. . . it is the uniform’s true function to manifest and ordain order in the world, to arrest the confusion and flux of life, just as it conceals whatever in the human body is soft and flowing, covering up the soldier’s underclothes and skin . . . Closed up in his hard casing, braced in with straps and belts, he begins to forget his own undergarments, and the uncertainty of life . . .
In this account, uniform gives the wearer a sense of certainty by acting as an agent of the external forces of power and control; the protective covering conceals his imperfections to make his body feel invincible. In the novel, the Prussian lieutenant’s uniform is a coded representation of his inhibited personal life. For von Pasenow, it offers the perfect protection against chaos, instability, and human entanglements. The way the uniformed body mediates between an ideal ordering and the messy reality of the modern world is the key focus of this volume of essays.
This book is about uniform and focuses on the period from the mid-nineteenth century, when this form of clothing became a significant part of public life. The word uniform means ‘uni-form’ (one form, all alike) and dates from the sixteenth century, arising from the French uniforme, or Latin uniformis (Langner 1965). In the book, we offer a range of perspectives on the social meaning of uniforms, why they were adopted by various groups, and what they articulate about cultures of late modernity. We are specifically concerned with uniform clothing, or uniform tendencies in various areas of fashion and dress. Modernity, according to geographer David Harvey, saw a diffusion of material practices with the construction of machines, transport and communication systems, bridges, and buildings (1990: 27). Uniform was one of modernity’s material practices; it represented resistance to tradition and the embrace of rationality. The rise of uniform was, amongst other things, a response to profound changes in the experience of time and space in Western capitalism.
In this book, we understand sartorial uniformity not just as an outward emblem of power and authority, but also as an embodied social practice that involves the mutual constitution of objects and subjects. In the wearing of prescribed dress such as uniform, this relationship between subjectivity and artefact is thrown into even sharper relief. While much dress history of the modern period is concerned with fashion change and consumer choice, studying uniform calls into question this very focus on the self-consciously fashioned body. There has been notable research on the cultural significance of uniform within various institutional and cultural contexts (Joseph 1986; McVeigh 2000; Craik 2005) but few collections draw together this range of perspectives on the topic. As the subject of a special issue of Journal of Design History in 2011, uniform is described in the editorial as a research topic presenting “a maze of interdisciplinary components and interconnections expanding far beyond the field of dress” (Yagou 2011: 101). Exhibitions too have dealt with the cultural significance of uniform, in particular Uniform: Order and Disorder shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2001), which drew attention to its range of representations in art, fashion, cinema and popular culture. There is room, however, for a more searching analysis of what uniform means to the modern world. Our interdisciplinary approach highlights uniform as a category of dress that has enabled distinct forms of social organization.
The proximity of uniform to the body demands perspectives that take account of its social, cultural, economic and political contexts. Here, we are less interested in the objects created for consumer culture and instead we focus on design as a means of exercising and contesting power. The lack of certainty about what constitutes uniform offers us a rich seam to mine; we ask what it is and what it does, but we also reflect on its failures. We ask what version of modernity the image of the uniformed citizen represents. In the subsequent chapters various scholars explore how uniforms have been designed, worn and understood through case studies primarily from the twentieth century but within contexts emergent since the mid-1800s. We consider why, at this particular moment in history, uniform was adopted widely to negotiate new relationships between public and private worlds.
A range of scholars have contributed to the volume. They work in a wide number of fields including sociology, art and design history, anthropology, literary and cultural studies, fashion history, politics and law, and international relations. The contributors bring from their disciplines distinctive analyses that might extend our understanding of what uniform means to the formation of the modern world. This unusually broad disciplinary basis indicates how the study of uniform transcends fashion history to touch on questions of identity and power in a range of contexts. From political movements to religious institutions, the book covers uniforms for leisure, fashion, and sports and explores transport, military, and school uniforms in various regions including China, Australia, Turkey, United Kingdom, and Russia.
Through the twelve essays we draw attention to the critical role of clothing in the formation of collective disciplines. The potential for fashion to reinforce or undermine wider social hierarchies is increasingly recognized across various academic disciplines. Uniforms are, however, often sidelined in these debates, despite the fact that they are implicated in creating images of classed, raced, and gendered bodies with the power to reinforce ideology and to form social attitudes. By presenting various case studies, we consider how uniforms work to shape human behavior and action, in various geographical regions and historical periods. Uniforms are complex, and their interpretation calls for a multi-disciplinary approach capable of revealing the many faces of uniformity in cultures of modernity.
The volume is divided into six short sections that each address an aspect of regulatory dress. In the first, Annebella Pollen and Li Li discuss the uniforming of political movements; in Pollen’s essay “The Public Order Act: Defining Political Uniform in 1930s Britain,” she describes the almost bewildering array of colored-shirt organizations that arose in the interwar period and offers a close reading of legislative attempts to regulate their perceived threat. This points up some of the complexities of uniform: as Pollen writes, “a set of garments associated with orderliness and discipline sits at the very centre of concerns about public disorder” and the continued enforcement of the Act against far less formal ‘uniforms’ shows enduring unease with massed bodies in standardized dress. This unease was potently materialized by the quasi-military clothing worn by young women of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as discussed by Li in “Revolutionary Culture, Girl Power and the Red Guard Uniform during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” The author discusses how their uniforms helped shape an alliance between teenage girls and the leader Mao Zedong “and thus became the symbol of the Cultural Revolution,” in particular in depictions of the Guard engaged in acts of violence and destruction.
In addressing how uniforms operate in institutions, William J. F. Keenan and Kate Stephenson show how the use of regulatory dress not only asserts group identity but also emphasises the endurance of that identity by positing uniform against the vagaries and changing codes of fashionable dress. In his study of the clerical garb of the Marist Brothers, a teaching congregation of the Roman Catholic Church, Keenan emphasizes the uniformity of their dress as bespeaking “resistance to secular modern fashion and free choice dress ideology” to denote a disdain for worldliness and its materialist temptations. In “Uniform Adoption in English Public Schools, 1830–1930,” Stephenson similarly notes that the dress of pupils was regulated partly in “prevention of ostentatious display,” with allegiance to the institution privileged over individual taste and self-expression. While uniform dress within these institutions worked, as Stephenson notes, to “foster a corporate sense of superiority of elites,” elements of public school uniform itself came to be imitated by the wider society, with the ‘Eton’ collar and ‘Rugby’ suit lending sartorial respectability to those who may have been excluded from such schools due to class and income. Thus, the legibility of uniform worked not only for those who were full members of an institution, but also carried its values to the wider culture.
If most of the essays in the book focus on uniform as specialist clothing, then the section on uniforming leisure deals with the more widespread social adoption of codified dress. F. Dilek Himam discusses this in “Uniformity in Fashion Practices during the Modernization Period in Turkey” in relation to Kemalist reforms that equated uniformity in appearance with social, technological and economic progress. From state-sponsored textile factories producing specified designs to an emphasis on a limited range of clothing items, Himam demonstrates how the ‘imagined community’ of modernizing Turkey was given material force by the sartorial homogeneity of its citizens. The regulatory mechanisms of modernity were also apparent in the ‘evolution of uniformed leisure’ in late nineteenth-century Britain as observed by Geraldine Biddle-Perry. Echoing the sense that uniform is the ultimate rationalization of appearance, she argues that the neat division of time into work and leisure and the concomitant rationalizing of dress helps us understand the apparent contradiction of a leisure ‘uniform’ being mobilized “to distinguish leisure time, space, and bodies” as free from the constraints of everyday life “while at the same time being compelled to take these as their reference point.”
People at work operate within the constraints of dress codes and demands for conformity from their employers, which forms the basis of the section on uniforming workers. Samira Guerra’s ethnographic study of uniforming the corporate body in the City of London looks in particular to the ways in which the business suit has become globalized and is “closely tied to notions of authority, professionalism, legitimacy, integrity and power.” However, as those values are traditionally attached to masculinity, women in corporate environments tend to navigate a course between uniformity and fashionability on the job. Longevity underpins the approach taken by those who design the clothing of airline staff as explored by Prudence Black in her essay “A Cast of Thousands: Martin Great and the New Qantas Uniform.” If the utopian approach to overall design is to disavow fashion, with the Qantas uniform both long-lasting fashionability and iconicity were carefully considered. As in other cases, it is not only the garments that need to be regulated but the general demeanor and presentation of those who wear them, as outlined in the guide book that staff received along with their new uniform to warn against “no handlebar or horseshoe moustaches (the outline of the upper lip must be visible), no backpacks, no chewing gum and jackets must be worn more regularly, including to and from work.”
The interplay of fashion and uniform is implied in many of the essays and often presented as oppositional sartorial strategies, but in the section uniforming fashion Jane Tynan and Djurdja Bartlett explicitly address this relationship, described by Tynan as “the pressure to fit in versus the attraction of being distinctive.” While rationalization may have been implicit in the leisure clothing adopted in the late nineteenth century, it was an overt value in the utopian schema a few decades later, most distinctively those of the Constructivists in the new Soviet Union. Bartlett traces overalls as “functional, political, fashionable” from the utilitarianism of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s through the dance floors of Manhattan fifty years later to the present day, where a group of progressive artists have tried to reclaim overalls as an “ungendered mono-garment to replace all clothes in perpetuity.” The contemporary appropriation of uniform by fashion design and media is explored by Tynan as a particular form of ‘capitalist kitsch’ that in an uncertain world fetishizes the uniform aesthetic as a stable social system where hierarchy and status are more easily ‘read.’
As discussed later in this introduction, uniform is probably most readily associated with military clothing, which is addressed by last section of the book. In the penultimate essay, Amin Parsa discusses the ways in which military uniform is central to the foundational principle of the legal distinction between civilians and combatants in international law on armed conflict. Parsa demonstrates how the visibility and contrast of uniform and non-uniform can mean the difference between life and death as it operates to realise the “ambitions of laws of armed conflict’s most significant principle in protecting civilians during war.” In the final essay on uniformed women in the Ulster Defence Regiment, Stephen Herron considers how a locally recruited regiment of the British Army during the conflict in Northern Ireland routinely sexualized women in uniform through popular representation, a form of symbolic violence that not only “reinforced the dominant position of men as leaders and protectors” but also called into question the legitimacy of female combat, and indeed whether women can wear uniform in this most conventionally masculine sphere.
This portion of the introduction now turns to provide a very summary historical overview of uniform and considers how the essays in this volume relate to recent scholarship on fashion studies, design history, visual and material culture, and other areas of the humanities and social sciences.
The European sumptuary tradition of the Middle Ages was an early example of uniformity in dress, whereby appearance—and thereby consumption—was regulated according to social hierarchies. While codification was important in dress cultures of subsequent periods, the emergence and proliferation of uniform followed the militarization of civil society and is associated with post-seventeenth century historical developments. In particular, the uniform was key to the development of techniques to discipline the body between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries (Roche 1994: 256). Uniforms also gave patriotic nationalists new ways to express citizenship based on collective power, as demonstrated by the dress of the French Revolution.
The nineteenth century saw a range of occupations in various regions adopting uniforms, including police, transport and service workers, shop assistants, and nurses. With the rise of industrialized societies, both fashion and uniform were facilitated by mass production techniques and new patterns of consumption. This was a society where clothing was a clear reflection of a person’s class and status. As state, society and nation converged towards the end of the nineteenth century uniform became part of a modern culture increasingly concerned with regulating time, space, and bodies. As outlined below, this phase of modernity included more homogenous masculine dress codes, concomitant with the rise in occupational and institutional uniforms and greater regulation in military dress. At this point the uniform moved from being a form of dress that created a spectacle of massed bodies to one that enabled their surveillance by a state ever more interested in regulation. In their influential book The Invention of Tradition, historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger argued that the wearing of uniforms was, at the turn of the twentieth century, instrumental in constructing the invented traditions of class and nationhood (1983). Taking this as a high point in terms of the historical significance of uniform, the book focuses on examples from 1850 to present day.
In the early twentieth century, the massing together of uniformed political movements was often permitted, enabling the growth of very real threats to the status quo. The tumultuous period between the two world wars again saw the rise of uniformed movements that gave material expression to alternative political values, or engaged in brinkmanship through shows of strength disguised as ceremonial occasions, which were lent both legitimacy and menace by their uniform. In this period various groups took up uniform with enthusiasm, from dress reformers to fascists, sporting clubs to religious groups. Since the mid-twentieth century, though uniforms for work and leisure have to some extent been casualized, they remain an integral part of public life. As outlined in the conclusion to this book, the use of uniform to variously intimidate, discipline or show solidarity is germane to contemporary culture and is likely to remain a point of contention and debate into the future.
People use clothes for identity work, which according to anthropologist Daniel Miller “plays a considerable and active part in constituting the particular experience of the self, in determining what the self is” (2010: 40). Clothing is about expressing or concealing principles and emotions, but creativity in acts of body adornment can also be evidence of the drive to make in a material culture sense (Schwarz 1979: 30). Contemporary fashion historians have looked to the dynamics of fashion to understand how coercive and creative aspects of clothing and adornment reflect current social values (Wilson 1987; Breward 2003). Fashion is a form of communication (Barnard 2002; Barthes 2006) that also has a material reality (Küchler and Miller 2005; Woodward 2007) and, as such, has been embraced as a rich source for the study of social identity (Entwistle 2000; Crane 2000; Miller 2010). In a wide range of academic disciplines, fashion and clothing are now regarded as significant cultural forms that can be used to interpret aspects of the history, experience, and representation of the body.
It is striking that fashion studies—a field where various disciplines converge to consider the significance of fashion and clothing to the formation of social identities—has been less inclined to encompass uniform. As industrial societies developed complex systems of sartorial signs, the uniform could perform “a role opposite that of fashionable clothing, with its implications of self-enhancement” (Crane 2000: 89). For various reasons, such everyday clothing has been less likely to attract the interest of historians and sociologists of fashion. As object and cultural practice, however, uniform has the potential to offer multiple perspectives on human behaviour and forms of social organization. By engaging with ‘history from below,’ scholars have found in clothing a good source for understanding the meaning of various patterns of human organization (Sharpe 1991: 25). We argue that the powerful image and materiality of uniform gives it a special place in the distinctive visual and material culture of nineteenth and twentieth century modernity. Uniform also has an intriguing relationship with fashion; differences between uniform and fashion are at times subtle, and at other times, stark. This collection of essays on uniform owes much to developments that have seen fashion studies expand and reach out to a wide variety of academic disciplines including social and cultural history, cultural studies, politics, sociology, gender studies, art history, design history, and material culture studies.
This book is specifically concerned with how uniform visualizes and embodies what it means to be modern. We make a distinction between uniform and fashion but we also take account of how sartorial uniformity has been incorporated into the grammar of fashion. Uniforms too are ‘fashioned’ to fit the variety of purposes to which they are put. Cultural and dress historians have defined fashion as a provisional means of stabilizing identity, a practice primarily concerned with pleasure and self-expression (Wilson 1987; Lipovetsky 1994; Lehmann 2000). In contrast, modern uniform was designed not for pleasure, but rather for utility. However distinct systems of dressing fashion and uniform are, both promote body discipline and transformation. Fashion is not about seeking durable solutions to the problem of the body. Uniform, on the other hand, often involves an assertive traditionalism counter to the contingency of fashion. Sociologists of fashion and the body draw attention to the various ways in which clothing is activated by political, social, and temporal contexts (Featherstone 1991; Entwistle 2000; Crane 2000). If fashion and uniform can be defined by their respective contexts, then it is perhaps unexpected to find that they are inextricably linked. The origin of modern dress lies in the development of uniform; standardized sizing arose with the first attempts to create standard military issue, an innovation that was key to the evolution of ready-to-wear clothing (Tonchi 2010). Studying uniform presents unique challenges and joys, not least because its meanings are elusive and multivalent, but also because uniform is always about the body and its transformations. Indeed, the various transformations that uniforms undergo illustrate how the material and discursive converge when the body is placed at the heart of historical investigation (Canning 1999). On the surface, this book might be about uniform but it is fundamentally concerned with examining the significance of sartorial uniformity to the history of the body.
In many of the essays in the book uniform is understood to be a gendered object. Techniques governing the wearing of uniform are commonly formed around a masculine ideal (Craik 2005) and have been used as a tool to authenticate masculinity within the military institution (Colville 2003). Encoded in uniform design is a distinctly military masculinity, which is invariably white, able-bodied, and European. Does the uniform, though, always construct a masculine appearance? In fashion, the masculine is commonly subordinated to the feminine, through a traditional division of labor that has constructed consumption as a woman’s role (Veblen 1994; Sparke 1995). This is one of the problems vexing those who research uniform. If the study of fashion is primarily concerned with cultural practices associated with women, then how do we understand uniform, which is routinely linked to masculine spaces such as the military? This binary thinking limits our understanding of what uniform can mean for the performance of gender. Questions of gender surface regularly in discussions of uniform, particularly concerning the outward construction of military masculinities, but this has also drawn attention to the military’s difficulty with uniforming women (Herbert 1998; Craik 2005). There are examples, though, of uniforms designed specifically for women, primarily for the purposes of creating a regulated environment. Nursing uniform has gained attention as a gendered object and practice, where reform resulted in the creation of a new uniform designed to give occupational dignity and credibility to the women who undertook those roles (Schuessler Poplin 1994; Bates 2011). Here, uniformity was neither military nor was it masculine, but instead was advanced as a solution to the problem that fashionable dress might pose for a new profession anxious to be taken seriously.
Other scholars draw attention, not to uniform itself, but to patterns of uniformity, particularly the fashion for a man to assert himself through “standardisation and through control over his body” (Reynaud 2002: 401). Linked historically with the “Great Masculine Renunciation,” a term invented by the psychologist John Carl Flügel, the adoption of austere and uniform clothing habits in the nineteenth century is attributed to a new industrial economy and gendered division of labor (Breward 1999). British dress reform between the wars also promoted a simple, readable masculinity rooted in the physical body (Burman 1995), illustrating how patterns of uniformity in dress enabled normative performances of gender. This book argues for a wider understanding of dress that might re-frame questions about everyday clothing practices, in particular those that fall outside fashion. Are uniforms shaped by a hegemonic masculinity rooted in myths about the powerful male body? Or can meanings designed into uniform be re-created and transformed by new contexts and uses? Uniforms have, arguably, retained a masculine image through their militarization, to such an extent that women in military uniform are often perceived to be destabilizing their own femininity. There are, however, many examples of women wearing uniforms that were neither masculine nor military in origin, amongst them nursing and domestic service. Discussions of uniform commonly explore questions of gender and sexuality, not least because uniforms can be enlisted to promote a normative understanding of the body. This book grapples with questions about the political role of regulation clothing, in particular how it disciplines bodies to adopt gender, nationality, race, and sexuality positions.
This collection of essays situates sartorial prescription within a complex network of normalizing standards and discursive practices. As outlined by the discussion so far civilian uniforms are military in origin. Military uniform, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon: until the ‘military revolution’ in the 1600s there was a reluctance to regulate soldiers’ clothing. Generals and Admirals had colorful regalia, leaving their subordinates to wear whatever clothes they had to hand in order to distinguish them from the enemy. Naval and merchant seamen had no official uniform before the mid-nineteenth century and were supplied with ‘slops’ by the Royal Navy, a distinctive form of clothing that made them recognizable (Styles 2007: 49). By that time, the army did provide a uniform and from the 1700s uniform regulations were strictly enforced. The officer corps, slow to adopt uniform, wished instead to retain signs of distinctiveness, particularly where motifs carried ideas of honor associated with medieval armory. Since the nineteenth century, the dominant aesthetic in military clothing balances the official desire to maintain morale with practical concerns about visibility. During the Napoleonic Wars, military uniforms were primarily about spectacle but sumptuous clothing designed to intimidate the enemy quickly disappeared with the technological warfare of the twentieth century.
From the early twentieth century, surveillance practices on the battlefield ensured that uniforms would thereafter be designed for utility. The instrumentality of standardized clothing made it easier “to shape the physique and the bearing of a combative individual” (Roche 1994: 229), which inspired utilitarian reformers who saw in the military body an efficiency that could usefully be transposed to civil society. This focus on the care of the body reflected an increased interest in hygiene, cleanliness, and uniformity in the military, which was inspiring significant changes in uniform design. Increased uniformity is concomitant with the rise of the nation state and its forms of standardization, bureaucracy and centralized systems of organization. In this sense the uniform is hegemonic; it establishes and legitimizes state or corporate power through control over the body. In the military, it is the uniform that transforms civilians into soldiers, that enables them to escape their personal identity to meet the challenge of performing military tasks (Ben Ari and Lomsky Feder 1999). The recent “aesthetic turn” in International Relations scholarship, has changed the terms of academic debate on geopolitics, to include consideration of aesthetic practices (Bleiker 2001). This, amongst other developments, has given impetus to debate on the uniforming of citizens and its role in political discourse.
As Antonio Gramsci described in his theory of cultural hegemony, political control is exercised through a combination of persuasion and force (1971). The overt formality and restrictive qualities of the typical uniform suggest that it manages both appearance and human behaviour; its image persuades and its materiality forces. This was well understood in the military and a policy of regulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that standardized military dress (Byrde 1979) anticipated technological changes that by the start of the twentieth century saw the establishment of functional camouflage designs on the battlefield. The industrialization of war meant the end of spectacular and ritual aspects of warfare, and with it brightly colored uniforms, which were no longer effective on the battlefield (Giddens 1985: 223). Drab colors and functional uniform design transformed the military body through the adoption of a tactical rather than fashionable appearance (Tynan 2013a). With the move to a new functional camouflage dress, uniform design became integral to modern warfare but these changes in military organization, at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century, also signaled a new instrumentalism in everyday life. More uniforms on the street reflected a new rationalizing and militarizing of civil society.
The study of uniform offers insights into the institutional rules and regulations encoded in specific designs; uniform is a special form of clothing that marks status much more visibly than other forms of dress (Joseph 1986: 67). Sociologists in particular who conceptualize the body as a project in modernity (Featherstone 1991; Shilling 1993; Canning 1999) highlight how we can analyze forms of power through the body and its adornments. As any kind of public procession demonstrates, uniforms can transform a group of soldiers, music bands, workers, police, or schoolchildren into a dazzling pageant. Whether commemorating a military victory, independence from an oppressor, or marking a religious festival, the spectacle of synchronized movement owes much to the aesthetic impact of uniform clothing. As anthropologist Luke Freeman observes of the parade he witnessed for Malagasy Independence Day, this display of “the physical apparatus of the state in full” ensures that the “glorious regalia of state create a stunning figure so that the president himself does not need to be one” (2007: 290). The pageantry of uniformed citizens in synchronized formations offer a physical and spatial manifestation of the unity created by certain types of authority, all to exhibit the leader’s power. Uniform is widely recognized as a technique for the most potent visual displays that constitute the spectacle of state power.
For philosopher Michel Foucault, the body was central to understanding the operation of institutional power (2001; 1991), making the surface qualities of the body significant to the workings of a disciplinary society. Foucault argued that the body became the focus for practices of improvement and transformation in the eighteenth century (1991: 198–202). Uniform clothing was an integral part of this technology of normalization to position people within a network of relations (Foucault 1991:146), to brand them public property and to regulate their behavior. Most importantly, though, the uniform represents the power and control of the institution that sets it to work; it is one part of a whole aesthetic system to regulate environments, be it in the school, workplace or prison.
Military and other kinds of uniforms are critical to modes of regulation and control associated with colonialism. Historically, uniforms worn by soldiers, police, and colonial officials were useful in order to establish imperial authority. In various institutions uniformity promotes ideas of order, stability, and discipline but in the colonial context uniform had a special significance. Images are critical to sustaining power and authority, and do so by assigning values to people; codifying the violent other as benign soldier could normalize the colonial encounter. The colonial policeman in particular blended military and civilian roles to become the most “visible symbol of colonial rule” (Anderson and Killlingray 1991: 2). Uniform, here as elsewhere, was a visible display of power and control. In India, revisions to dress that followed the suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857–8 signified changes in the colonial campaign, and resulting adaptations to uniform reflected the more complex forms of power that were taking hold. The British effectively transformed their colonial strategy from ruling as outsiders to insiders, evident in how their visual symbols changed to incorporate more ‘Indian’ features (Cohn 1983). This was not benign and neither was the change confined to dress, but in this period various attempts were made to naturalize colonial power, by giving British Indian people access to their own culture through European ideas. From 1860, therefore, a move away from Western-style uniforms meant that “the dress uniforms of Indians and English included turbans, sashes, and tunics thought to be Mughal or Indian” (Cohn 1983: 183). This objectified vision of India was present in the design of colonial uniforms; what apparently signified exchange and co-operation was in reality the establishment of British imperial authority through small acts of incorporation.
Uniforms were instrumental to how Europeans established control over South Asian and African peoples. Uniforms, which represent softer forms of control, offer important insights into cultural aspects of colonialism and while these perspectives have been somewhat neglected, there are some notable exceptions (Cohn 1983; Renne 2004; Streicher 2012). Clothing, and uniforms in particular, are the codification of ritual idiom; in colonial India the British were careful to construct their authority through uniform and its representations. By tracing the imperial reconfigurations of military uniforms in Thailand’s southern provinces, in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Ruth Streicher highlights how they demarcated boundaries essential to the performance of the gentlemanly state, in that “dressing in uniform is integral to modern statehood for it signifies that practices performed by soldiers are not defined as violence but can be fashioned as ‘civilized force’.” (2012: 472) This brings us close to the persuasive qualities of uniform clothing illustrating how bodies can be fashioned to legitimize extreme actions. It is precisely the uniform’s abstraction from violence that allows it to escape critique, which authorizes its use while maintaining an image of ‘civilized force.’ Here and elsewhere, image manipulation allowed the appearance of gentlemanly soldiering to be passed off as fashionable progress.
In Nigeria, where khaki uniforms were part of the strategy to establish the colonial state, other forms of traditional dress associated with pre-colonial rule “were used by the British in reinforcing their political authority in colonial Nigeria” (Renne 2004: 137). Paradoxically, military leaders who dressed in khaki might find themselves visibly supported by wealthy traditional rulers dressed in agbadas (robes); this combined native and colonial authority represented the political elite in colonial Nigeria in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The phrase ‘khaki to agbada’ described the transition from military to civilian rule at the end of the colonial period in terms that emphasized the move away from uniform. If uniform clothing played a role in establishing imperial authority, how then was anti-imperial conflict embodied and performed? The revolutionary period in Ireland saw the nationalist Irish Volunteers, founded in 1913, first creating uniforms modeled on those worn by the British army but the nature of the conflict caused them to move away from regulation clothing. They were allowed drill and exercise, partly as a sop to growing tensions with the loyalist Ulster Volunteers, but were in fact in training for revolutionary action that erupted with the 1916 Easter Rising. In a period when the militarizing of society in Britain and Ireland was at a height, the authorities were undisturbed by such outward shows of force. Once the conflict began, though, it became clear that rebels had to use less conspicuous forms of clothing to escape the gaze of the authorities. If uniforms demarcate boundaries essential to the performance of the gentlemanly state, then the 1916 rebels in Ireland re-defined ideas of what modern statehood might look like. Being creative with their uniform gave the insurrectionists a role in establishing the visual signifiers of anti-colonial struggle at the start of the twentieth century. The unusual uniform aesthetic adopted by rebel groups in the insurrection called into question the legitimacy of the apparent ‘civilizing’ force of imperialism.
If military uniforms have been used to dress up colonial violence through performances of gentlemanly virtue, do imperial notions of gender, race and ethnicity inform conventional uniform design? Not always. Uniform can also signify the wearer’s lack of power. In military contexts, uniforms might be a show of power, but as studies of prison uniform reveal, regulated clothing can also be designed to humiliate and control the wearer. Prison uniform has been a critical part of the system to control inmates to project the power of the penal establishment on the incarcerated body through reform and humiliation (Ash 2009). In the military context, uniform confers on the wearer the power to perform statehood, but in the prison regulation clothing marks the body as state property. Police uniform is caught between the two: conceived to balance the demands of social control with the needs of public service, the idea of the uniformed constable was conceived to visibly perform state power while also making them subject to scrutiny by the public and the authorities. In the newly industrialized cities, the desire for a more “policed society” found uniformed police an ideal solution, whereby “images of law” would penetrate everyday life (Brogden 1987). Uniformed police were introduced in the 1800s as part of a system of surveillance that sought control by increasing the visibility of civilian bodies and law enforcement on the streets of expanding cities. Forms of policing power emerging in the nineteenth century were attempts to comprehend society panoptically (McMullan 1998: 104) consistent with Foucault’s conception of a ‘disciplinary society.’ The history of policing reveals how the clothing of these new police forces, including the London Metropolitan police, were modeled on those first adopted for harsh militia-style policing in the colonies (Tynan 2019). This was about creating illusions, primarily the illusion that state, society, and nation were one, making distinctive military-style uniforms critical to the invention of modern policing.
Nowhere is the illusion of uniformity more evident than in the aesthetics of fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. Uniforms such as the black shirt of Italian fascism were part of the regimes’ specific construction of citizenship (Falasca-Zamponi 2002). Here, as elsewhere, clothing had transformative power but the appropriation of body uniformity had sinister motives for fascist leaders who used it to mobilize eugenics discourses. Implicit in these discourses was the message that unhealthy, uncivilized bodies were in need of reform, hence, the standardization of bodies in 1930s Italy sought to erase differences of class, gender, and geography through the widespread use of civil uniforms (Paulicelli 2004: 24) to put on display a disciplined social body. The drive to uniform society clearly has a dark side, and extreme cases bring us closer to understanding the attractions body uniformity holds for ethnonationalists, and why these political projects exalt idealized bodies. Uniformity constitutes an overlooked but nevertheless significant vocabulary of both conformity and subversion. In this book, we explore how uniforms embody political control, but also how they give insurgents legitimacy; in various ways we use the study of uniform to consider the interconnected concerns of dress, gender, and citizenship.
The nineteenth century is pivotal to understanding the development of uniform and fashion, a duality that reflected the competing possibilities presented by mass-production. The age of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe gave prominence to the contest of “the individual and the anonymous crowd, dandyism and uniformity, distinctiveness and conformism” (Perrot 1994: 4). It was the era of the ready-made, which saw the increased regulation of dress for workers in the United States (US) and Britain (de Marly 1986; Kidwell and Steele 1989). Mass clothing production first stimulated by the demand for military uniforms concentrated the labor force but also, more importantly, standardized sizing (Green 1997: 29–31). While historians find little evidence of civilian uniforms in eighteenth-century England (Styles 2007), they proliferate in the nineteenth century (Richmond 2013). British railway companies started to issue uniform clothing regulations along with the liveries issued to workers twice a year (de Marly 1986: 126). From the 1820s to the end of the century, railway workers and police officers were conspicuously uniformed, which represented the increased interest in codified dress in various industrialized economies (Richmond 2013). Workplace uniforms and dress codes were used as a form of social control to indicate rank in organizational hierarchies (Crane 2000: 5). Uniforms made social class differences explicit in the workplace and employers became convinced of their value in the creation of corporate identities.
If modernity transformed the body into an observer and an object of vision (Crary 1990), this recoding of reality contributed to the creation of the uniformed citizen. A new visual culture demanded a kind of truth of appearances, to objectify the body as a unit of labor and a social self to be made and remade. Uniform and fashion, regulation and self-expression, existed side by side, a complex duality made possible by modernity. Uniformity was the aesthetic system that most resembled the new technologies of mass production. The tape measure transformed custom tailoring into a system of mass production (Zakim 2003); similarly geometry, used for cutting, and machine-sewing for making-up, mechanized all aspects of the process for making clothes (Forty 1986). Science and technology were increasingly governing the production of modern bodies (Breward 2001: 165–81) and the modernist search for universal forms was a symbolic reflection of mass-production (Woodham 1997). In art, design, and architecture, the machine aesthetic became inseparable from the machinery that created it. Why then has uniform not been a focus of particular interest for design and cultural historians? The answer may lie in the place uniform occupies; neither part of consumer culture nor properly belonging to design culture. The state might appear to be anti-consumption (Fine 2002: 176–86) but this misconception is in part attributable to the way commodities, such as uniform, come to the market. Their consumption is predicated not on consumer sovereignty, but on more official forms of power and control. The study of uniform has been slow to flourish, as a result, despite the fact that uniformity became a fashionable aesthetic within modernism. For women’s fashion, Chanel’s little black dress is thought to exemplify the simplicity, functionality, and indeed masculinity of modernist design.
The real significance of modern, streamlined uniform lies in its aesthetic of standardization and the attention it draws to the body; this appeals to a corporate culture keen to project an image of unity and authority. It started with the standardization of railway staff clothing in the nineteenth century, but now a whole branch of business studies focuses on organizational aesthetics. Sartorial uniformity is now demanded in various work environments including business, retail, hospitality and the transport industry. Historically, uniform marked out work/leisure distinctions but more recently the push to commodify labor sees dress codes at the center of academic and media debates on work cultures. A focus on the style of the service encounter in the workplace to appeal to customers’ senses has been termed “aesthetic labour” (Nickson et al. 2001: 170). The uniform’s abstraction from the coercive aspects of the job has made it critical to these new forms of discipline and control in the workplace. Despite compromising the agency of the wearer, the uniform is nonetheless promoted as essential to the operation of workplace duties. At work, uniform is about image management and brand identity, which is why scholars of organizational studies now see evidence of aesthetic labor in clothing, appearance, and uniform practices (Warhurst and Nickson 2007). In an effort to create a science of the management of corporate identity, many companies have looked to aesthetics to embody the desired corporate image. Workers are styled and transformed by clothing, grooming, and behavior management to materialize the corporate aesthetic. Much new research in the area concerns whether managing the self-presentation techniques of workers produces the desired—and undesired—service encounter. Questions about what happens when workers deviate from the uniform or dress code are of particular interest to scholars of organizational aesthetics. Debates on aesthetic labor, concerned with how uniforms make workers symbol-bearers of organizations, are increasingly exploring questions around the suppression of individual identity and official attempts to mask aspects of gender, sexuality, or race in the workplace. Everyday contestations of workplace dress codes constitute challenges to the very notion that uniform is an idealized form of dress.
Georg Simmel viewed fashion as a reflection of the widespread desire in the modern world to combine uniformity with social differentiation in habits of dress (Simmel 1904). This conflicting desire in our social environment illustrates the various challenges we face in understanding the social and cultural meanings of uniform. When is a uniform a uniform? The complex duality of ‘dandyism and uniformity’ that characterizes the modern age can in part be explained by the competing opportunities presented by mass-production. It was, however, also the era when more scientific forms of people management emerged and the rationalization of time and labor became fashionable. In other words, uniform in the modern sense is part of a cultural shift that standardized clothing to fit with the utilitarian social reform projects to build prisons, schools and hospitals. But the focus on the care of the body reflected the increased interest in hygiene, cleanliness, and uniformity that dominated official efforts to tackle poverty and despair in the nineteenth century. While capitalism had its critics, on the whole public health and social reform programs turned their attention away from larger systemic issues and inequalities to instead govern the micro-territory of the body. The uniform was instrumental to such projects, whereby attempts were made to govern bodies through discipline, control, and standardization techniques. Regulation in dress reflected the discipline and control various agencies sought over bodies, particularly those threatening the status quo: the poor, the vagrant, dissidents, women, and young people. These official attempts to use uniforms to discipline and control populations might perhaps be read as representing the dark side of modernity.
Given its sinister past, why does uniform still so fascinate today in film and popular culture? If uniform gains its power through a sense of dominance, authority, and the right to seize power, why is it copied so enthusiastically in fashion design and eroticized in popular media? Does the seduction of uniform perhaps lie in its secret codes? Uniform styles meaningful to institutional settings have had a history of symbolic transformation from work to leisure (Biddle-Perry 2014), from sacred to profane (Keenan 1999) and from military to civilian (Tynan 2013b). Are these transformations a sign that the uniformed citizen is now a fragile outsider and figure of fun? Or does it instead offer insights into just how durable uniform codes have become? It is striking that no matter how much uniform codes are manipulated and subverted they endure in ever more inventive forms into the twenty-first century. Institutions might come and go, but uniform as a category of dress and mode of self-presentation survives. As new institutions and organizations form, there is still an expectation that citizens dressing the part will populate them. An old uniform, though, does hold certain poignancy; only then is it exposed as an empty sign. Once divested of its authority an outmoded uniform can reveal the instability and redundancy of the traditional institution from whence it came.
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