Uniforms Exposed Cover Image

Uniforms Exposed

From Conformity to Transgression


Jennifer Craik

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Uniforms in Fashion and Popular Culture

Book chapter

DOI: 10.2752/9781847881212/UNIFEXP0015
Pages: 177–200

Uniforms and Popular Culture

The use of uniforms in popular culture has become endemic. We have already examined the uptake of uniforms from sporting arenas to everyday leisure sites, from formal uniforms to consensual quasi-uniforms at work, and the concluding chapter explores transgressive contexts and subcultures. So, why this proliferation of uniforms and the associated obsession with uniforms in contemporary popular culture? Alan Hunt (1996) has related the legislation of sumptuary laws to the moral regulation of popular pastimes and emergence of popular culture. For Hunt, sumptuary laws were not just about the arbitrary imposition of idiosyncratic laws from above, but a contested response to wider social changes and political challenges from below. The discourse of this moral regulation was centred on ideas of idleness and luxury, both of which were perceived as problems to be managed. These twin targets were a manifestation of the growing “insubordination of the labouring classes” (Hunt 1996: 274) attendant on the extension of wage labour, industrialization and urbanization which brought in its wake, the origins of leisure time (time to be idle and degenerate) and consumerism (the ability to desire luxuries previously restricted to the elite).

Pastimes, too, were regulated. The medieval regulation of games was replaced by the specific regulation of dangerous activities like idleness, drinking and gambling in the late Middle Ages. Games that provided possibilities for gambling were especially despised as were popular festivals, sports and recreations of the working class, especially those that occurred in and around the alehouse. As people became more mobile the problem of the vagrant became a major concern, resulting in strategies like issuing licences, pass-books, wearing badges and restrictions on movement being used to attempt to monitor behaviour and distinguish “the deserving from the undeserving poor” (Hunt 1996: 287). Hunt identifies a moral panic surrounding repeated plagues as a factor in the succession of sumptuary laws as a means to control outbreaks and contagion from afflicted persons:

The interpenetration of poverty and plague was productive of major social tensions and anxieties; in many cases rulers expressed a contempt for the masses who were perceived as presenting a threat to the health and well-being of the respectable classes. The result was a sharper social dichotomy between civic rules expanding state authority and the poor who resisted these regulatory measures. (Hunt 1996: 294)

Increasingly important, too, were sartorial devices to allude to distinction, role and place. Some of these were sanctioned, others a deliberate form of fraud. In the late fifteenth century, beggars evaded vagrancy legislation by dressing as pilgrims or discharged soldiers or sailors, leading to legislation “requiring evidence of status – authorisation from parish priest or discharge papers from naval or military authorities” to be carried (Hunt 1996: 137). The adoption of a specifically recognized dress code was a (reasonably successful) strategy to project certain attributes of persona that fooled enough people to necessitate remedial legislation. Yet, there is little evidence that such legislation worked. As Hunt emphasises, the adoption of prohibitive strategies – only certain persons can wear certain items and others must not wear these items – if anything fuelled a desire for the prohibited item (“the elicit”). Economic changes meant that increasing numbers of people had the possibility of acquiring prohibited items:

The right of an aspirant group to wear some symbolic item of apparel or to participate in some rituals are important forms of social conflict. The history of sumptuary law reveals a general pattern of a widening of the privileged circles as successive waves of pressure come from below and concessions are granted. The result is that far from clarifying social differences, sumptuary law actually provokes increasing competition and imitation since it is “cheaper” (economically and politically) for all parties to compete over the symbols than over what those symbols represent. The result is the generation of fierce tensions and rivalries over symbolic distinction. (Hunt 1996: 105)

By making social distinction visible, the regulations “became a source of significant resentment and thus became a site of struggle”. Hunt likens this to the role of brand names in contemporary society. “Known” brands create a specialist clientele and knowledge of their deemed attributes and associated status. Those in the know are prepared to pay more for the cache of association. While this conspicuous display of “accumulated cultural capital” works for a niche market, should a brand become “‘too popular’, the cognoscenti ‘move on’” (Hunt 1996: 106).

Figure 46. Schoolgirl performing troupe.

Schoolgirl performing troupe.

Hunt relates the proliferation and longevity of sumptuary laws to broad transformations of the economy, gender relations, urbanization and politics. Clothing the body became a key element of the project of modernity. Of all forms of clothing, those with instantly recognizable codes and signifiers became a convenient form of shorthand – hence the uptake of uniforms in modern civic life. What we have now is the legacy of that recognizability. Uniforms have percolated every aspect of contemporary existence and sartorial codes.

This is especially the case in popular culture today. There are a number of versions of the adoption of uniforms and creation of uniformity through quasi and informal uniforms. These include the

  • transformation of military uniforms into high fashion (e.g. Haymes and Lafitte 2001; Colls and Smith 2003)[1]

  • adoption of youth dress codes by revolutionary and resistance groups (e.g. the hip denim jeans and jacket look of the women soldiers of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy engaged in the 2003 civil struggle in Monrovia)[2]

  • borrowing of the (fetishized) leather wear of the military (especially Nazi uniforms) into fashion and sexual allure dress (e.g. Jane Fonda’s black leather bustier, stockings and boots in the film Barbarella (1967), Garner (2003: 117); Paris designer, Chantal Thomas’s 2004 “love, whips and lingerie” collection)3

  • construction of distinctive codes of dress and body decoration within subcultures (Molitorisz 1998) (e.g. Goths[3] (Morris 2001), bikies, mods, rastas, rappers, hippies, Sloane rangers, punks, skinheads, etc.)[4]

  • imitation of filmic codes of dress by certain groups (e.g. of iconic mafia dress by crime families and associates (black suits, collarless shirts and sunglasses for men and bottle-aided brassy blonde hair teamed with black designer clothes and accessories – such as designer handbags and sunglasses by women)[5]

  • establishment of consensual appropriate modes of dress for film premieres and award nights (penguin suit for men,[6] remarkably similar so-called Goddess evening dresses for women)[7]

  • fashion conscious uniformity of “free” leisure wear among young people

  • overwhelming presence of sportswear and leisurewear influences in fashion and everyday dress.

Trends such as these can be commonly seen in fashion magazines and spreads. For example, the April 2001 issue of Nova (UK) magazine features a fashion spread sporting the title, “Off Duty. Because Every Girl Loves a Uniform” (Haymes and Lafitte 2001). It contained a series of intriguing fashion photographs of female models in outfits that borrowed items of military dress. One photograph featured a model in an airman’s peaked cap (Camden Market) worn with a Gucci bodysuit. Another showed a model wearing a plain military-style brown button-up shirt (Miu Miu) decorated by a row of medals (Greenwich Market) and webbed canvas and metal belt (Jean Colonna). The military touch was provided by a leather officer’s belt (Lawrence Corner) worn over a Celine black vest and camouflage green flounced skirt (Bernhard Willhelm) in another shot.

One of the most spectacular images was of a model wearing a military-style jacket with extensive gold braiding (Ter et Bantine) and (fake) bearskin hat with metal chin strap (Lawrence Corner). A less obvious military theme was evident in an image of a girl in a black 1940s-style tailored wool dress (Comme des Garcons), while in another, a model wore a plain white cotton shirt (Paul Smith) with khaki tailored shorts (MaxMara) and khaki socks. A more dramatic image showed a model in a white gaberdine cropped jacket with narrow lapels (Balenciaga le Dix) decorated with three star (military style) brooches (Cornucopia). This was worn over a black and white striped shirt with a Racing Green hat (the latter modelled on that of the French gendarmes, designed by Lawrence Corner) and leather and metal belt (Hermes).

Finally, the theme was completed by a girl in an army green cotton flight suit (Lawrence Corner) worn with a leather and brass belt (Celine). Clearly, uniforms were a key reference point for major designers and brands – complemented by second-hand and army disposal items. There was also another outfit in the spread that had a more remote link to uniforms but alluded to a central preoccupation of military life. This image showed a model (seemingly as a dominatrix) wearing an Oriental Blue body-hugging satin waistcoat with a concealed front opening and high collar (Louis Vuitton), brown leather suspender belt (A. F. Vandevorst), satin lingerie (Passion Bait) and stockings.

In all of the images, filters produced a sepia-tinted mise en scene to set off the demure yet seductive poses. These female bodies may have been wearing male uniforms but their demeanour conveyed bodies on display – open and available – at least to the gaze. The uniforms connoted an aura of sado-masochism and sexual licence or transgression and a tension between the officialdom and authority they conventionally stand for against their appropriation in other contexts. Uniforms were not just clothes or props but encoded in the language of the photography. This chapter contends that the aesthetics of uniforms structure contemporary fashion systems and in turn form the aesthetic codes that underpin fashion photography and forms of representation and seeing in popular culture more generally.

Figure 47. First communion.

First communion.

In particular, the superficial “look” of uniforms as markers of group belonging, authority, discipline and order masks equally important inscriptions that – though often unacknowledged – shape the unconscious resonances of and responses to uniforms. And while one uniformed body is striking, uniforms are most effective when they appear en masse as a display of identically kitted-out persons. So the impressions and connotations of the sight of uniforms – singly and multiply – is a key element as to how uniforms “work” as a body technique and cultural technology. Consequently conventions of how uniforms are displayed, depicted, denoted and represented become inextricably tied up with the twin forces of their history as the visible sign of the disciplined persona.

Equally techniques that are used to represent uniforms as spectacle have come to encode aspects of the uniforms in their essential aesthetics. As discussed earlier, two factors have shaped overwhelmingly the meaning and significance of uniforms in a succession of cultures by embodying an acknowledged and unacknowledged set of connotations about uniforms derived from ecclesiastical dress and military uniforms as discussed earlier. An example of how uniforms have influenced our postmodern ways of seeing is evident from the frequent use of uniforms in popular film.

Uniforms in Hollywood Musicals

Motion pictures were a new technique of aesthetic representation as well as becoming a new cultural form. This arguably bridged portraiture and fashion illustration and the emerging technique of fashion photography. Inevitably, the aesthetics of motion pictures – especially those concerning the representation of clothing and gender heavily shaped the aesthetics of early fashion photography. In turn, fashion photography influenced aesthetic codes in other visual forms of twentieth-century popular culture.

In particular, musicals played a big role in this process. For the musical aesthetic developed around display and spectacle, e.g. in chorus line-ups, synchronized swimming, boy-meets-girl plots and coupling (Fordin 1984). For a number of reasons, military themes were prominent,[8] including recent and contemporary wars and political threats, the suitability of military uniforms to this aesthetics of spectacle, the added frisson of putting women in uniforms, the transformative effects (from “civvies” to “mufti”) and the popularity of cross-dressing spoofs. Some of the best known choreographers – such as Busby Berkeley – had been drill instructors in the US Army before working in Hollywood. This experience in synchronization, repetition, discipline and authority undoubtedly influenced the style of choreography that became a keynote of musicals.

Wills (2000) argues that the use of women in uniforms and military-influenced female fashions enabled musicals to address issues about emerging identities for American women, realign ideas about femininity with new ideas about national identity and to deal with a series of turbulent incidents in national and international life (e.g. wars, depression). The use of women in uniforms served simultaneous functions – it was humorous (due to its origin in burlesque and carnival) and it was erotic (evoked all the tensions about women in uniforms and displaying attributes of power and authority). This combination “made this potentially provocative image . . . innocuous” (Wills 2000: 318).

In the 1920s and 1930s uniforms took on additional connotations of changing gender roles and gender confusion. Military uniforms were incorporated in fashions, but as Wills (2000: 319) notes they were not those worn by women but “bastardised versions of male uniforms,” especially the sailor suit “which connoted a strangely sexual innocence derived from children’s fashion and girls’ school uniforms.” She concludes that: “In the 1920s military-influenced fashions and women-in-uniform costumes were no longer funny, they were sexy” (Wills 2000: 319).

By the 1930s, women in uniforms had acquired new meanings. When used as costume, uniforms retained their dramatic and spectacular functions but as fashion, military uniforms conveyed the threats posed by the increasing role of women in public life. Within musicals, women in uniform came to signal transgressive femininity and sexuality signalling ambiguity and misplaced eroticism. The emphasis on spectacle was thus combined with “an unruly feminine overabundance of unstable female bodies” epitomized by the Busby Berkeley chorus lines (Wills 2000: 323). Indeed, the use of women in uniform provided a cinematic space for the partial rehabilitation of troubled tropes of masculinity (cf. Mrozek 1987). Uniforms as costumes served to give credence to strong notions of masculinity but problematic notions of femininity. Female characters were portrayed as problems (threats, unstable, ambivalent and weak). Generally, their cinematic predicaments were resolved once the female characters abandoned their uniforms for civvies and exchanged the public sphere for the fantasy of domestic bliss.

In this process we can see that uniforms were a highly effective language that bridged the screen and real-life tensions and contradictions whether they were employed as costumes or as fashion. As screen actors became stars and stars became role models in a rapidly expanding consumer culture, uniforms were omnipresent in projecting identities and negotiating difference. This was reflected in the frequent derivation of uniform motifs, garments and cut in mainstream fashion and its translation in the aesthetics of representing fashion in photography.

Figure 48. Mrs Winter on holiday.

Mrs Winter on holiday.

The Uniform in Fashion Photography

So, why are uniforms such a pervasive factor in how we develop and express our sense of ourselves through the aesthetics of popular culture?

Clothes are about dressing the body but the way they are perceived is as important as the garments themselves. Indeed, Hollander (1978: 311) argues that dressing “is always picture making, with reference to actual pictures that indicate how the clothes are to be perceived.” In other words:

People dress and observe other dressed people with a set of pictures in mind – pictures in a particular style. The style is what combines the clothes and the body into the accepted contemporary look not of chic, not of ideal perfection, but of natural reality. (Hollander 1978: 311)

Thus the clothes and the look are united in knowing and recognizing a shared aesthetic code of desirable ways to perform the self. These are culturally specific and historically contingent: there are no universal or unchanging ways of seeing and looking. Hollander continues:

And the difference between the way clothes now look (at any given time) and the way they used to look is made most clear to the eye through changes in the style of their pictorial representation – including styles of photography and cinematography. (Hollander 1978: 311)

She argues that it is visual desire that structures the look, rather than practical needs or necessities. As wearers of clothes and observers of others in clothes, we are dictated to by our desire to present a certain image and to be seen as that image as well as being able to interpret the images of others. Even when practicality dictates certain clothing or modes of dress, stylistic factors may subvert that reason. Hollander (1978) gives the example of military lapels:

The lapels on early military uniforms . . . which were intended to cross over and keep the chest warm, were speedily atrophied into decorative flaps, worn buttoned open to show the colour of the facing. They could still button across, too, but they were never worn so. (Hollander 1978: 312)

Consequently, clothing should be interpreted not only in terms of iconographic or symbolic meanings but also in terms of its formal properties and their fluctuation. It is changing looks that determine how garments will change to embody a new symbol or statement. It is only when a new look (visual desire) coincides with a new sensibility (habit or moral outlook) that a particular mode or style captures the public imagination. When the two do not coincide, there are called fashion failures. Hollander (1978) argues that:

It has always been fashionable to copy certain elements of dress that have public timeliness, such as military motifs in wartime or foreign motifs while public attention is focused on the foreigners in question. But fashionable mimicry does not occur unless the look pleases for itself and blends with what already pleases. If Garibaldi’s blouse and hat in 1865 and General Eisenhower’s jacket in 1945 had not harmonised with the most satisfying shapes in the female dress of their day, they would never have been imitated as elements in modish clothing, no matter how complimentary to those heroes the ladies wished to appear. Nobody copied General Pershing’s jacket; it was out of line with the current feminine shape in 1918. (Hollander 1978: 313)

As we have already seen, military motifs and allusions have spiked our cultural history and, as such, have been incorporated in our aesthetic and stylistic regimes of looking. They have, accordingly, become part of the very fabric of the succession of looks (clothing systems) and ways of looking (representational codes and conventions). Thus Hollander (1978: 312) argues, visual desire feeds into a range of factors that account for our love of the uniform and its fetishization.

Military uniforms encode ambivalent iconographic messages though ostensibly they are technical devices that submerge personality, create distinctive group identity, and convey authority and status. But they also “enhance machismo and glamour” (Wilson 1985: 36). Hollander (1978) cites the popularity of the country sportsman’s look among city businessmen in the nineteenth century. The look was

overlaid on a vestigial military look – but clothes embodying such meaning carried their significance in suspension, while their formal properties (dull wool fabric, cutaway coattails, crisp lapels, extra buttons) produced an independent satisfaction. The connotation of soldiering or riding to hounds was not central but peripheral and irrelevant to the pleasure taken in the look. (Holland 1978: 313–14)

Over time, individual elements of uniforms have acquired highly specific meanings and erotic allusions to the point where they have virtually developed a life of their own: body-hugging jackets buttoned to the neck convey one thing; epaulettes another; jodhpurs and knee-high boots another; frogging another. It is the desire to achieve a certain look that prompts people to cannibalize motifs in the clothes they wear and influences how they wear them. To that end, military uniforms have had a profound influence on fashion and its aesthetics of representation. This can be seen in conventions of painting (especially in portraiture), illustration (for example, in magazine covers and fashion plates: Packer 1983; Robinson 1986); photography (Lloyd 1986; Scott 1999); and film making (Gaines and Herzog 1990).

Ways of representing clothes have been one component of these representational systems. The first recorded use of photography to record fashion was in 1856 but it was not popularized until the 1920s when it appeared alongside fashion illustrations (Craik 1994: 97). It was initially favoured because of its technical ability to record details faithfully – unlike the flights of fancy employed by illustrators – but the photographers quickly tired of the mechanical portraiture convention. The move to mechanical reproduction of images became a contest of experimentation and innovation. The photographers rejected the conventional notions of docile femininity and embraced new roles for women, new technical developments in photography, new art movements (cubism, fauvism, surrealism) and new contexts (mise en scène).

Figure 49. Major Steel and tiger.

Major Steel and tiger.

Movie making – and particularly the impact of Hollywood in popularizing ideas about femininity and masculinity, social change, fashion and cosmetics, and American versus “Other” cultures – also had a significant role in shaping the aesthetics of fashion photography. The impact of documentary and social realism was tangible in the location shots and emergence of a distinct aesthetic that turned on narrative, fleeting impressions and blurred actions. Black and white photography was replaced by colour but the starkness and ability to manipulate light and dark in monochrome photography ensured that it was the iconography of modernity and a staple in the language of fashion photography.

The culture of fashion was saturated with debates (explicit and implicit) about femininity although the dominant visual aesthetic was, as Mulvey (1989) identified, a voyeuristic, normative “male” point-of-view. This was evident across representational forms and perhaps reached its apotheosis in advertising as consumer culture grew and took hold of image-conscious citizens. Although popular culture was based on mass availability, reproducibility, distribution and consumption, individuality was its keynote and people strived to differentiate themselves through their looks and ways of living. In the world of fashion individuality was embodied in the cult of couture, the notoriety of designers, the stables of known photographers and an elite core of models and actresses as role models.

Uniform Influences on Design

Alongside the froth and bubble of the cultural moments shaping fashion and photography were historical forces that produced turbulent and threatening times. Military undercurrents persisted. As the memory of the First World War became the threat of even worse conflagration, the role of photography and film reflected the new realities. Sparke (1986) argues in her suitably titled chapter, “Democracies and Dictatorships”, that design aesthetics during this period were heavily influenced by the orientations of governments, their ideologies and forms of government support. She contrasts the design legacies of Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy in these terms, suggesting that the distinctive aesthetics of each can be directly related to the political contexts that shaped them, especially different versions of – and responses to – nationalism, fascism and totalitarianism.

In addition to the aesthetic systems of design, Moneera Laennec (1997: 81) argues that bodies themselves were produced in politically charged ways. She examines the increasing use of the machine aesthetic in the representation of women, influencing fashion photography and “how the (fashionable or desirable) body was being defined.” The “connection between photography and the machine was not coincidental” but stemmed from technical developments in mechanical reproduction and their recognition as an art form.

The machine aesthetic later worked its way into popular culture: consumer-oriented industrial design, “streamlining” and a preoccupation with function continued throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The iconography of the machine itself entered aesthetics as the canonical image and crowning convention. It also informed fashion photography: “woman as a mechanical (and thus reproducible) realisation of man’s desires remained merely implicit in fashion photography, which functioned much more intuitively in conveying an image of what was up-to-date, glamorous and modern” (Moneera Laennec 1997: 83).[9] Photographs typically depicted movement, fragmented body parts, repetition, duplication, uniformity, angular shapes, and plays with light and shade.[10] Images of machines as the setting for the models was also common.[11]

Often images borrowed from conventions of chorus lines, which, as we have already noted, incorporated the techniques of the military drill. Military implications were ever present. When used to frame women the constant theme was “implicit violence and the threat” they posed (Moneera Laennec 1997: 96). By the late 1930s, machines had a sinister edge to their aesthetics signifying:

A somewhat frightening, inhuman force which no doubt became more and more identified with impending war (as exemplified by such terms as war-machine and military-industrial complex). When in 1940 photographs of women interacting with machines appear in fashion magazines, the women in them are not representatives of an elegant, streamlined modernity, but are soldiers and nurses fighting in the war, or women once again in munitions factories. After 1939, the presence of machines in fashion photography is less a sign of the machine aesthetic than it is a simple documentation of the world in which women lived. (Moneera Laennec 1997: 96)

One reason for this was that fashion photographers were also acting as war photographers, for example, Lee Miller and Cecil Parkinson. The gritty realism and horror of war contrasted greatly with the rationale of fashion spreads. Although magazines initially tried to keep the war out of their pages and concentrate on the more pleasant things in life, circumstances dictated that they address issues of rationing, lonely women missing their men on the front, supporting the war effort, and so on. Bombing of Vogue’s London offices in 1940 (Hall 1985: 10) and the dangers faced by staff on assignment reinforced the reality of the war.

In the event, fashion magazines produced an unexpectedly rich and textured coverage of the war years probably because of the tensions and contradictions they tried to negotiate. It was neither pure documentary nor pure amnesia but an almost dreamlike allusion to desperate days. In particular, the war provided new avenues to explore ideas of femininity and push the boundaries of convention. For many women, they had no choice: joining the war effort in some capacity was essential. For others, displacement and the lack of basic essentials were traumatic but also a challenge. Many women found new identities and possibilities throughout the war. In these various manifestations of femininity, images of machines and military themes were prevalent in the forms of military equipment, uniforms, military and homefront mise en scène, and negotiations of heroism – masculine and feminine.[12] And although the woman machine aesthetic became uncommon after the war, it lurked in the background as “an early precursor to the fashionable techno-body of the late twentieth century” (Moneera Laennec 1997: 82). Indeed, in discussing modernist aesthetics and and ideas of the body, frequent references have been made to the influence of Leni Riefenstahl’s images of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad on fashion photography (e.g. Jobling 1999: 25).

Figure 50. US naval cadet officers on leave.

US naval cadet officers on leave.

Postmodern Sensibilities

In the post-war years, covers and fashion shoots returned to more familiar refrains. Women were actively retuned to hearth and home and lavished with consumer goods and mother’s little helpers as if this would blot out the experiences they had endured and enjoyed. Fashion photography evolved and stabilized around images of glamour, elegance and consumerism. But in chasing constructions of images redolent with “what is exotic, dramatic, glamorous and different”, fashion photography has heavily drawn on anthropological references to emphasise the difference of consumer culture (Ramamurthy 1997: 177).

Other influences and aesthetic forms have also contributed to the emergence of a distinctive genre that ironically destabilized conventions of femininity and constructed contrary images. The cult of Hollywood continued apace with new stars and new role models, many of whom were young: youth culture was born. These were rivalled by up and coming popular music artists. But it was also the age of the Cold War and military themes continued to proliferate and unsettle the cosy conventions. One manifestation of the uniform was in the safari suit, a jacket and trousers or shorts made of lightweight cotton material, typically in khaki or beige, with buttoned pockets, narrow lapels and pleated lines. The suit was popularized in tropical countries as a modernist approach to administration. The suit was practical, climatically suitable, western and supposedly stylish but despite extensive promotion and slavish devotees, a rather unsympathetic portrayal of the safari suit as a fashion garment has become its memory. Nonetheless, Norman Parkinson featured a model in a safari suit in a Vogue (UK) issue set in the Bahamas (July 1959: see Lloyd 1986: 105).

The 1960s manifested major upheavals. Fashion photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Lord Lichfield, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy threw out established conventions and shocked the magazines, models and themselves. Fashion photography (only recently acknowledged as a distinctive aesthetic) was rewritten in radical ways that have continued to shape its contours. The photographers became stars and celebrities – as bad boys – and fashion photography became a symbol of anti-establishment sentiments and resistance. Couture was swapped for street fashion, racy lifestyles, radical politics and a new coalition between aesthetic regimes were established: fashion photography, popular music and radical film became bedfellows. Their shared practices rested on subversions and cannibalization. Uniforms and military motifs were perfect sources of appropriate imagery for the burgeoning youth culture and counter culture.

Uniforms featured strongly in the heady world of street fashion, exemplified in 1960s pop culture (as discussed in Chapter 7). The uniform became a symbol of anti-establishment feeling, rebellion and revolution. The uniforms of resistance groups were especially popular – such as Che Guevara’s beret and bandana, and the Palestinian head scarf. Other examples include the Black Panthers in the United States and the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland, both of whom favoured black berets and dark glasses. What began as a radical statement was quickly normalized in mainstream youth fashion. Even Vogue showcased army surplus clothing on its covers.[13]

Subcultures and Uniforms

Out of the youth culture and popular music culture of the 1960s emerged the proliferation of subcultures as a dominant component of young people’s lifestyles. Subcultures are, above all, out of the mainstream – a social group that defines itself in opposition to dominant values, beliefs and codes. They reject mainstream power relations, authority and status hierarchies by establishing a counterset of meanings, hierarchies, values and modes of appearance as a visible sign of symbolic resistance.

As children transform into teens, they – to varying degrees – reject what their parents stand for and “adopt a look, a pastime, a lifestyle. You adopt a tribe” (Molitorisz 1998: 6). But to do so involves trading one look for another. Visibility is one of the distinctive features of subcultures, hence members aim to create an instantly recognizable appearance so that both fellow travellers and non-members can identify who they are and are not. In short, in creating a distinctive look, subcultures create quasi uniforms, sometimes with secret codes for other members.

This symbolic resistance and visible difference may become entrenched over time as a subculture develops a mainstream following (e.g. punks, mods), its members’ age (e.g. bikies), it is appropriated in popular music or fashion (e.g. grunge, hip hop, surfers, rappers, Goths). So subcultures have an accommodative relationship with mainstream culture that necessitates constant reinvention and the imposition of new forms of distinctiveness. In the twenty-first century, subcultures have changed in three ways: they are changing faster than ever; they have proliferated in type and subtypes; and they are increasingly hybrid (Molitorisz 1998: 6).

In this sense, maintaining dress codes that are distinctive, recognizable yet different means continually updating the quasi-uniform. Ironically, then, subcultures have become as dependent on the codification of the quasi-uniform as business people have on wearing a formal suit and female actors to showing off their assets in the latest designer evening gowns. In many ways, subcultures epitomize the relationship between the contemporary body and postmodern senses of identity as arbitrary yet contingent, unstable yet legible, changing yet distinctive.

Figure 51. Cheerleaders.


Even in subcultures where difference is paramount – for example, the piercing and tattooing subculture adherents, each dressed in their “unique” outfits – fit together like a patchwork quilt to produce a coherent and recognizable “look” and community. And of course there are fashions in piercing and tattooing, in terms of which body parts are decorated (face, navel, genitals, limbs), the number and types of piercing or tattoos, and so on. Equally important is the accompanying jewellery and clothes to match in order to look consistent with the body modification.

So, we can see that subcultures institute quasi-uniforms as strict codes of adherence as the hallmark of their resistance or opposition to the mainstream culture. In fact, the more radical the subculture, the more cohesive the subcultural codes of dress, behaviour and beliefs. Not only can these tendencies be seen in western societies but especially in cultures that have recently modernized or westernized – such as Japan, China and Asia more generally, Eastern Europe and African states. The global visibility of subcultures acts as a passport to the international stage through the instant recognizability of the quasi-uniform of particular “tribes”.

Indicatively, subcultures have not been immune to the creeping scope of consumerism instead becoming a creative impulse in product design and marketing. Subcultural markers, such as baggy pants, sports shoes, bleached hair, baseball caps, leather jackets, bomber jackets, surfwear, Gothic black and so on, have shifted from niche boutique or custom-made items to high-status high street fashion in high mainstream demand. The more refined version of this is brand-name appropriation where items become synonymous with their marketing label – for example adidas, Nike, Billabong, Quiksilver, Mambo, Dr. Martens, Vans and Airwalks. While brand-name appropriation secures elite mainstream uptake of subcultural motifs as fashion paraphernalia, translation into department and chain store labels and marketing creates mainstream adoption of such motifs, obliging the reference subculture to reinvent itself and create new looks and distinctive motifs. And so the proliferation of youth-oriented markers of resistance continues producing in its wake the genesis of new fashion trends and new quasi-uniforms.

From West to East – and Back Again

The influence of uniforms on dress and fashion was not confined to western cultures. Like other cultures subjected to colonial incursions, China was ambivalent about balancing traditional cultural habits with so-called modernizing influences from Europe. This directly stemmed from political upheavals and ideologies especially with respect to modernism, nationalism and global connections (Roberts 1997C; Finnane 1999; Steele and Major 1999).

The gradual infiltration of European-style uniforms into the ranks of the leadership (political, military and administrative) quickly influenced styles of civilian Chinese dress (Finnane 1999). The popularity of high collars, close-fitting jackets, gold buttons, gold braid, frogging and epaulettes were a legacy of military uniforms. Sun Yat-sen’s influence was especially significant “changing from western suit to Chinese robe and back again, and even coming up with a style of his own – the Sun Yat-sen suit” (Finnane 1999: 130). This outfit was modelled on military dress and was just one of a succession of influences of military culture on Chinese dress. Another was the qipao that was popularized in the 1930s and 1940s serving as a de facto national dress for women until it was “displaced by the dress of the women’s revolutionary army” (Finnane 1999: 131). Finnane concludes that:

The green and blue army and naval suits sported by Mao Zedong’s teenage fans during the years of the Cultural Revolution were thus not a quixotic or aberrant fashion, but rather a logical product of a process of dress reform which had its origins in new uniforms for the soldiers in the service of the Manchu dynasty. (Finnane 1999: 131)

Chen’s (2001) study of women’s dress from the 1940s through to the Cultural Revolution in China argues that there were two interlinking forces. First, clothing habits were much more complex and varied than officially sanctioned modes of dress seem to suggest. Far from looking “shapeless” and “sexless”, Chinese women experimented with all kinds of modifications and uses of colour to personalize their clothing. Second, the Communist Party quickly realized the importance of dress as a technique to produce particular kinds of citizens and preferred codes of femininity. In this process, women mixed traditional elements of dress (such as patterned blouses) with newly sanctioned ones, such as the quipao, belted Mao jacket and soft cloth cap. The Mao suit was an interestingly ambiguous outfit. On the one hand, it promoted uniformity and an image of the new nationalism of the Cultural Revolution. But it also functioned to make distinctions within the party, between the party and ordinary citizens, and between some ordinary citizens and others. According to Chen (2001):

During the Maoist period, sartorial discourse increasingly placed value on the uniformity of militaristic fashion and promoted this form of clothing and its concomitant behaviour as that towards which all citizens should work. This increased presence of militaristic uniformity did not destroy other clothing conventions; but it did necessitate that alternatives to the uniforms be measured against the uniform. (Chen 2001: 156)

This resulted in fine distinctions being made between “the various manifestations of the Mao suit as well as between the Mao suit and clothing made from coloured fabrics” (Chen 2001: 157). Despite the importance of dress reform to the implementation of the Maoist doctrine, the elaboration of dress habits and subtle resistance to officially sanctioned modes of dress illustrated the complexity and multiple responses to the regime (Scott 1965).

A little later, the opening up of China and ambivalent fascination with an exotic yet austere culture led to an on-again, off-again love affair with the Mao suit – and derivations in fashion design. The Mao suit had been designed as a uniform of nationality – to provide a garment worn by all classes – but its appropriation was as a marker of difference (Steele and Major 1999). In western fashion, it represented a deliberate though insincere allusion to the drab reality of the Cultural Revolution.

The Mao suit even made it to the cover of Vogue. In October 1979, Vogue (UK) went to China and featured a model in a Mao suit in front of a silk tapestry.[14] An even more startling cover on Vogue (Australia) (in March 1981 showed a model in a Mao suit, a cap with a red star badge, sunglasses and a red scarf.[15] These images guaranteed that the Mao suit gained a new life as high fashion (Lloyd 1986: 198, 204). The red star became a ubiquitous fashion accessory while jackets adapted from the severe lines of the Mao jacket, high collars, caps and military insignia created something of a controversy. While some derivations intended to make a sympathetic political statement, fashion aficionados preferred an irreverent appropriation purely as style. It was a very different fashion statement from the longstanding derivations of the elegant cheungsam or qipao (long fitted dress fastening on the right with stand-up collar), qianlian mei (“pretty face” jacket typically worn by peasants) and xiao’ao (wedding jacket: Clark and Wong 1997; Szeto 1997; Ye 1997).

The military theme has continued to recur in fashion and fashion photography both in haute couture and street fashion. It has a remarkable ability to both give a sense of authority, discipline and stylish cut as well as being used subversively. Fashion photography ostensibly is about picturing clothes but its history shows a genre that constantly seeks to escape the outfits and construct other possibilities and mise en scène (Scott 1999: 154–5; see also Jobling 1999). That multiplicity of references and play between visual language, historical references and narrative allusions constitute fertile ground for encapsulating the ambivalent registers of uniforms as fashion.

The themes of sex and militarism have provided the punch for more familiar themes of gendered roles and body decoration. Jobling suggests that “body fascism” has come to characterize male fashion photography in an especially strong form. He notes the similar impulses of narcissism and fascism that has spawned a distinctive iconography within fashion photography, such as that of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts:

Nazism fascinates in a way other iconography . . . does not . . . For those born after the early 1940s, bludgeoned by a lifetime’s palaver, pro and con, about communism, it is Fascism – the great conversation piece of their parents’ generation – which represents the exotic, the unknown. (Susan Sontag, quoted by Jobling 1999: 147)

The legacy, according to Jobling, is that contemporary conventions of representing masculinity and male fashions draw heavily on the military dress of Nazism and ideal images of male bodies as captured by Leni Riefenstahl.

Contemporary fashion design has been heavily influenced by military themes. Designers who have incorporated military references include Emanuel Ungaro, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Giorgio Armani, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Kenzo (Takada), Rudi Gernreich, Walter Albini, Hardy Amies, Kansai Yamamoto, Geoffrey Beene, Ralph Lauren, Antony Price, Luciano Soprani, Gianni Versace and Perry Ellis (McDowell 1997; Baudot 1999; Seeling 2000). Indeed, designers who have not drawn on motifs from uniforms at some point in their careers are the exception.

The Popularity of Uniforms and Sexual Frisson

In sum, uniforms have lent themselves to particular ways of looking and seeing as a hallmark of fashion and fashion photography in contemporary culture. In turn, fashion photography laps up any “uniform theme” in fashion. Uniforms serve to fix identities surrounding femininity and masculinity especially when these are diverse, crossing the boundaries between public and private, and where sexual ambiguity is involved. The uniform is, then, a primary aesthetic of the language of fashion photography. It is both its mise en scène and rationale – referencing our outer skin and our underworld. In turn, the aesthetics of other ways of looking and seeing have equally been shaped by the iconic design elements and best remembered examples of uniforms – in particular the Napoleonic legacy and uniforms of Nazi Germany. More recently, historic groups have taken to recreating uniforms of the past – even recreating famous battles re-enacted by costumed participants. For example, “thousands of men and youths in Confederate grey and Union blue, and women in black hoop skirts and veils escorted the crew of the Confederate submarine HL Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship, to their final resting place”. (Associated Press 2004). A similar re-enactment takes place annually in Australia commemorating the 1804 Battle of Vinegar Hill in which government troops in facsimiles of their distinctive red coats confront escaped convicts (Sandrejko 2004).

If clothing and dress are given their appropriate significance in ordering social relations and specifying cultural messages, then the uniform is a key subtext of the formation of the self, persona and collective identities. Without this encoding of the aesthetics of uniforms, the Nova fashion spread discussed at the start of this chapter could not so decisively convey the multiple and ambiguous connotations of the uniform as a defining body technique of the postmodern self. For modes of clothing the body in instantly recognizable ways has become the marker of the shift from the external governance of bodies and selves to the self-governance of the body via how the body is wrapped and place ballets produced. The adoption of uniforms in popular culture epitomizes this process.