom half of it so that it doesn't get caught on the scaffolding poles. At times I feel a bit like a walking traffic cone.'
Most Fluorescent jackets, in particular the fluorescent tabards have missed input from traditional design processes. This is perhaps because high visibility clothing was adopted through Health and Safety legislation. The positioning and proportions of the reflective strips makes the garment not so far removed from street furniture as mentioned above.
So you could argue in the case of high visibility tabards, formal clothing design has not been applied and therefore the individuals that wear them feel they are detached from 'real clothes,' and they become a transient and disposable item.
Undoubtedly high visibility has provided a wealth of inspiration for designers. Fluorescence has pervaded our culture in everything from designer wrapping paper to trainers and sportswear. And of course Fashion has played with fluorescent colours on all manner of garments.
The most literal interpretation of the tabard was when adopted, for extreme visibility in rave culture in the 80's, which has now re evolved in the 00's for nu rave. Although the high vis jacket does not have some of the practical assets of the cargo pant, which was the iconic utility symbol of street style and fashion throughout the nineties.
Sometimes the fashionable merits of high visibility are merely a happy coincidence as with Royal Mail post office jackets, which are proving a huge hit in Holland where orange is symbolic of being Dutch and the logo links with the royal family. 'Branded Royal Mail coats are being snapped up by fashion conscious clubbers and football fans who love their orange colour and logo.'
As more individuals take it upon themselves to wear high vis it is clear that our current assessment of 'individual risk' actually means that the high vis vest looses its ability to stand out or to be a sign worth paying attention to.
1 Craik J The Cultural Politics of the uniform, Fashion Theory, Volume 7
2 Health and Safety Executive spokesperson, UK, March 2008
3 Nicoline Van Harsakamp, Guide to London Guards, Becks Futures 2004
4 Craik J The Cultural Politics of the uniform, Fashion Theory, Volume 7
5 Construction worker interviewed July 3rd 2007
6 Metro, October 16th 2007