By Alani Gaunt
“When the average American thinks of uniforms, they immediately think of something constricting, stifling their individuality…” In the Uniformity exhibition currently on display in the Museum at FIT’s Fashion and Textile History Gallery, curator Emma McClendon explores the interplay between uniforms and fashion, attempting to challenge certain assumptions about their social function.
The exhibition is held in the gallery reserved for showcasing the Museum’s permanent collection, which consists primarily of American pieces. McClendon uses this constraint as an opportunity to explore not only the historical development of uniforms and their interaction with fashion, but also their unique cultural significance in American society, and the tensions they create with individuality, gender, and class.
Uniformity opens with a cross section of the types of uniforms on display in the rest of the gallery: military, work, school, and sport. These pieces are complimented by interviews with American fashion designer Thom Browne, and Stan Herman, whom McClendon calls the “uniform guru” behind such iconic looks as those for McDonald’s, TWA, and FedEx.
The intention behind this, according to McClendon, is to provide viewers with an entry point for different ways of thinking about uniforms and uniformity in fashion. “One thing that I found very useful about Thom Browne’s interview is that he offers ideas that are a bit counterintuitive. He sees ‘individuality in uniformity,’ he finds confidence in uniforms. Rather than stifling individuality, when everyone is dressed in the same thing, the individual comes to the fore,” McClendon explains during a walkthrough of the exhibition, noting the contrast between Browne’s perspective and what she refers to as Americans’ “cultural resistance” to uniforms.
Military uniforms dominate the first half of the exhibition. McClendon notes that they have had the greatest impact on not only fashionable aesthetics, but on those of other types of uniforms as well. The pieces in this segment illustrate the development of such fashion staples as the army field jacket, the Breton striped shirt, and the sailor suit, from their utilitarian origins in the military to their use in high fashion. They also provide context for the military inspiration behind some of the aesthetics of work and school uniforms in the latter half of the gallery.
Each type of uniform is displayed in the center of the platform, flanked by the fashionable pieces it inspired. This structure highlights the ways in which the visual codes of official uniforms are subverted through their use in high fashion. Masculine becomes feminine in the appropriation of military soutache embroidery into women’s fashionable dress, illustrated by a recent Ralph Lauren garment. Camouflage on a Savile Row suit calls attention, rather than concealing as originally intended. The utilitarian apron of working class service uniforms becomes purely decorative in delicate Chanel couture.
Similarly, the exhibition illustrates how feminine uniforms -- once intended to signify respectability or at least professionalism-- become highly sexualized through fashion, as with the nurse’s uniform. Considered the first respectable profession for women in the 19th century, nursing required a uniform which conveyed as much. Uniformity displays two early nurse uniforms which drew their visual vocabulary from ecclesiastical dress, suggesting purity and modesty, while maintaining fashionable silhouettes which indicated that the wearers were ladies of a certain station. As McClendon puts it, “Modesty is the armor of the working woman in the 19th century.” Nurses’ uniforms eventually became sexualized in the 20th century; the women’s liberation movement and the entrance of men into the profession changed the field, and the nurse’s uniform was abandoned in favor of more unisex and utilitarian scrubs. According to McClendon, “Gender roles are a very important topic in considering where we are going in uniform design as we enter into this period of gender fluidity. This ideal of a woman’s uniform being becoming and her gender being clear is not necessarily what contemporary society wants out of a uniform.”
The last section of the gallery finishes with pieces exemplifying the increase in the importance of branding in uniforms and fashion, with the first McDonald’s uniform designed by Stan Herman in 1975, and a collection of school and sports uniforms and the fashion pieces influenced by them. McClendon uses a final video display of fashion performances by Chanel, Gaultier, and Thom Browne to illustrate how pervasive uniforms are in fashion, and how their meaning is dependent on social context and coding. Uniforms are inextricably linked with notions of authority, gender, and class. This is particularly evident in the Chanel performances set in a brasserie and an airport terminal. As McClendon points out, the audience’s attention is drawn to the models in uniform-inspired couture, while the backgrounds of the scenes are populated by people in actual uniforms -- who act as little more than set dressing.
Be they high fashion or official, individual or institutional, uniforms are in fact everywhere in American society. Uniformity provides an entry into making visible and unpacking the layers of social coding we use to simultaneously interpret uniforms and overlook their importance in our daily lives and in our fashion.