Early this summer, British commanders advised their troops not to wear their uniform while travelling alone to and from work following the killing of a military man by two terrorists. Even teenage cadets were told to cover up their fatigues when walking to meetings because “fanatics intent on attack don’t see a child, they just see a uniform”.
Truer words were never spoken. A uniform works as an instant disguise, camouflaging differences of class and caste. Anyone who’s ever tried to pick out a child from the hordes coming out of the gates as school breaks will know the veil of anonymity that a uniform drapes over its wearer. Put on a uniform and you may as well turn invisible. Because a uniform works like communication grammar, turning its user into a walking-talking logo of his organization.
The dictionary describes a uniform as clothing ‘worn by members of an organization while participating in that organization’s activities’. Which makes us immediately think of people in the armed forces, of police men and women. Of doctors in scrubs and nurses in white. Of school children and airline staff.
But the truth is we all wear uniforms of some sort.
Corporate leaders dress to exude success, control and authority. Which means well-tailored dark suits, white shirts and laced, well-polished shoes. Down the ladder, the tailoring might take a beating , but only by a notch. Dressing the part keeps everyone on their game. Because even if they’re not team leaders as yet, everyone’s out to be perceived as a thought leader. And those come in dark suits. Or starched sarees.
Over in the design space, casual rules. Jeans, tees, loafers make up the homogenous dress code. There’s a uniform for working weekends too, when people push towards shorts as opposed to pants, and flip-flops instead of loafers. At the fashion end of the design spectrum is the hipster’s home. Individuality defines this uniform. So even if you have two designers in tailored suits, one of them will have his look accessorized with gelled stand up hair and red shoes; the other will be Gatsby-perfect with pink pocket square and cravat. To fit in, one must stand out.
Journalists err on the side of scruffiness. Crushed kurtas, unkempt hair, slippered feet… the look conveys a disdain for cosmetic beauty. It’s the brain that counts, is the message. But there are sub-sects here; and uniforms for them too. The fashion journalist dresses for her constituency (think designer clothing, It-bags and sunglasses perched on the head); the business reporter for his. He can’t afford a Zegna suit on his salary, so he makes do with Zodiac. He gets ribbed by his pals in the political bureau, but he doesn’t care; his jacket makes the CEO he’s interviewing comfortable and he gets his story.
But it’s the society lady who feels the biggest sense of pride in her uniform. Even at 3 am, she is perfectly put together—her hair blown poker straight, her tight-is-might LBD, her heels teetering on edge, and her diamond-studded watch competing in the glitter stakes with her rings—and that of the other 11 identically-dressed women in her posse. Dwight Eisenhower said, “When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept.” Wonder if he was talking about the death of distinctiveness.