Fashion & Textile History Gallery
May 20 – November 19, 2016
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We encounter uniforms everywhere — on soldiers, school children, flight attendants,
and fast-food clerks. According to fashion historian Jennifer Craik, the omnipresence
of uniforms has “shaped our ways of seeing.” Uniforms are constant reminders of the
social order, so commonplace that they are often overlooked. Designed both to blend
in and to stand out, uniforms play a unique role in our daily lives.
In some ways, they are the antithesis of high fashion. While uniform design focuses
on functionality, control, and tradition, fashion design promotes constant change,
creativity, and subversion. Yet throughout history, fashion has drawn inspiration
from uniforms of all kinds. For example, fashion designers often take functional features
and transform them into decorative elements.
Mainbocher, U.S. Naval Reserve WAVES officer dress uniform, 1942, wool, USA, gift
of Mrs. C.W. Vernon Jr, 84.203.1
U.S. Army colonel Dress Blue uniform, 1950, wool, USA, gift from the heirs of Teresa
Lambert Ireland, 95.102.2
Uniformity explored the dynamic history behind a variety of uniforms, considering their social
role and their influence on high fashion. The exhibition was organized thematically
to focus on four categories of uniforms: military, work, school, and sports. Within
each category, historic uniforms were juxtaposed with the high fashion looks they
Military uniforms are referenced in high fashion more often than any other type of
uniform. Designers often borrow elements such as metallic braiding, gold buttons,
epaulettes, camouflage, and Breton stripes—features that were originally employed
to convey a soldier’s nation, rank, regiment, or branch of the armed forces. The translation
of military details into high fashion ornamentation flourished during the nineteenth
century. Ornate soutache found its way onto women’s outerwear, and by the end of the
century, sailor, or “middy,” collars had become fixtures of women’s daywear. Since
then, designers such as Chanel, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier,
and Sacai have expanded on the trend by constantly drawing on uniforms in their work.
(Left) Comme des Garçons (Rei Kawakubo), ensemble, 1998, wool, Japan, museum purchase,
2005.7.2; (right) U.S. Army World War I service uniform, 1914-1918, wool, USA, gift
of Mrs. Roswell Gilpatric, 68.146.52
Chanel, “Brasserie Gabrielle” ensemble, fall 2015, wool, silk, cotton, leather, France,
gift of Chanel, 2015.64.1
To a certain degree, the adoption of military elements for use in (predominantly female)
fashion subverts the hyper-masculine authority of the uniform itself. The power and
strength of the uniform fuses with the “feminine” fluidity of fashion, resulting in
a garment that is transgressive in its dichotomy. It is both at odds with the original
uniform and visually similar to it, which creates an intriguing aesthetic tension.
Jean Paul Gaultier, ensemble, 1992, cotton, France, (top) gift of Antoine Bucher,
(pants) gift of Michael Harrell, 2012.56.1 and 2015.89.8
Sacai, ensemble, spring 2015, cotton, silk, synthetic, Japan, museum purchase, 2015.37.3
Work uniforms are designed to make employees of different occupations immediately
identifiable. To do this, uniform designers utilize easily recognizable devices. Nurse
uniforms, for example, have historically included a distinctive cap and bright white
aprons or smocks worn over a standardized dress of blue, pink, white, or grey. McDonald’s
uniforms, on the other hand, utilize the distinctive colors and symbols of the company
logo to transform each employee into an extension of the company’s branding. While
work uniforms have not had as much impact as military uniforms, they too have inspired
fashion designers. One example of this is a look from Chanel’s fall 2015 collection
that plays on the uniforms of Parisian waiters, complete with a clutch bag that mimics
the look of plates.
Stan Herman, McDonald’s uniform, 1976, polyester, USA, gift of Stan Herman, 2016.3.3
Stan Herman, TWA flight attendant uniforms, 1975, synthetic blend, USA, gift of Stan
School uniforms hold a special significance for many wearers. Worn during childhood
and adolescence, a school uniform—or more accurately, a person’s reaction to a school
uniform—can have a marked impact on that person’s attitude towards dress and even
his or her own identity. Many designers have experimented with the signature elements
of the school uniform, from blazers to pleated skirts. Thom Browne, for example, often
combines the iconography of the school blazer with a traditional grey flannel suit,
thus fusing adolescent and adult dress codes in a single look. Likewise, a Rudi Gernreich
homage to a schoolgirl uniform from 1967 demonstrates that the style became increasingly
sexualized during the second half of the twentieth century.
Rudi Gernreich, “Japanese Schoolgirl” ensemble, fall 1967, wool, USA, gift of Gabriele
Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA, museum purchase, 2012.2.1
Athletic uniforms sometimes borrow elements from military uniforms. Color contrasts,
bold stripes, and soutache braiding help to convey a sense of power and strength.
Athletic jerseys distinguish a team from its competitors, and also unite its members
as a cohesive group. However, individual numbers help to maintain a level of individuality
within a team. The bold insignias and markings of athletic jerseys have influenced
the logo-driven branding of many luxury fashion labels. Companies such as Gucci will
often place their company names or logos where a team name, player number, or mascot
might appear on the front, back, or even sleeve of an athletic uniform.
Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA, museum purchase, P89.57.36 and
Geoffrey Beene, “football jersey” dress, fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA, museum
The push-pull between the identity of a group and that of an individual is a constant
tension in modern society. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes once said, “The way that people
dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something.”
Although we may not each wear an official uniform in our everyday lives, the influence
of uniforms can always be felt, even in the basic activity of getting dressed each
Uniformity was organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at The Museum at FIT.