Deconstructing the Uniform

On July 19, 1958, in Venice, California, the beach crowd stared with bewilderment at the attractive lifeguard who took to the little lifeguard hut in the sand. She got settled in and started her job, keeping watch for swimmers, or non-swimmers rather, in need of rescue. What puzzled the families, the bikinied sunbathers and the surfers in shorts, was that the lifeguard was clad in a blue Pan Am suit with the little bag, coiffed hair and all. Her pristine look would surely be ruined by the breezy heat of the beach, and how well can she swim in that get-up anyway?

That same summer day in California on Pan Am flight 927 with non-stop service to Tokyo, the passengers looked on with wonder at the tanned lifeguard, the whistle around his neck and the red rescue buoy tethered to him. A fellow passenger he was not. Instead, he was assisting the passengers with getting set for take-off. The travelers were questioning the mental wellness of this individual because he obviously was not a stewardess (but he was so nice and tan and handsome).

With the flight attendant in the lifeguard hut and the lifeguard taking charge in the cabin of the plane, the first indicator that something awkward was afoot was that the uniforms of these individuals were completely wrong. Save for the fact that in the 1950’s the men did the lifeguardin’ and the women did the stewardin’, what gave it all away from the start was that their costumes were completely off and were fundamentally inappropriate.

These silly, fictional scenarios are a fitting introduction to the psychology behind the uniform.

Encountering a uniformed individual, people tend to simultaneously regard and disregard the uniform. Yes, it’s there, dressing the individual because he is employed to complete a specified task, hence the uniform, but the uniform is secondary, so get on with your task, Uniform Man. Or is it secondary?

Take a deeper look at the cultural function of the uniform. To get the etymology out of the way, uni is from Latin for “one” and form is still Latin for, well, “form” or maybe “shape,” depending on the context. The function of the uniform is to set aside a particular band of folks from the larger whole and to make their separation evident by dressing them all in the same garb.

The uniform, in a sense, started aboriginally with the general fashion of the ilk or order, much like nuns’ habits or hip-hop MCs’ baggy pants drooping well below the crotch. The uniform ties the wearer to a specific group of people who complete a specific task, and it is assumed that anyone sporting that same uniform does pretty much the same thing. It was with war that the dress of the various peoples became clearly evident and symbolic. It was how a warrior could tell who was comrade and who was foe; or, outside the realm of war, who shared your philosophies or missions, and who marched to the beat of a different drum-machine loop.

Thinking about a typical uniform of today, one of the most familiar is the postal worker’s blue ensemble, with its subtle accents of red stripes and white stripes; the occasional safari hat for those fanciful workers in the sun. This outfit is so common a uniform and such a shared, cultural expectation of a postal worker that, on the first season of Project Runway – a competitive reality show where fashion designers spar sartorially – the concept of altering it was jarring. In the end of the episode, the redesigns featured a postal cape, a postal tracksuit, and postal bellbottoms, garments most likely never to be commissioned by the United States Postal Service.

These transformations were entertaining to watch because the American viewing audience had never seen a variation on this familiar uniform. The challenge seized the aforementioned etymology of “uniform” and flipped it over like a bug on its back, flailing legs struggling for ground. Uniformity morphed in an exciting way.

This episode of the show was captivating because it played against the culture’s social schema. Schema. Think of the word schematic. Or even scheme. It’s a plan. An outline. A program in the brain computer that tells one what to expect in a particular situation and how to proceed behaviorally. These are the programs that maintain silence during mass in church, or volume at a heavy metal show. The people who turn heads at these events can most definitely be the stick in the mud at the rock show who is reading Ulysses in the corner, or the kid in church with a case of the interminable giggles. The rest of the group is confused or ruffled by these deviations because that’s just not supposed to happen at these social events.

The uniform and the schema behind it make life and social interactions easier, and they allow your attention to move on to something of more importance. The lady in the postal clothes will not administer treatment to the sick. The man in the white coat and stethoscope necklace will not deliver the mail. The uniform separates individuals from the larger mass of society, the people who don’t perform that role.

Acquiescence is a requisite of the uniform. In this understanding, the uniform is essentially a dress code to which you agree to adhere; a schema, even if it is more cognitive than deliberate. It is understood how this schema helps us to identify who is who and what it is that they do, but in what ways does the schema hinder the individual and also the social experience and expression of dress and expectation?

It is said that you dress for the job you want, but who is to say that a tattoo-covered bike-messenger hipster cannot effectively predict into which company an investor should transfer funds for a multimillion-dollar merger, or that a seemingly scrawny young man in his Sunday best won’t TKO you during the first round of a lightweight boxing match? Had the biker been donning a Brooks Brothers suit and the scrawny lad a pair of baggy gym shorts and swollen oven mitts, you might have been better prepared with the clues of what to expect upon interacting with these individuals.

In keeping with the theme of this issue, dear reader, I ask that you think twice before judging a book by its cover, and trust that first impressions can be fleeting, and even misleading.

With the May 2013 release of the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, what changes can we expect to find within the DSM-6 when it rears its head from behind the American Psychiatric Association’s “Employees Only” door? It was only 40 years ago – a crumb of time in the grand scheme of history – when the APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder – “disorder” defined as something that disturbs the health and mind. And now, after the Supreme Court has declared that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, the APA expresses praise over the court’s decision, saying that “homosexuality is a normal expression of human sexuality.” Was I alive during these past 40 years in which all these contradictory events took place? Maybe just conceptually I was around, but even that is up for debate, so might say my parents.

But now that I am definitely here corporeally, I’m curious to see, along these similar psychological and philosophical lines, how the uniform and what one simply wears to go to and fro will change over the years; what they say about the wearer’s intentions or goals or desires. Even in the professional setting today, “Business Casual,” which now can be defined as jeans – jeans! (without holes or tears) – and a nice button-down shirt or polo even, is almost ubiquitously acceptable at the start of business at 9 AM on a Monday. A Monday! Women are wearing sleeveless tops and drooping necklines at the office, and flip-flops or sandals are for the most part ignored, even in the filthy city that is New York. (Perhaps hygiene, rather than fashion, should be at issue here.)

The uniform can give us something to live up to, a role to fill. Young sons and daughters might aspire to become police officers because every morning they said goodbye as a blue-suited mommy or daddy walked out the door to go to work, and, in the evening upon the return home, wrapped themselves around that parent’s leg, which in turned wrapped around the child’s heart warm sentiments of an honorable occupation. Pornography and role-playing feature men and women in uniform, to satisfy the yearnings and urges of those who fantasize about a domineering boss who ties you up with his tie and belt, and leaves his suit on as he unzips his fly to show you why he’s boss, or a sexy plump-lipped nurse who is buttoned in tight white fabric, breasts fighting against the uniform’s constraint. She has arrived to give you your physical examination. Uniforms have seeped deep within our personal and collective psyche in one way or another.

The uniform can give our interactions, activities, practices and aspirations in life further meaning and reverence, but on the other side of the coin, how are we separating ourselves from those around us? Is it good, bad or neutral? Perhaps we need the uniform first as an indicator or identifier, but the uniform is also showing us what we are not. We can only breakaway and become something else, something new and expressive when we are repressed or subject to monotony.