RSF commemorations are rum affairs. Largely I think that’s due to the age profile of the crowd, who are usually about 50% old age pensioners and 50% teenagers, with very little in between. But you also get a taste of the old-style republican oratory that is by now nearly extinct, having been elbowed out by Gerryspeak, and the odd glimpse of old-style republican fashion.
Back in the 1970s, the observer at Provisional Ard Fheiseanna would have noticed that the tie reigned supreme. Occasionally there would be a suit, but not too many, as in those days you only had the one suit. Rather you would find corduroy slacks in abundance, and tweed sports coats with leather patches on the elbows. It fit in with the sociology of the movement, with its strong representation of schoolteachers and small farmers, but wasn’t something specific to the Provos. You would see similar dress sense prevailing at Official Ard Fheiseanna, which were a lot more urban and proletarian in their makeup, and at Communist Party Congresses, where most of those in attendance were Belfast Prods with a background in the engineering industry. If there was a sociological element, it was in the broad sense that these movements all had their base among the respectable working class, shading into the lower middle class.
Anyway, a lot of the southern cadre got the shock of their lives around about ’76 or ’77 when the Gerryites started coming down from Belfast in force. There was scarcely a sports coat to be seen amongst them. Gerry himself, and his close acolytes like Morrison and Gibney, affected both the dress and the speech of trendy OU lecturers, while the Belfast rank and file for many years preferred leather jackets and Mexican moustaches. But, wondrous to relate, the jeans and jumpers of the new leaders were supposed to be an index of radicalism. These days, of course, suits are de rigueur for your PSF elected representative, although the humble councillor is more likely to wear Primark than Armani. But, like the late Frankie Howerd, there are a lot of folks who can wear suits but don’t wear them well.
The casual dress craze probably bore some relation to the British far left. My own early memories of going to Britlandia to see the left are hazy on ideology – I didn’t know anything about Stalinism or Trotskyism – but I can clearly recall that Monty Johnstone wore a suit, while Chris Harman wore the unspeakable combination of sheepskin coat and sandals. (Monty was also a much more engaging conversationalist than Chris; I did once own a sheepskin coat, but never combined it with sandals.) Monty, of course, was far from typical of the CPGB membership, but even so, your working-class radical was usually much more respectable in dress than your downwardly-mobile petty bourgeois.
These days, what with dress becoming more casual all round, the idea that political radicals would wear ties seems almost to come from a bygone age. Go into a lefty shindig like the SWP’s Marxism and you’ll find that the men, at least, are dressed like normal working-class men, if a little scruffier and a little less inclined to sportswear and chav jewellery. These days it’s the women who stand out, as leftist women have a tendency to dress like 1983-vintage feminists, while your average working-class woman wouldn’t consider going out without her fake tan, heels and push-up bra. It’s a little strange that, while male fashions have converged with time, female ones tend to have diverged.