You are what you wear: fascination with uniforms and how we see power

By David Hellqvist
Artwork by Diego Soprana

Week 42

I wonder why it is that uniforms are so powerful? What is it about clothes that give people authority? Depending on who’s wearing them, and what the context is, uniforms can either give people a sense of comfort and security, or put the fear of god into them. This is the power of uniforms, to be able to evoke such human emotions. A shirt is just a shirt, a jacket is always just a jacket – but put these items together in a certain way, give the outfit context, and these garments can be the difference between life and death.
Any talk of uniforms and most think straight to military outfits; army uniforms have come to define the concept of authoritarian clothes, and that’s naturally what I referred to above. Uniforms in war not only identify men as soldiers but they also tell you what side they belong to, they determine if the soldier is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Then we have action-associated uniforms, those of police officers and firemen. Again, it’s the authority that comes with them that makes them exciting, and a bit dangerous in some cases. Sometimes, for restless youth, the sight of a police officer is unwelcome – or perhaps it’s a crisp shirt of a parking warden that makes your blood boil. In her book ‘Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918,’ Nina Edwards says, “What people wear matters… Dress can be comforting or sometimes humiliating, it can divert or lead us headlong into new experiences.”
There’s a well-documented relation between our fascination with uniforms and how we see power. Wear a ‘powerful uniform’ and you are ‘someone’. Take it off and you are a ‘nobody’. That’s why kids like seeing soldiers in uniform and women, supposedly, find firemen attractive. But what about the other kind of uniforms, the ones we see every day without even noticing them; the bus driver, train conductor, post man or the lady who works in the bakery? These are civilian uniforms that are widely accepted to symbolise a particular vocation. Most jobs that include consumer-facing services have a uniform of some kind, be it a polo shirt with the logo of an electronics company, or a cobbler dressed in an apron with a specific colour palette.
Train drivers and conductors are often just dressed in black or navy trousers, a short-sleeved white shirt and maybe a waistcoat. It’s a loose interpretation of a uniform that helps to identify who is staff and who isn’t.
Like with pilots and air stewardesses, there’s something romantic about train uniforms. I think it’s to do with the age-old idea that travelling is luxurious. People get excited about going places, especially flying as it often implies you are traveling a far distance, perhaps on a holiday or for another reason.
Train uniforms, although often simple and not very sophisticated, make people associate their journey with service and comfort; it’s someone’s job to take care of them and make sure they get from A to B safely and on time. They associate well-groomed air stewardesses and stark white shirts with an abstract idea of luxury – but it’s arguably an out-dated association as travel today is part of everyday life and very rarely is it glamorous, thanks to the shoddy behaviour and uniforms of various low budget airlines.

Normal black or grey suits can be worn as a uniform, albeit a quasi-uniform. Basically, anything that symbolises and represents something or someone is a uniform. Debating politicians all look the same; blue two button suits, maybe a grey double-breasted one, a white shirt and maroon tie with an abstract and non-offensive pattern. Talk about a uniform. It’s a uniform that society has chosen for its leaders, and that they wear with pride. The last thing they want to do is to stick out. Or is it?
This brings us to the double-edged dilemma of the uniform. The ultimate purpose of a uniform is to blend in… Yes, but in nature, not among people. It goes against human nature to disappear into the masses; we want to be seen and to be heard. Politicians need to convince people to vote for them, they need a personality and charisma. Boring grey suits tend to hide those personality quirks.
Police officers need to be recognisable and visible, easy to approach. The uniform does that, but only against the backdrop of a society with an eclectic dress code. These uniforms say ‘it’s not the man or woman you want, it’s the actual uniform and what it represents’. It proves that no man is bigger than the organisation and, in the long run, society.
Take football fans for example. Talk about having a complex relationship to uniforms. They need to be anonymous, at least the few nasty ones that keep using reasonably calm matches as an excuse to fight. Their clothing is part of gang culture, a group of people with strong ties to uniforms. Teams are identified by their colours, and that’s also the case for the fans. But they’re also humans, and as such they have a fundamental need to stand out and to be seen, admired and respected. So they start adding new and unusual parts to their uniforms to make them unique and personal. After a while everyone adopts these pieces – jackets, trainers etc. – and all of a sudden it’s nothing special anymore, a uniform for the masses.
Ironically, to come back to where we started, that’s why it works for the army. The military is built on a group mentality; ‘we are stronger together, as a unit, than we are alone’. In the army, the uniform is about belonging and being part of something bigger, something important. Garments, at the end of the day, are just clothes we put on our bodies. What matters is what we make them represent, and how they make us feel… unified or unique.

Publisher and Editorial Director of Document Studios, Port Magazine’s Fashion Features Editor, Avaunt Magazine’s Fashion Director and a freelance menswear writer and stylist, David Hellqvist keeps himself busy.