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From Boy Scouts to soldiers, nurses to UPS workers, chefs to nuns, Paul Fussell describes, in sharp and telling anecdotes, the history and meanings of various uniforms. He reveals their secret language and unfolds their cultural significance. Focusing on the American scene, he holds up a mirror to the folks who head off to work each morning in regulated clothing and charts the fault lines of the desire for conformity and individuality. In examining the way uniforms unite and divide us, he ranges over the globe, ...
From Boy Scouts to soldiers, nurses to UPS workers, chefs to nuns, Paul Fussell describes, in sharp and telling anecdotes, the history and meanings of various uniforms. He reveals their secret language and unfolds their cultural significance. Focusing on the American scene, he holds up a mirror to the folks who head off to work each morning in regulated clothing and charts the fault lines of the desire for conformity and individuality. In examining the way uniforms unite and divide us, he ranges over the globe, describing, among other things, the Russian love of shoulder boards, the German obsession with black, and the Italian enthusiasm for feathered military hats. According to Fussell, we are what we wear, and sometimes our get-ups say surprising things.
Uniforms is vintage Fussell—a blend of vinegar and grace, of keen cultural insight and hilarious wit, equal parts spoof and illuminating social analysis.
"Fussell's funny, touching insights spring from an unmistakable compassion for people's need to feel 'the comfort and vanity of belonging.'" Publishers Weekly
"I love a man in uniform! . . . Fussell embroiders on why we are what we wear."—Elissa Schappell Vanity Fair
"Fussell turns his sharp eye and even sharper wit to the standardized dress..."—Time Out New York
"...very smart, very funny..."—Malcolm Jones Newsweek
"Perfect holiday gift for anyone who wears clothes—and one size fits all."—James A Butler The Philadelphia Inquirer
A Thing About Uniforms
Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon cloth.” Thus Thomas Carlyle in 1836. Little less astonishing today are some of the cloth objects chosen by their wearers. But when such objects become, like uniforms, obligatory and regulated, with implications of mass value, they are irresistibly fascinating.
All my life I have had a thing about uniforms. Although it would be pleasant to assert that as a newborn I noted that all the boys were lapped in little blue blankets, with the girls uniformly in pink, I wouldn’t go back that far. But it is undeniable that as I aged I began to appear in a sailor suit (this was in the late 1920s), complete, despite the short pants, with whistle and lanyard and red sleeve insignia featuring eagles and chevrons.
Next, my loving mother went into action to accouter me as an ideal Boy Scout, with the result that at troop gatherings I was conspicuously overdressed among boys who as a sophisticated gesture wore only a part of the uniform, if that, at a time. I had the whole thing, and brand-new, comprising breeches, long socks, Smoky Bear hat, official shirt, neckerchief, even official shoes. The rest of the troop appeared in blue jeans or corduroys, with perhaps a neckerchief fastened by a rubber band. (Mine was secured by a costly official slide.) The whole thing was a terrible mistake, resulting in my deep humiliation and rapid resignation from the Boy Scouts. This was all highly ironic, for, entirely uninterested in Scouting “activities,” my reason for joining was actually the uniform alone. And also not to be forgotten was the invariable Sunday uniform for churchgoing, consisting of dark suit, white shirt, black shoes, and understated dark tie.
This was at the time I was in high school, and attracted to the Junior ROTC, but only because those enrolled in it performed their evolutions in full dress uniform and, sweating profusely, were excused from showering afterward. (I had a horror of exposing my babyish body.) The ROTC uniform consisted of olive-drab trousers and wool shirt with black tie, the whole gloriously completed by a real U.S. Army jacket, but with bright blue lapels to distinguish it from the jacket worn by real grown-up soldiers. There was plenty of brass to convey a military look, lots of buttons and lapel ornaments in the form of discs exhibiting lighted torches (of “learning”). Keeping these, as well as the brass belt buckle, shiny was our prime military duty. There was never any other homework.
Later, at college, I proceeded to join the Senior ROTC (Infantry), which meant furnishing myself at government expense with a real officer’s uniform of the 1940s, including pink trousers and greenish-brown jacket. But still distinguished from actuality and seriousness by the shaming letters ROTC on the cap badge and the lapel brass US’s.
General Colin L. Powell (U.S.A., Ret.) has testified about the way uniforms first attracted him. When he was a student at New York’s City College, “during the first semester at CCNY, something had caught my eye—young guys on campus in uniform.” As soon as he could, Powell joined up, and he was not alone. “CCNY was not West Point, but during the fifties it had the largest voluntary ROTC contingent in America, fifteen hundred cadets at the height of the Korean War.
“There came a day when I stood in line in the drill hall to be issued olive-drab pants and jacket, brown shirt, brown tie, brown shoes, a belt with a brass buckle, and an overseas cap. As soon as I got home, I put the uniform on and looked in the mirror. I liked what I saw.” So did I on similar occasions. But fantasy suffered a cruel deflation in the terrible hot summer of 1943, when I had to trade my pseudo- officer’s gauds for a real private’s baggy fatigues for basic training at Camp Roberts, California. If one ever achieved a pass there, one sweated in enlisted men’s khakis while drinking beer and eating steak off the post. When I moved on to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the daily uniform changed to light green cotton overalls and helmet liners. These remained the fatigue uniforms when, commissioned, I joined an actual infantry division.
Shipped to France, we wore uniforms still, but in combat we removed all shiny insignia, secretly pleased to imagine that, as identifiable officers, we were the special targets of German snipers.
The point of all this is that, until mustered out of the Army in 1947, I lived in a constant environment of uniforms and in the atmosphere of the human uniformity they were designed to produce. The tradition continued during my many years as a college professor, where practically compulsory was the daily gett-up of gray flannel trousers and tweed jacket, often, of course, with leather elbow patches, suggestive at once of two honorable condiiiiitions: poverty and learning. In The Professor of Desire Philip Roth saw to it that his alter ego, David Kepesh, says to his students, “However you may choose to attire yourselves—in the get-up of garage mechanic, panhandler, tearoom gypsy, or cattle rustler—I still prefer to appear before you to teach wearing a jacket and a tie.” The distinction Roth makes is really between uniforms and costumes.
It is a distinction not always easy to make, but still some principles hold. Uniforms ask to be taken seriously, with suggestions of probity and virtue (clergy and nuns, judges when robed), expertise (naval officers, senior chefs, airline pilots), trustworthiness (Boy and Girl Scouts, letter carriers, delivery men and women), courage (U.S. Marines, police officers, firefighters), obedience (high school and university marching bands, Ku Klux Klan), extraordinary cleanliness and sanitation (vendors of ice cream on the streets, operating-room personnel, beauty salon employees, food workers visible to the public, and, in hospitals, all wearers of white lab coats, where a single blood stain might cause shame and even dismissal). Uniforms also differ from costumes by their explicit assumptions about the way every element must look. Hence the ridicule visited upon Supreme Court Chief Justice William Renquist when, sitting in judgment on President Clinton, adulterer, he chose to appear in a special robe augmented by unprecedented (i.e., “unauthorized”) stripes on the sleeves.
On the other hand, ideas of frivolity, temporariness, inauthenticity, and theatricality attend costumes, one reason that Hemingway’s Colonel Cantwell, in Across the River and Into the Trees, is angered by an Italian upper-class couple who appear to sniff at his uniform. “The pair stared at him with the bad manners of their kind and he saluted, lightly, and said to them in Italian, ‘I am sorry that I am in uniform, but it is a uniform, not a costume.” The colonel is implying also that for an outfit to qualify as a uniform, many others must be wearing the same thing, all more or less conscious of a mysterious bonding by means of—cloth.
But the difference between uniform and costume grows complicated when we consider, say, “cowboys,” most of whom turn out to be Marlboro Man impersonators. Their appearance is “uniform,” all right—the unique boots, the obligatory jeans, the neckerchief. But as Leslie Fiedler observed in his useful essay, “Montana, or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” what occasioned their uniformity was less their common working experience than the bad cowboy movies they swarmed to on Saturday afternoons. We can infer even from this that when enough people wear the same thing over time, like the dark suits and white shirts of U.S. senators, their costume is likely to ennoble itself into a uniform and convey news of valuable personal qualities in its wearers. And uniforms, even the most modest and apparently demeaning, do tend to ennoble their wearers.
When I first began pursuing this subject, I assumed that many people wearing uniforms in low-paying work resented being the compulsory bearers of such visible evidence of their subordinate condition. But what did I find? All but universal pride in a uniform of any kind, comparable with that felt by an enlisted marine on graduation day. The uniform, no matter how lowly, assures its audience that the wearer has a job, one likely not to be merely temporary and one extorting a degree of respect for being associated with a successful enterprise. The uniform attaches one to success.
But what about the outfits far removed from the military or the servants’ livery models? What about uniforms more subtly disguised, like the business suit, the dark blue blazer with gray flannel or khaki trousers, not to mention such uniforms as tennis- and beachwear? And what about the recent fad for “casual” dress in business offices, with its delusive suggestion of escaping regulation and unleashing hitherto stifled individualities? It took about a month of the casual fad to reveal that an equally rigid uniform code was now in action, and the obligatory polo shirt came into its own.
Here we encounter a paradox and an embarrassment, which some pages of this book will ventilate. The universal dilemma can be specified succinctly: everyone must wear a uniform, but everyone must deny wearing one, lest one’s invaluable personality and unique identity be compromised. If you refuse to dress like others, you will be ridiculed, and no one wants to appear in public dressed like a fool or an oddball. It is not likely that executives will ever skip down Park Avenue at noon wearing tights in fetching colors, and it is equally unlikely that people in general will abandon their secret pride in being identifiably themselves and imagining themselves honored for their originality of appearance.
Unless one chooses to conceal one’s physical uniqueness under military or religious garb, there’s always going to be an internal conflict between one’s aggressive urge to register a singular identity and the opposite impulse, the need to join the crowd and thus risk ridicule, if not contumely.
It’s hard to avoid seeing this as a form of madness. Conflicts like this are known in psychiatry to lie at the root of many mental disorders. This conflict we repeat daily as we put on or take off various cloth things with the intention of expressing an identity that will ideally honor our presumed uniqueness. It is a trap impossible to avoid, unless one goes all the way and goes naked. That might be recognized as the ultimate uniform, although it would clearly pose other problems. From the daily sartorial conflict there seems to be no escape—except perhaps to tone down self-consciousness, which is as unlikely as ridding ourselves of the liability to social anxiety.
This is unashamedly a book about appearances. I have long despaired of discovering what’s really going on in people’s insides (like their brains), since the only news available about that is their self-interested testimony. Despairing, I deepened my curiosity about what’s happening on their outsides—what can be inferred from their looks, figures, clothing, speech, gestures, and the like. I should also warn you that I have had to restrict myself largely to the twentieth century. My implicit guide has been Erving Goffman’s invaluable perception, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.” This is also a book about the comfort and vanity of belonging, which everyone has experienced. Every soldier knows its pleasures, as does every person who has put on any kind of uniform or black and white formal clothes.
And here I must note and apologize for the unrelenting masculinity of this book. Only recently have women (nuns, nurses, and flight attendants aside) required uniforms (and attempts at their theory), and I have sought to do them justice where appropriate. My experience, on which my labors have largely been based, has installed me inescapably in a man’s world, and writing about what I know and have an instinct for has doubtless limited my vision.
I have worn many a trousered uniform and buckled many a cartridge belt, but I have never worn a dress or fastened a garter belt.
Copyright © 2002 by Paul Fussell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company
Contents Acknowledgments ix A Thing About Uniforms 1 Colorful Tights for Men? 8 Sturdy Shoulders and Trim Fit 11 Russian Uniform Culture 16 The GermanWay 19 Are Italian Men More Vain than Others? 28 Admiral Zumwalt’s Big Mistake 30 Brass Buttons 35 Generals’ Dress 38 Blue Jeans 48 The Rise and Fall of the Brown Jobs 53 Uniforms of the Faithful 65 Deliverers 80 Transportationists 85 Police and Their Impersonators 93 Why Aren’t Grave Violations of Taste Impeachable Offenses, Too? 97 Youth on the Musical March 100 Doorpersons, etc. 105 The Pitiable Misfits of the Klan 110 Uniforms of the Sporting Life 113 Stigmatic Uniforms 121 Weirdos 126 Ernest Hemingway, Semi-Weirdo 132 Uniformity in American Higher Learning 136 Japan as a Uniform Culture 140 Academic Full Dress 142 Pretties 146 Chefs in Their Whites 153 The Nurses’ Revolt 156 Little Sailor Suits, and an Addendum on Sloppery 159 Uniforming the Scouts and Others 162 Women’s Nuptial Uniform 167 Broad-Brimmed Hats 170 Civilian Uniformities 174 Keepsakes 183 Notes Toward the Reader’s Own Theory of Uniforms 186
Barnes & Noble.com: What inspired you to write Uniforms?
Paul Fussell: I have been in the hospital recently, and I noticed that the scene in the hospital was not like the scene I had noticed when I was in the hospital as a child. In those days, there were things called nurses. They wore white -- that was their uniform. White shoes, white hose, white dress, white cap, and all that. I couldn't find anybody dressed that way. I got interested not in what caused them to wear the uniform in the first place but what caused them to "diswear" it. And I got all kinds of answers and questions and so on. That got me into this general subject of "What does a uniform do for one?" "Does one wear one willingly and gladly?" Or unpleasantly or what, and so forth. So that is how I got into it.
B&N.com: Can you explain the American dichotomy between the desire to wear and take pride in uniforms with the emphasis on individualism in our society?
PF: I did indicate that there was a complex relation between Americans' desire to be individualistic and to make as much as they could out of the liberty promised by our historical documents. There was a conflict between that and, on the other hand, the equally natural fear of being ridiculed or treated with contempt if one did not dress like other people. In other words, if you did not wear some kind of a uniform. When I was a professor, I appeared in uniform, a professor's uniform -- flannel trousers, tweed jacket, button-down shirt, quiet necktie, and so forth -- and I wouldn't have thought of appearing before you in blue jeans until the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s made that possible. I never did it, because I do like uniforms. I think my book indicates that. One woman said after reading the book, "What the book is about is this: Paul misses his uniform." I think she was talking about my military uniform. [Note: As as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, Fussell saw combat in Europe, an experience he describes in Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic.] But I sort of miss my teaching uniform as well because now I can wear whatever I like, and it doesn't matter whether people treat me with contempt, as I don't care anymore.
B&N.com: You originally expected that lower-class working people would resent having to wear uniforms in their jobs. You found just the opposite to be true. How do you explain that?
PF: Let me put it to you in sort of an academic manner. I explain it by the current utter inappropriateness or uselessness, shall we say, of Marxism-Leninism, the socialist view of things, to contemporary reality. When I started out I assumed that the working class was being kicked around by their managers and bosses, and I thought the managers and bosses made them wear uniforms as a mode of control. When I got talking to people wearing uniforms, it began to become clear that they loved wearing uniforms, because that meant that they were successful within their own class. At least they have a job when a great many people, thanks to the president today , don't have jobs, people of all classes. They have a job, and furthermore they have a job with a classy organization like the United States Marine Corps or the Coca-Cola Company, so it began to dawn on me that what I had previously thought about uniform wearers was quite wrong. And I had to reverse that idea to understand that people liked wearing uniforms.
B&N.com: You comment almost apologetically that the book is largely a book about a man's world -- not that you intended it to be. Why is that?
PF: I think there is more variety in men's choices because they can choose rough work if they like. They have been able to do all kinds of things that women have not been associated with.
B&N.com: But there are two professional groups you write about that are predominantly women: nurses and nuns. You discuss how they have come to dress casually -- no more little "white caps," and some don't even wear uniforms. Why is this? In essence, they've abandoned their uniforms, haven't they? Or do they just have a new, less specific one?
PF: Now nurses dress any way they like, to the infinite confusion of their patients, who have no idea whether they are being approached by the medical person or the woman who takes out the garbage. That seems to me cruel to people who are under the weather, who are so badly off that they have to be in the hospital. The nuns almost always agreed with other nuns that so much of their work today is charitable and in the street, and picking up the homeless, and being nice to the really deep, desperate poor outdoors. They learned that wearing the uniform looked too official and that very, very destitute people [saw nun's uniforms as] officialdom. They don't like to be approached by officials of any kind. So, they [nuns] may know, that not wearing uniforms is the only way they are going to be able to help.
B&N.com: Are uniforms always a reflection of rank? Of class?
PF: No. Not at all. The Marine Corps is a good example. There is, of course, a distinction between officers and men, but that is not about classes. It is more about convenience of organization. So I don't think it is always about class, but it [the uniform] can make it very easy to show class signals to other people, to an audience. But once you get looking at any of these things, it is true of any type of men's clothing. Certain neckties brand you instantly as lower middle class, and if one is wearing a tie with very tony dots on it, and not a Hawaiian beach, you arrive at least initially into the upper middle class. There are signals like that. I am sure women's clothing gives off the same signals. Not being one, I cannot read them correctly.
B&N.com: How do uniforms reflect occupation? For instance, you talk about the de rigueur uniforms of your profession, college professors. Executives in pinstripe suits. Is there a reason for this? Would a professor be ostracized if he did not wear the tweed jacket with the patches?
PF: Not really, because he is on tenure, and that is the fact about real professors that people often overlook. He has more freedom than someone who is just entering the teaching trade who has to be careful and polite to his seniors. He has to produce the right kind of book and do what he is told. Let me add just one more thing. Kids who are entering the profession very quickly learn that one road to success is investing in the right uniform, and so they will invest in the classical gray flannel trousers, tweed jacket, and white shirt.
B&N.com: What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
PF: To keep every chapter -- those little chapters -- from sounding the same. And to try to locate general identifying details and aspects of uniforms so it wouldn't be boring. That is really it. In all sorts of nonfiction books, you have to be true to the subject, but you have to stay away from boring the reader. The author has lived with the topic for years, and he knows the ins and outs. It's like teaching -- you have to introduce the audience to certain things and not things that would mess up the whole process.
B&N.com: What will your next book be?
PF: I have one that is coming out very soon. As you know, I am tethered through life to the Second World War. I still think my life consists of only seven years, no matter what the current date is: say, from 1941 until, say, 1948, when I went to graduate school. That is the real part of my life. And the rest is uniform, doing what other people do, and so forth. The next book is going to be published by Random House and is called The Boys' Crusade, and the analogue there is the Children's Crusade of medieval history. I am writing about the astonishing youth and boyhood of the American troops in the infantry whom I commanded and whose job was to destroy the German Army in Europe. And that is what it is about. The subtitle there is "American Infantry in Northwest Europe, 1944-1945."
Posted February 12, 2003
It strikes me that if the author thinks the American military has some sort of one piece battle uniform in WWII he must know about a different war than I do. Also his comparing dress uniforms as opposed to what was actually worn into battle seems to lack any real knowledge of the topic.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.