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A Brief Cultural History of Uniforms

What does it mean to all dress alike?

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What do Catholic school girls and Joseph Stalin have in common? They've worn a uniform to conserve their mental energy for a higher purpose than just fashion. Lately, this utopian ideal of dress has become trendy among busy and thrifty women in the rise of the work uniform. After all, sartorial sameness conveys gravitas in the office.

In theory, we should all be wearing uniforms. Fashion is one of the world’s nastiest polluters, second only to oil. The rich wear intricate clothing to peacock their wealth, depleting the lower classes of their innate power and self-esteem. High fashion favors taut, unrealistic figures, leaving the rest of us with emotional complexes about our bodies. Uniforms could alleviate many of these problems.

And yet, any attempt to standardize dress across an entire culture has failed. In 1916, US home economist Helen Louise Johnson proposed a Standardized Dress — as chronicled by Linda Przybyszewski in The Lost Art of Dress, it had a V-line neck and modest skirt, similar to Coco Chanel's dresses at the time.

Johnson was melodramatic about her quest: “Our purpose,” she said, “is nothing less than a freedom from a kind of slavery.”

Men benefited from the no-brainer business suit (and still do, damn them), while women were (and are) persecuted by the “pursuit of dress.” The Standardized Dress would end "the constant and ridiculous, troublesome and costly, change of fashion,” Johnson said. Women would finally be remembered for their faces and ideas, rather than their floral prints. Despite its lovely interchangeable collars, cuffs, and trimming that sustained interest with variety, the Standardized Dress never caught on. Thriftiness isn’t enough to stamp out the visceral craving among Westerners to showcase our individuality through clothes.

“Saying fashion should not change is, by definition, not making sense,” Przybyszewski says. “It’s fashion: It goes in and out! To put a stop on that just wasn’t possible.”

Even communists, not known for their style, flopped in their idealistic striving for a uniform. Mao urged his followers to wear the frumpy tunic suit to equalize the classes. Still, the People's Republic of China held a fashion show in 1956 that displayed gaiety and color. The fitted dresses were cinched at the waist in optimistic hues of mossy green and white trimmed with flashes of red. Women were so eager to copy the designs at home that they quickly sketched the dresses in their notebooks, according to Jin Lim, a professor of Chinese history at the London School of Economics. To our eyes, the dresses might look plain, but against the backdrop of Mao tunics — like an entire country filled with strategically ugly bridesmaid dresses — these frocks were gorgeous mindfucks.

An image from the 1956 fashion show organized by Chinese National Organization of Women Clothing.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In stark contrast to the Mao suit stereotype, some artists living through the restrictions of communist conformity produced works of wonder. In Moscow during the 1920s, the Bolshevik artist-designer Varvara Stepanova created 150 textile designs. Her prints mesmerize the eyes with geometric optical illusions that create different layers of color and reality. Unhindered by the pressures of consumers’ whims, her mass-produced work “reached the level of real art,” wrote the critic D. Aranovich in 1926. Stepanova thought that the capitalist marketplace had a dampening effect on creativity, according to author Tansy E. Hoskins in her book Stitched Up. Hoskins imagines that we could have more daring fashions outside of capitalism: “In an ideal society the floodgates will open and everyone will be unrestricted.”

Communist societies didn’t always sustain such heights of creativity, so in totalitarian regimes, people ripped up and re-sewed their uniforms. Conformity presented daily chances to rebel. “People always are resisting; resisting is a natural and inbuilt reflex,” says Katalin Medvedev, a professor of fashion and culture at the University of Georgia. “People were conforming because they were fearing retribution, but they were always expressing themselves. We imagine all Russians looked the same, but it wasn’t true. What did you do when the rules are explicit? You do little things, and people learned to read between the lines.” Russian women wore almost “too much makeup,” she says, in defiance of the monotony.

Costumes by Varvara Stepanova in 1924.
Photo: Heritage Images

In communist Hungary, professor Medvedev’s mother discarded her state-distributed uniform and sewed her own fashionable clothes, causing onlookers to assume she was bourgeois. “Information always comes in like cockroaches in the smallest holes — there was no Iron Curtain,” Medvedev remembers.

The socialization of gender also makes an androgynous uniform one hard pill to swallow. “Women did not wear pants, unlike the propaganda. Women all wore skirts.” Even in the Eastern Bloc, “misogyny is a constant.”

Although womanly flourishes were influenced by the patriarchy, communist women also used femininity to assert their power. In 1950s Hungary, Anni Halmi resisted with beautiful clothes, as described in Medvedev’s essay “Ripping Up the Uniform Approach.” When children were required to wear school uniforms, Medvedev writes, “Anni believes that this move was intended not to eliminate class differences but rather to cover them up, which was indicative of double standards and the duplicitous nature of the regime.” So she bought a red rock-and-roll skirt from the black market.

“Beauty cuts across class, and that can be threatening for the status quo,” Medvedev says. “When communist women dress nicely, they show creativity and agency and show what you provided isn’t enough — and that’s very political.”

When Nazis occupied Paris, bringing their intimidating fascist military uniforms, French women responded by wearing platform shoes in defiance. “You can occupy us, but you can’t take our style,” Medvedev says. “Resistance has always been happening by altering uniforms because uniforms are really about control, controlling the body.”

It’s true that, when imposed from the top, uniforms are an aggressive form of domination. They smother the body in coded information, making the wearer become whatever the establishment would like, robbing individual expression. “Uniforms can be used and have been used throughout history to give people power and to take power away from people,” says Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the Museum at FIT and the recent curator of the exhibition Uniformity.

“There’s a lot going on with uniforms that makes institutions accept them, but makes people tend to reject them,” McClendon says. “Imposing it across a culture, at that very level, it makes people nervous. When you’re in a democracy that fosters individual voice, uniforms go against that. In our culture, they’re shown as a symbol of control, and not creativity or expression.”

In the military and other industries, badges, stripes, colors, and symbols instantly communicate to the viewer whom to treat with the utmost respect and authority, and who is beneath them. “That can be as seemingly innocuous as a fast food clerk wearing the logo of their company, but it can also be used in social situations to control groups of people, to identify them and mark them out,” McClendon says. “If that enters into everyday life — that’s when uniforms get dangerous.”

Uniforms can be a symptom of malignant groupthink, like in the case of the Nazi armband or the KKK’s towering white head condoms (i.e., shield me from the world because I’m a shivering coward, hiding my fear behind a mask of hate!). In the United States, the biggest fascist threat — prior to our current one under Donald Trump — was the Silver Shirts during the 1930s. Coalescing around the rising tide of racism at the time, the Silver Shirts donned an eerily plain uniform of navy pants, black shoes, and silver shirts jazzed up with a scarlet letter — not for adultery, of course, but an “L” for the fascist doublespeak “Love, Loyalty, and Liberty.”

On the flip side, uniforms can also take power away from whole groups of people. Of course, prison uniforms do this. So did the perversion of the Star of David symbol to identify Jews during the Holocaust.

Some professional uniforms also undermine certain ranks. For most of the 20th century, the nurse’s feminized dress sapped her of professional power. By the 1980s, nurses were wearing unisex scrubs to account for more men entering the profession, among other reasons, McClendon says. “The notion that a professionally trained woman needs to look like a nun and a fashionable lady to be doing her job is problematic in the 21st century,” she says. “Now, you just see it in kinky Halloween costumes.” We tend to think uniforms stay constant, but that’s not the case — they are always morphing to be appropriate for their context.

What’s more, uniforms don’t have to be monolithic, dangerous, or imposed by the establishment. We can make them whatever we want them to be.

Death row inmates in San Quentin in uniform.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a total reversal of the top-down suppression of mandated dress, personal uniforms have become popular across offices today as an outlet for individual expression. McClendon has noticed this trend in New York. ”With all the globalization and speed of communication, it can get so overwhelming, it would only be natural to see consumers wanting to slow it down to have more control or longevity,” she says.

The personal uniform has much to recommend it. Compared to constantly replacing your fast fashion every year, a consistent wardrobe is more cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and sane. It gives people, especially anyone who dresses femme, time for other interests. Your uniform doesn’t have to look the same every day — it can sparkle with as much or as little variety suits your personality.

“We consider uniforms as stifling of creativity and individuality,” McClendon says. “Americans in particular pride themselves on the notion of individuality. Uniforms are used in movies or TV shows or novels as a formative tool to develop a character, whether it’s something as basic as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air turning his blazer inside out. The reaction against a uniform is a very normal story for us as a formative moment in adolescence — where you find yourself by your distaste for the uniform.”

This belief is silly when you consider that youngins already wear a kind of uniform, but — this is mind-boggling — for the purpose of standing out. “I will never understand it,” says Medvedev, who moved to the United States to begin her academic career. “A punk girl doesn’t want to look like a sorority girl, but she looks similar to another punk girl. So there are these contradictory ideas of belonging and individuality.” In a sense, punk is a uniform, too.

Instead of drowning out your style among a patchwork of cliques or city tribes, a background of sameness is more striking — like the People’s Republic of China fashion show. “During the Cultural Revolution, a fashion faux pas could mean death,” writes Hoskins. “This meant that people studied ‘prevailing fashions down to the minutest detail with a singular intensity.’ Juan Juan Wu explains that rather than exterminate fashion, the Cultural Revolution produced one of the most fashion-conscious (to the point of paranoia) nations in history.” Death shouldn’t have to breathe down our necks to achieve the same cultural effect. On their own, uniforms cultivate our appreciation for understatement.

When you wear a personal uniform, peppered with small, affordable changes or twists — a new scarf or necklace or piping — those tiny gestures glimmer. Subtlety catches the eye against the white noise of fast fashion. When you think about it, maybe the best way to stand out... is a uniform.

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