Uniform Cover Image


Clothing and Discipline in the Modern World


Jane Tynan and Lisa Godson (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Utility Chic: Where Fashion and Uniform Meet

Jane Tynan

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/9781350045583.ch-011
Pages: 221–236


This chapter explores the use of military and civil uniforms as reference points in fashion design and media. It considers the popularity of the uniform theme in fashion from the mid-nineteenth century, which reached its height after the 1960s. By tracing the social significance of regulation dress, the discussion highlights distinctions between the functional uniforms worn in institutional contexts and their appropriation by fashion design and media. This chapter focuses on those complex interactions between uniform and fashion, military and work uniform; it looks to the militarizing of civilian life from the mid-1850s onwards in order to understand what gave rise to the prominence of uniforms in everyday life. Further, the discussion considers what inspiration fashion finds in uniform and whether it represents authority or promises utopia. Uniform-fashion combinations were particularly common in post-war society, articulating as they did the contradictions and tensions of a society that embraced both consumer capitalism and centralized nation-state politics. In the fashion image, the uniform often became shorthand for power, whether social, institutional, or sexual. References are often contradictory, ranging from hardcore fetishism to street style. As this discussion shows, the systematized logic of uniform made utility chic a staple theme in fashion design and media, inspiring both conformity and resistance to the body disciplines demanded in private and public life.

If “uniforms shape who we are and how we perform our identities” (Craik 2005: 4), could the same be said for fashionable dress? Uniform, a more specialized form of clothing than fashion, is designed for a specific occupation within an institutional setting; its widespread use since the nineteenth century reflects the critical role it has come to play in the display of social identities. The uniform symbolizes the institution the wearer represents, but also impacts how social roles are performed. Fashion, on the other hand, is a social practice associated with change, creativity, and individual liberty. Historian Paul Fussell sums up the dilemma that uniform represents: “everyone must wear a uniform, but everyone must deny wearing one, lest one’s invaluable personality and unique identity be compromised” (2002: 5). This encapsulates ongoing tensions between fashion and uniform, whereby the pressure to fit in clashes with the drive to be distinctive. This chapter focuses on those complex interactions between uniform and fashion, military and work uniform; it looks to the militarizing of civilian life from the mid-1850s onwards in order to understand what gave rise to the prominence of uniforms in everyday life. Further, the discussion explores the ongoing dialog between uniform and fashion; it considers what inspiration fashion finds in uniform and whether it represents power, or promises utopia.

Fashion has profoundly shaped uniform design. For instance, the first uniform for the British Admiralty, introduced in 1748 for commissioned officers, imitated the Macaroni style, a masculine fashion of the time known for its continental flavour. When in 1827 the Admiralty replaced this style of uniform, it drew directly from contemporary fashions. Technological changes drove uniform design for the British Navy but dandy styles of the 1820s and 1830s were also an influence (Miller 2007: 9). The eventual regulation of military and naval uniforms was of critical importance to their development, but nonetheless officers continued to have their uniforms tailored to reflect current fashions. This was the case for the most utilitarian military uniforms worn by the British on the western front in the First World War; they too were fashioned by aesthetic considerations. The Norfolk jacket, for instance, began its life as a sportswear staple—as did the trench coat—for the leisure classes in late nineteenth century England. These designs, originally created for sport and leisure, suited the wet muddy conditions of the trenches. Despite a rational and utilitarian appearance, even the design of British First World War uniforms drew on various civilian fashionable styles.

During wartime, women’s civilian clothing was in turn influenced by military uniform: at the time of the Boer War, many advertisers celebrated the popularity of khaki cloth for civilian fashion and the First World War saw military details transposed onto women’s clothing, particularly through the adoption of khaki and trench coat styles. When leisure wear for both men and women became associated with shirking during the First World War, fashion sought out the safety of military styling to send out a patriotic message through a visual language of military participation (Tynan 2013a). In the twentieth century, fashion and uniform have had many playful interactions, each representing very different ideas of what it means to be modern. Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian designer associated with surrealism, was one of the first designers to look to the uniform for inspiration. In spring 1940, she created designs based on camouflage taffetas and ‘trench’ brown, and in so doing was one of the first designers to appropriate camouflage for fashion. Later in 1962, when her high fashion business folded, her salon created the New York Preen designs for nurse’s uniforms. Despite her reputation for surrealist designs, Schiaparelli also embraced utilitarian design and adapted military styles for fashion.

Uniform styling has long held a fascination for fashion designers, from the military trench coat first worn by officers in the First World War, Coco Chanel’s sailor suits, Yves Saint Laurent’s pea coat, to the ubiquitous use of camouflage on the contemporary catwalk. Not all fashion historians, though, agree that war stimulates creativity in fashion. According to James Laver, “the war, as all wars do, had a deadening effect on fashion, and there is little to record until the conflict is over” (1969: 229). Like many art and fashion historians, Laver believed that war was incompatible with art and design innovation. My discussion challenges this view. I examine how fashion inhabited uniform design, but also how uniformity became part of the logic of fashion, both in terms of its production and consumption. Laver’s perspective, though, misses a more subtle point: while war might appear to deaden the accessibility of fashion, it does introduce utility into fashionable dress.

Uniforms and modernization

Historically, uniform schemes were thought to be a corrective to the excesses of fashion. The European sumptuary tradition in the Middle Ages established the practice of categorizing people through the clothes that they wore (Maxwell 2014: 47). Restricting inappropriate consumption was to regulate social groups, particularly town-dwellers and religious minorities, but the practice also extended to the colonies, where visible hierarchies were based on race rather than class. Sumptuary laws in various regions, primarily in medieval Europe, reflected the power and authority of the state and in colonial contexts involved transforming or erasing local forms of dress. This is where sumptuary laws pre-figured proto-nationalism by demanding the outward display of rank and position (Maxwell 2014: 57). Uniforms enabled social control, but patriotic nationalists, who sought new forms of citizenship based on collective power, also adopted them. The French Revolution itself created nationalist uniforms and revolutionary symbols such as tricolor cockades and red caps. These experiments with uniform that arose from Enlightenment thought flourished through the modern age to endure both authoritarian and utopian social structures. At certain points since the mid-nineteenth century, uniform has been advanced as a solution to various social problems, particularly to redress power imbalances; it has thus been imbued with the values of democracy and equality.

In the modern world, both fashion and uniform have laid claim to an ideal world but each have a distinctive attitude. In many modern institutions, there were real efforts to play down fashion when designing uniforms for work. Florence Nightingale, a social reformer who was called upon to improve the poor conditions in British army hospitals during the Crimean War, “insisted that her nurses wear uniforms of plain gray tweed wrappers for winter and printed cotton for summer, along with check aprons and white caps” (Bates 2011: 160). For Nightingale, adopting uniform was an opportunity to diminish the influence of fashion on nurse’s dress. She was dismissive of fashions such as crinolines and hair-pads and sought practicality and humility in the clothing worn by her nurses; she also sought a secular approach to uniform, omitting, as she did, any religious references from their dress.

Nightingale’s “discourse of anti-fashion with moral overtones,” which was evident in these first uniforms, reflected the values of middle-class Victorian society, in particular those articulated by the clergy and social reformers (Bates 2011:160). In nineteenth-century Britain, in particular, the vogue for uniform satisfied the desire amongst social reformers for rationality and modesty. The Lutheran minister Theodor Fliedner, whose pioneering Kaiserwerth Deaconess Institute in Prussia was instrumental to the modernizing of nursing, in part achieved this through the adoption of uniforms (Hardy and Corones 2017). Nightingale visited the Prussian Institute and wrote about it enthusiastically. While fashion did have a part to play in the development of nurses’ uniforms, the styles favored were modest and practical, and the new “uniformity of their dress was the mark of their status as independent and educated” (Hardy and Corones 2017: 529). Uniform, critical to the modernization of nursing, had a complex relationship with modern fashion. Rational dress modeled on fashion mediated the challenges of creating a new generation of trained nurses that might potentially threaten older practitioners.

This all-female occupation was to use the uniform to re-create the image of nursing by mixing elements of both domestic service and feminine fashion, while retaining current ideas of feminine respectability (Bates 2011: 175–6). Thus, even uniform schemes devised by social reformers—who were often hostile to fashion—clearly made concessions to fashionable dress. Pioneers sought to reproduce specific kinds of social identities; in this case, Fliedner saw fit to adapt the contemporary dress of married middle-class townswomen from the lower Rhineland, to establish nurses, often unmarried and working class, as respectable professionals so they could work in public without censure. Both models of nursing uniform demonstrate that these experiments drew on fashion in order to establish, create and reproduce a ‘new femininity.’ More significant, though, were the ways in which fashion could leaven the more austere, masculine values built into uniform design. A few fashionable details can usefully dilute the stern masculine uniform aesthetic, a technique that also offers a comforting reference point to the social values of the day. In Second World War recruitment, combining uniform and fashion showed how “effective the military was at using the designer uniform to establish group identity” (Ryan 2014: 428) for women serving in the US Navy and Coast Guard. Thus, to separate uniform and fashion can obscure how significant their relationship was in meeting the aesthetic needs of liberal democracy.

Uniforms and surveillance

The emergence of modern uniforms were, amongst other things, a means by which the rational needs of the institution could meet the social and psychological needs of gendered performance. What women experience in uniform depends upon context: nurses in the nineteenth century uniform identified them with their public service role, but later in the twentieth century uniforms were the focus of complaints that they sexualized women in the workplace, particularly for airline, retail, and catering staff. If uniform can liberate women by offering them an official role in the public sphere, it can equally be oppressive and the source of their objectification. Uniform schemes conjure up an image of imposed authoritarian systems that deny the wearer’s agency, but this might just be a caricature; after all, uniforms have been ‘fashioned’ for a variety of reasons. Equally, the image of fashion as dictatorial requiring compliant uniformity of its followers might also be a myth. What both of these images obscure is the extent to which democratic ideals drove the regulation of appearances in various institutions in the nineteenth century. Emerging uniform schemes symbolized a convergence of utopian and utilitarian ideals. It was only later that they would be interpreted as authoritarian.

In schools, uniforms were often part of a whole aesthetic system that incorporated the design of classrooms and clothes, instructional materials and the ordering of objects (see Stephenson, this volume). It was egalitarian discourse that saw the uniform become a symbol of “economic, hygienic and democratic attire in tune with the expansion of mass schooling” in Argentina and the US at the start of the twentieth century (Dussel 2006: 181). Here, uniform creates an austere image in contrast to the waste commonly associated with fashion and luxury. Combined with British Victorian values of morality and virtue, the school uniform embodied new models of citizenship based on active work on the self (Dussel 2006: 186). Performing citizenship daily gave clothing a role in the discipline of schoolchildren and the regulation of their bodies could be achieved by regular checks to see whether they were ‘properly dressed.’ Uniform was thus not only a form of clothing but a means by which institutions could locate deviance in the bodies over which they had power. By the 1890s, once uniform was widespread it was thought to be part of a system of social control, but uniform schemes also emerged from a desire for restraint and equality. Patriotic nationalists saw uniform projecting an image of collective power, but later when establishing institutions they also might have employed them to impose collective discipline.

This perspective on uniform is well documented by sociologists and historians who draw on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. For Foucault, modern institutions subjected the body to a “normalising gaze” (1991, 1990, 2001), a model that has been adopted to consider how uniform clothing is used in various contexts to embody collective disciplines. The anthropologist Brian McVeigh examines what Japanese high school uniform means through the concept of the “normalising gaze,” which for him became central to the maintenance of strategic schooling as part of a nationalist economic project (1997: 195). Here, uniform inscribes bodies to reflect particular constructions of citizenship. Daniel Purdy also finds Foucault’s ideas compelling to contrast two modes of visibility—the tactical and the fashionable—in his work on the eighteenth-century Prussian army uniform (2003: 23–45). His account of the development of a soldierly aesthetic suggests that simplicity was instrumental to a disciplinary field of vision, but he also concludes that Foucault misses the role of the erotic in the construction of the military body (Purdy 2003). Modern uniforms offer a system to mark—and make visible—bodies for classification and discipline. As McVeigh and Purdy suggest, uniform orders people within disciplinary structures, but projects such as these often enlist fashion to deflect from sterner aspects; its magical qualities can appear to recreate and transform the body.

Much analysis of modern uniform emphasizes discipline and control, omitting the driving force of the erotic, as Purdy points out, an aspect of uniform that is, however, clearly present in many fashion images. Despite the currency of analyses that characterize uniform as surveillant, it would be foolish to ignore the pleasure many people take in wearing uniform. The new nurse’s outfit, as discussed, enabled women to perform a public role, and as one young nurse in the 1930s on an all-male ward put it, “my uniform gave me a feeling of security and authority” (Hardy and Corones 2017, 528). In a contemporary study of white-collar masculinity in the US, men who were not troubled by conformist tendencies in their work lives were also likely to demonstrate a “strategic embrace of conformity” in dress to increase their chances of upward mobility (de Casanova 2015: 86). This was particularly the case with the men’s suit and, as such, its history is complicated by gender and class politics that made it a site of struggle between democratic ideals and the conformity demanded in a disciplinary society.

A sartorial embodiment of Western democracy, the men’s suit is a good example of a civilian uniform, perfectly embodying that compromise between democracy and discipline. By the late nineteenth century “democracy had found its apposite expression in the properly fitted suit,” a powerful symbol of the various compromises that integrated capitalism with democracy in US society (Zakim 2003: 218). In many areas of civilian life uniform embodied new models of citizenship based on active work on the self, whereas fashion held connotations of an old world based on hereditary privilege and excess. New ideals embodied in the suit were, however, infused with sexism, arising as they did from the patriarchal assumption that manly modesty was a show of leadership and public spirit, a virtue not expected nor sought from women. The ‘Great Masculine Renunciation,’ a term given to the pattern of change men’s dress underwent from fashionable display to plainness and austerity, has been widely documented as an anti-fashion movement. The term, invented by the psychologist John Carl Flügel to describe what he saw as the clear break from the fashionability of masculine dress in the nineteenth century, described the adoption of more austere clothing habits by men, best exemplified by the suit. Fashion historian Christopher Breward argues against this conventional reading of nineteenth-century masculinity in Britain, by looking to the range of men’s consumption practices from 1860–1914, which found them engaging with fashion in less conspicuous ways than women (Breward 1999). Fashion would always upset the ideals built into the suit:


Elite understatement was still a fashion statement; inconspicuous consumption still a form of consumption, however inverted or opposed to luxury it may have been. And once renunciation became fashionable, it lost its social cachet . . . anti-fashion lost its occult status, its ability to stand outside and above the world of fashion. . .with the great masculine renunciation it was now even more difficult to distinguish between men of principle and men of fashion.

 KUCHTA 2002: 174–5

When we ask whether the conventional suit is uniform or costume, it is clear that it straddles both; this is perhaps why debates in fashion history regularly engage with, and never resolve, questions about the tensions between conformity and individuality. Often, it is hard to draw the line between uniform and fashion.

Work uniforms in fashion and popular culture

Uniform in civilian life has become significant to our ideas about work. For instance, we make distinctions between manual and skilled workers by reference to the shirt collar. These distinctions between white- and blue-collar workers first emerged in the US in the 1920s. Those who were uniformed became known as blue-collar workers, due to the color of their workwear, while those in the professions, who wore suits and white shirts, were referred to as white-collar workers. These established dress codes formed the basis of class and gender differences largely thought to be common sense (Tynan 2016). Our social environment teaches us to “look for uniformity in the clothing of a group such as military and police and to overlook differences” (Joseph 1986: 115). Thus, we are taught to expect public servants to be dressed in this way. Regulation dress embodies the interests of the institutions that set it to work and promotes the idea that we can discern clear visible differences between people according to the public role they perform.

Uniforms ascribed social status to people who took on particular roles, professions and sporting activities in the nineteenth century. Once established, outfits that once marked status and conferred authority upon wearers became a sign system for fashion designers to raid for new trends and looks. Workwear has long been of interest to fashion designers, photographers and stylists. Furthermore, in many cases, workwear became leisurewear. Blue jeans went from being a garment “associated exclusively with hard work to one invested with many of the symbolic attributes of leisure” (Davis 1989: 348). Denim jeans were first created as workwear for farm laborers and miners in the western states of the US in the nineteenth century. By the 1960s denim jeans had taken on an entirely different set of meanings: casual, counter-cultural, and symbolizing the non-conformist outsider. Since then, denim jeans have become a staple for a range of social classes. Simultaneously a fashionable item and a uniform, through age and wear this garment transforms into a highly personal item.

Figure 11.1

Katharine Hamnett Spring/Summer 1997 collection. Photograph by Niall McInerney, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

More recently, the streetwear label Vetements appropriated part of the uniform worn by the courier and parcel shipping company, DHL. The yellow T-shirt carrying the DHL logo was distinctive but ordinary, and for Vetements to sell a straight copy for a high-fashion price tag prompted various arms of the media to publicly wonder how such a mundane item could become a fashion trend (Cochrane 2016). Vetements have a distinctive approach to fashion that involves a rejection of glamor; their apparently humble name simply translates as ‘clothing’ and they identify as a ‘design collective’ rather than a fashion label. It is as if the illusions of post-war capitalism have faded, and along with it some of the early signs of stability, embodied by the work uniform. Now that Western models of work are more precarious, work uniforms are paraded as pastiche in the form of capitalist kitsch on the twenty-first century catwalk.

Post-war consumerism altered the traditional meanings of uniform, particularly for women. If young contemporary designers are appropriating uniform codes for the catwalk, then it is worth reflecting on why the fashion industry was first called upon to ‘fashion’ public service uniforms. In the case of airline staff, this new era required fashion designers to improve the image of the original ‘stewardesses’ who in the 1930s were nurses whose main role was to guarantee the safety of passengers. In Chapter 9 of this book, sociologist Prudence Black explores this ‘fashioning’ of uniform, through the Australian airline Qantas, and finds that post-war uniforms were highly charged, both culturally and socially; they articulated “how the profession was designed into existence through the appearance of these professional women” (2013:181). Like the creation of the nurse’s uniform in the mid-nineteenth century, airline uniforms became prone to fashion changes in order to cope with the social anxieties ignited by the sight of working women. Fashion and uniform came into contact because they relieved the problems each caused the other. A uniform with military styling was thought to guarantee the safety role of the crew while the fashion treatment was deployed in an effort to normalize these women as professionals, even if some of the designs served to emphasize their sexuality in ways that might undermine their status.

Uniform signifies hierarchy and status within a closed social system, something that makes it attractive to fashion designers, journalists, and stylists keen to appropriate its sense of stability. Returning to the situated meanings of uniform brings into focus just how perfectly these uniform-fashion combinations embodied post-war modernity. The sense of order and authority that uniform conveyed made it the clothing of a disciplinary society, yet a new era of consumer choice sought to be represented by ideas of freedom and liberation. The new airline uniform for Qantas, with just enough military connotations, a cool modernist aesthetic, but also a strong sense of style and creativity, hit the right note to embody the age: “This new manifestation of the uniform created tension between control and release, stillness and dynamism that contributed a great deal to the mid-twentieth-century perception of the flight hostess as an eroticized glamorous figure” (Black 2013: 187). Regulated clothing embodies ‘aesthetic labor,’ a term used to describe the demand to make employees, particularly in service roles, look good and sound correct. Uniforms are designed to project a specific kind of power, but also a sense of restraint, a guarantee that the wearer will control their impulses in order to take care of customer needs first. Fashion/uniform interplays balance the competing demands for creativity and control. This calculated balancing of the dynamic creativity of fashion with the discipline and restraint of uniform sought to combine the traditional image of public service with a consumer desire for gratification. Uniform–fashion combinations were ideal to represent the contradictions of post-war society in the West.

Uniform and subcultures

Military uniforms first appeared as counter-cultural symbols in the post-war period when the issue of army surplus saw more military clothing spill onto the streets. Army clothing, adopted by various youth subcultures emerging in this period, became a symbol of establishment power that young people sought to challenge. Playing with the meanings of military uniform by disorganizing its signs and symbols was key to its power as street wear. Homoerotic depictions of men in uniform had also been in evidence within popular culture throughout the twentieth century, but became more explicit by the 1970s, when images started to play with the ‘straight’ ultra-masculine identity that uniforms project; police, army, and navy uniforms have all been used to challenge hegemonic masculinity. Military uniform had a certain power, which made it an ideal target for young people to dramatize and desecrate.

From the 1960s onwards, the fashion media favored images of uniformed bodies that emphasized sexual deviance and the most sensational aspects of war. Given the very real military conflicts taking place, this raises questions about the ethical basis of such images, but fashion editors and photographers are clearly excited by the dangers of war. In addition, such fashion images can always be given ambiguous status and so are commonly interpreted as anti-war messages. Some fashion designers focus their interest on styles of military spectacle by referencing red coats, military lace, and elaborate headdresses. Such pre-modern styles of military dress recall a golden age when fashionability was a weapon on the battlefield. I focus on the appropriation of modern versions of military uniform in fashion and the values that they represent. There is something completely different at work with the fashionable appropriation of modern military uniforms, particularly the popular references to utility and combat issue.

Figure 11.2

Jean Paul Gaultier, Spring/Summer 1996 collection. Photograph by Niall McInerney, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

By appropriating military clothing, kit, and symbols in their advertising, fashion designers convey an atmosphere of risk and transgression, so critical to a youth fashion market (Tynan 2013). For instance, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier has, particularly in the 1990s, referenced police, navy, and military uniform for their social and sexual power (Figure 11.2). This complex semiotic game would not be possible had it not been for the popularity of homoerotic images of uniform already present within pornography. In addition, whatever the reasons for the emergence of military references in streetwear, youth style that involves military clothing is now commonplace and returns regularly in fashion. In both pornography and youth style the military uniform suggests deviance. In the 1990s, British designers Katherine Hamnett and Red or Dead tapped into this rebellious attitude with their creative interpretations of military uniform. Maharishi, a youth-orientated British fashion label, which started out calling itself ‘Pacifist Military Design,’ is a contemporary version of this. Maharishi appears to reference the DIY subversions of army surplus clothing popularized by youth subcultures in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Military chic’ can be subtle and complex, a postmodern interplay of meaning rather than a direct reference to military uniform itself. What it does represent, though, is the militarization of popular culture. This is particularly notable in US society since the end of the Second World War, reflecting the interdependence of the military and the economy, which has made fashionable military clothing important identity markers (Davies and Philpott 2012: 52).

When uniform is referenced in fashion design and media, it clearly offers an opportunity for people to play with ideas of conformity/transgression. This chimes with my analysis of developments in the design of nurse and airline uniforms: the lure of transgression and playfulness was just as important as the incentive to conform. Their combined power mixed the benefits of liberation and discipline, playing with tensions between conformity and individuality that have long occupied fashion and dress historians. Can uniform clothing inspire spiritual or psychological uniformity? Or is uniform simply about power and domination? If uniform was invented as a corrective to the worst excesses of a fashion society, then is the appropriation of uniform by contemporary fashion a similar impulse in an age of austerity? When uniform is appropriated by fashion, it can be an act of resistance to the established order. Might it also be a sign of the dissolution of modern social structures represented by the stability of the uniformed citizen? Various popular images reflect this, but does this postmodern play that divests uniform of its power and authority indicate crisis? The fetishizing of Japanese schoolgirls in uniform demonstrates the importance of the military-style uniform to post-war Japanese society, but also the extent to which it has become an anti-establishment statement (Kinsella 2002: 219). In contemporary Japanese culture, uniformed characters are rarely conformist but instead are tragic, heroic and “shown to experience characteristic modes of dysfunctionality, disconnection, despair, or desire, which symbolize the political tensions and complications of modernity in Japan” (Kinsella 2002: 219). Thus, in the second half of the twentieth century, it is not clear whether the uniform represented conformity or resistance, or indeed whether now, in its new disorderly forms, it embodies the very complexity of contemporary subjectivity. The uniformed citizen in Japan has run its course in terms of an ideal, to transform into a sexualized and disorderly being, embodying all the anxieties of the age:


Schoolgirls in uniform have been elected the living metaphors of a widespread anxiety about the dissolving of citizenship and of the social subject in their entirety as they vanish into the financial interstices of the economy.

 KINSELLA 2002: 236

What happens when the image of the uniform is desecrated by fashion or popular culture? Is the eroticizing of the uniform dramatizing a wider anxiety about the stability of social identity? Representations of uniform, particularly military uniform, are often highly eroticized. Uniforms suggest authority, but people in uniform are also untouchable. Add to that the fact that many wearing uniform (police and military) mete out punishment, or have control over our bodies (health professionals), and it is clear why uniforms form part of erotic fantasies. The uniform enables role-play in sexual relationships, where people can be consumed by the role suggested by the clothing (Steele 1996: 180). The fashion media has appropriated the fetishist’s cult of uniform, with the result that we are accustomed to seeing women and men wearing styles that reference military and naval uniforms (Steele 1996: 180). By evoking fantasies of dominance and submission and representing the aestheticization of violence, the uniform injects images with a certain excitement and sense of danger. Fashion is a game of appearances whereby uniforms are highly charged socially, psychologically, and culturally.


Fashion media regularly returns to military themes, and workwear continues to be a source of fascination; uniform thus forms a significant part of the contemporary fashion scene. Is it really that surprising, though, to find military ideals of fitness, obedience, discipline, and control of eternal interest to the fashion industry? Uniform does what fashion does: it controls, manipulates, and transforms the body appearing to confer upon it new powers. If, historically, uniform schemes were a corrective to the excesses of fashion, then in the post-war period fashion has clearly tempered its more masculine and militaristic aspects. What is striking, though, is that separating uniform and fashion does not enrich our understanding of how these very different approaches to clothing have dressed the body in modernity.

Institutions saw uniforms as part of a whole aesthetic system that ordered objects and people. However sinister that sounds, it was an egalitarian discourse that saw the uniform become a symbol of a new economic rationality and the extension of rights such as education and health. Uniform provided solutions for utilitarian social reformers, but fashioning those uniforms helped to mediate many of the challenges that these radical societal transitions posed. Uniform did not necessarily become authoritarian until it became a key part of the iconography of fascist regimes, and even then fashion played a part. Indeed, French fashion appropriated aspects of Italian fascist uniforms in the mid-1930s, an early instance of designers displaying a fascination with the aesthetic side of fascism (Paulicelli 2004: 107). Uniform is not, therefore, an entirely rational form of dress but has always been ‘fashioned’ by current concerns and novelties. Fashion gives uniform a sense of time and place. Debates in fashion history often grapple with questions of conformity and individuality, which is clear from the ways in which the men’s suit was interpreted and understood as neither a uniform nor a fashion, but possibly both. Fashion and uniform have been in constant dialog, but each represent very different ideas of what it means to be modern.

What uniform–fashion experiments did was to combine the best of both worlds, but the instability of the resulting designs reflected all the contradictions of post-war Western society. Those contradictions have only deepened, particularly when we witness the once stable uniform subject to scenes of disorder and confusion in contemporary fashion photography, whereby violence and catastrophe and the abuse of power is eroticized for effect. The hint of violence, too, is never far from fashionable depictions of military uniform, a reminder of just how highly charged this symbol has become. Is the routine use of military references in fashion part of a creeping militarization of popular culture? Is the fashioning of uniform in popular culture a sign of the instability of the idea of the uniformed citizen, or its ubiquity? Does the fascination with the uniformed citizen represent nostalgia for a time when this figure embodied dreams of democracy? That utopian dream now seems distant. The uniformed citizen, no longer taken seriously, is perhaps doomed to be a dysfunctional anti-hero now we find uniform divested of its authority. An object of postmodern play, the uniform, once a sign of stability, is now re-fashioned and paraded in ever more grotesque forms, and appears to embody all the fears and anxieties of the age.


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