Read an Excerpt
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 eyeyoung 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 yourselvesin the get-up of garage mechanic, panhandler, tearoom gypsy, or cattle rustlerI 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 ofcloth.
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 rightthe 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 escapeexcept 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 outsideswhat 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