High-Visibility Man

- On the emergence of day-glo clothes in everyday life
My dad has a habit of wearing high-visibility clothing in unlikely places and at odd times. Not so long ago he visited Salzburg in Austria with my mum, and last time I went up to visit them, they showed me their photographs of the weekend. One in particular stood out. “What do you think that is?” my dad said, grinning and pointing to what looked like a Chinese calligraphy character or perhaps a runic symbol composed of white slashes against a black background.
I was completely mystified. Then he showed me another picture of him standing against a wall in one of his high-visibility jackets, this time in daylight. The other picture was taken at nighttime, and the strange graphic form was created by strips of luminous reflective material on his navy-blue waterproof coat. He’d bought it, along with another one, at a street market in West Midlands. “It was only a fiver,” he said.
My dad has always taken a strange delight in high-visibility clothing. In the veranda of their house is clothes rack with about five day-glo jackets, coats and trousers on it. For much of his working life he took schoolkids on mountaineering trips around Wales and Scotland, and I imagine there was some kind of safety requirement for the leader to wear “hi-viz” clothing. Holidays when I was young involved our family trudging around hills and staying in youth hostels on these trips. Most of the kids, me included, were issued with sets of luminous green or orange cagoules. Needless to say, I absolutely hated having to wear such an ugly and conspicuous outfit. We were nonetheless Highly Visibly, less likely to get lost in the mist and therefore safer.
These days I only wear a hi-viz jacket to cycle round London when conditions are particularly. My dad, however, never lost the habit. In fact, the older he gets, the more he seems enjoy being Highly Visibly when absorbed in all kinds of tasks, some of which don't even require him to be visible at all. I have seen him cycle to the train station, go to church, walk up town and push his wheelbarrow round the streets near our house, all wearing hi-visibility clothing. I’ve seen him do gardening in a luminous green waterproofs, Highly Visible against the earthy greens and browns. A few years ago he visited me in London and spent the day walking round the streets of Farringdon with a map in his hands, wearing a bright orange cag, orange overtrousers and carrying a huge rucksack (the contents of which are quite another story). There was absolutely no way that my dad would be anything other than Highly Visible that afternoon, and admittedly, it was pouring down and London’s roads can be a bit dangerous. Still, I had to insist that he changed into something more suitable for dinner because I was about to introduce him to my latest girlfriend.
There’s a lot more hi-viz clothing in public life these days. Perhaps it’s got to do with the kind of heath & safety anxieties that anti-PC commentators often complain about. You see all kinds of people in hi-viz stuff today, not only roadmenders, emergency services, builders and traffic police but also posties, logistics staff, event marshals, walkers, cyclists, runners, dog-walkers, people who stand around holding clipboards and looking at buildings, and many others.
Hi-viz fabric technology is also quite advanced now. I was sent some info on the latest textiles by 3M and although I struggled to understand the materials and innovations involved, I was impressed by its range of uses. A lot of hi-viz clothing is sold also these days (www.hiviz.net sell day-glo gilets for as little as 89p each). Sometimes I wonder whether it's just a matter of time before we’re all required to wear fluoro to walk round a museum, or for that matter, when on a city break in Austria.
Still, the relationship between style and hi-viz fabric is about as antagonistic as it gets. Hi-viz occasionally pops up in fashion – New Romantic, Rave and nu-rave all had bits of hi-viz, from socks to sunglasses – but like, say, neoprene, I doubt it will ever really find a permanent role as a fashion textile. It's just not subtle enough. Perhaps luminosity says “work” more than much it says than “fun”. Of course, my dad would be mortified if I told him he is part of a “trend”, but in any case, the creep of hi-viz into the everyday isn't a trend. It’s just something that’s happened.
Nonetheless, I suspect he quite enjoys how wearing garishly functional hi-viz clothes signals a complete defiance of the whims of style. Like many of his generation, my dad tends to be cautious about his appearance and has always had a pronounced antipathy towards anything obviously stylish or trendy (he stopped wearing denim jeans years ago, for example). He takes care to look smart, but comes over all gruff at the thought of caring about what other people think about how he looks.
Above all, I reckon that in a roundabout way, being highly visible enables people blend in and gives them a kind of very public privacy. Because despite being the most visually conspicuous people in the street, people wearing high-visibility clothes are often almost invisible. Cool clothes, suits, trainers, haircuts - the stuff of high-street style – all make big visual statements about who you are. Hi-viz clothes, on the other hand, just say, “I am A Person doing A Job.” And that’s it.
If by any chance that’s how my dad prefers to be perceived, I have to say he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Kevin Braddock