Uniformity: A new exhibit shows how uniforms hold power over us

As I was walking up to Milk Studios during New York Fashion Week last autumn, I noticed myself being drawn to the style of a bunch of New Yorkers, but not the sea of trendy fashion editors dressed in head-to-toe luxury labels, as you might expect. Instead it was the cluster of construction workers. It was something about their paint splattered Carhartt cargo pants, worn-in white Hanes tees and chestnut Timberland boots that caught my eye, it was a uniform of sorts, these infinitely wearable garments that they all had in common, that bridged them together and were easily identifiable. There was something about this uniform, however plain and simple that stood out. Now, a new exhibition is showcasing this concept more in-depth.


TWA flight attendant uniforms, designed by Stan Herman, 1975, synthetic blend, USA, Gift of Stan Herman.

Uniformity, an exhibition at New York’s Museum at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) is examining the history and function of uniforms throughout history. Open until November 19th and featuring over 70 objects from the museum’s permanent collection spanning the last few centuries, the exhibit surveys a variety of uniforms, exploring their social role and influence on high fashion. Not only do uniforms bring a group together both visually and psychologically, but they also become signifiers through which we ascribe meaning. In a time of much social and political upheaval, it feels apt that FIT is exploring the ideas of uniforms and the power they hold.

We recently sat down with the exhibit’s curator, Emma McClendon, to pick her brain about all things uniforms.

Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA, museum purchase.

Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA, museum purchase.

Hi Emma! How did you get into curating fashion? How did the idea for this exhibition come about?

I have been interested in fashion since I was young. I studied Art History as an undergraduate, and during an internship I completed at the V&A in London, I got my first glimpse at how I could combine my interests in art historical research and fashion studies. Then I completed a Masters degree in the History of Dress before coming to the Museum at FIT. I started out as an intern and worked my way up to the role of Assistant Curator. I have always found the social and psychological effects of uniforms fascinating. The idea to do an exhibition focused on the topic came out of research I did in the museum’s comprehensive permanent collection.

Can you share more about the power behind uniforms and the psychology of uniform dressing? 

Whether you have worn a uniform yourself or only seen others in them, uniform dressing has a huge impact on how we think about clothing. Even if you consciously craft a unique look for yourself each day, that is its own form of reaction against uniforms. Uniforms visually express a psychological drive towards order that is deeply rooted in modern society, and they continue to evolve because the idea of what’s “appropriate” changes over time. Proportions and silhouettes, for example, change, levels of formality change, and this cultural shift can come to have an impact on uniforms.

(left) Jean Paul Gaultier, ensemble, c. 1992, cotton, France, (t op) Gift of Antoine Bucher, (pants) Gift of Michael Harrell; (right) Sacai, ensemble, Spring 2015, cotton, silk, synthetic, Japan, museum purchase.

How have uniforms inspired fashion designers? How have fashion designers then re-inspired uniforms?

Uniforms and high fashion can seem diametrically opposed, but fashion designers are often drawn to the look and construction of certain uniforms. Sometimes designers create very literal reproductions of uniform garments and then “style” them on the runway into a high fashion look, for instance the Rei Kawakubo or Jean Paul Gaultier ensembles in the exhibition. Other designers take a more creative approach and reinterpret a uniform garment in unlikely ways, such as the Sacai look from the show. Likewise, uniforms take many cues from fashion. Uniforms are often about looking “appropriate” — looking appropriate for a particular profession or role, but also looking appropriate within a particular cultural moment. The ebbs and flows of high fashion effect details of uniform design, such as the length of a skirt, the width of a lapel, even uniform color, etc. to ensure that a uniform ensemble adheres to current cultural norms.

How do you think unisex culture will evolve uniforms?

“Gender fluidity” is a big topic of conversation right now. We see this in fashion with the growing interest in unisex dressing, but it’s also become a big point of debate in corporate dressing and “dress codes”. I definitely think that this conversation continues to gain traction in mainstream culture and it will have an impact on uniforms and the heteronormative gender identities that many uniforms instill. For instance, the Mainbocher WAVES (Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service) uniform from WWII in the exhibition is made from the same deep blue wool as its male counterparts, but it includes a skirt. It very much resembles the formal service uniforms worn by women in the armed forces today. Why does a female officer’s gender need to be immediately apparent in her uniform?

McDonald’s uniform, designed by Stan Herman, 1976, polyester, USA, Gift of Stan Herman.

McDonald’s uniform, designed by Stan Herman, 1976, polyester, USA, Gift of Stan Herman.

When did branded uniforms come about and why? How has that transcended into logo driven fashion?

Heavily branded uniforms came about in the 1970s and 1980s when large conglomerates, like McDonald’s, wanted to create strong identities for their companies. Workers became an extension of company advertising, essentially walking billboards, with logos and company names emblazoned across garments. This design strategy has had a huge impact on fashion in the “logomania” trend that dominated the 1990s and has seen a recent resurgence in brands like Moschino.

(left) Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA, museum purchase; (right) Geoffrey Beene, ͞ football jersey ͟ dress, Fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA, museum purchase.

Designers continue to borrow from sports uniforms, for example the Football Jersey Dress by Geoffrey Beane. What role do sports uniforms play in all of this? How has sportswear grown beyond the sports world? 

Athletic uniforms visually and psychologically band a team together. They also help to distinguish one team from another. This is helpful to spectators, but also to players: uniforms ensure that a football player, for example, does not pass the ball to a member of the wrong team, just as military uniforms help to prevent soldiers from firing on friendly troops. Bold colours and contrasts are mainstays of athletic uniforms, as seen in the striped example here. A level of differentiation is maintained by the use of player numbers. Right now, the biggest impact of sports uniforms on fashion is in the “athleisure” trend. Consumers want to be comfortable, so the material, construction, and aesthetic of functional athletic attire is having an increasing impact on fashion and everyday clothing.

omme des Garcons (Rei Kawakubo), ensemble, 1998, wool, Japan, museum purchase; (right) U.S. Army World War I Service Uniform, 1914-1918, wool, USA, Gift of Mrs. Roswell Gilpatric.

(left) Comme des Garcons (Rei Kawakubo), ensemble, 1998, wool, Japan, museum purchase; (right) U.S. Army World War I Service Uniform, 1914-1918, wool, USA, Gift of Mrs. Roswell Gilpatric.


U.S. Army Colonel Dress Blue uniform, c. 1950, wool, USA, Gift from the Heirs of Teresa Lambert Ireland.

U.S. Army Colonel Dress Blue uniform, c. 1950, wool, USA, Gift from the Heirs of Teresa Lambert Ireland.

How did Police uniforms come about? 

The United States formed its first modern police forces during the mid-19th century. They were modelled after the London Metropolitan Police, established in 1829. Uniforms were key to the success of the new organisations—they made officers immediately identifiable on the streets, which helped enforce social order. Police uniforms draw heavily on military elements in order to impart power and authority. Currently, the heavily militarised aesthetic of police uniforms has come under debate as discussions of police brutality continue to build.

(detail) Chanel, ͞Brasserie Gabrielle͟ ensemble, Fall 2015, wool, silk, cotton, leather, France, Gift of Chanel.

Chanel, ͞Brasserie Gabrielle͟ ensemble, Fall 2015, wool, silk, cotton, leather, France, Gift of Chanel.

How do uniforms become mainstay fashions? 

Uniforms are fixtures of modern society. They are omnipresent in our daily lives. Often times they are overlooked and seem to blend into the background. But given their prevalence it seems only natural that designers would continue to look to uniforms as inspiration.

Like this? Visit the Uniformity exhibit open until November 19, 2016 and be sure to follow the Museum at FIT for your curated fix of fashion history, as well as our Associate Editor Sara Radin for the latest art and cultural happenings.

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