The theatrical side of the “personal uniform”

Marlene Dietrich in a white suit.  (Click image for Creative Commons attribution.)
Marlene Dietrich in a white suit. A men’s suit and top hat would become her trademarks, especially when she performed in cabarets at the end of her career.  (Click image for Creative Commons attribution.)

There are so many compelling arguments for the “personal uniform”—a conscious choice to wear (either approximately or exactly) the same thing every day.  Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of “the uniform” is that it lets you impersonate something iconic. And if you do it long enough, you, too, could become iconic.

I once had a friend in high school who wore a T-shirt, our drama club track jacket, and Chuck Taylors every single day.  And he seemed very happy.   I, on the other hand, obsessed about what I wore each morning before high school, rarely ending up at school in an outfit I liked.  This is a feeling I’d hoped being a grown-up would eradicate, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Even now, I spend too much time rifling through my closet each morning, and often I still end up at work regretting my choices.  This is part of why the personal uniform is so appealing to me, at least on the surface.  The decision fatigue would (ideally) go away for good.

But the thing that attracts me the most to the personal uniform is its “performance” potential.  I don’t mean performance in an inauthentic sense, but in the playful, “remember me” sense.  In her essay on “the uniform” for J. Crew (linked below), Alice Gregory claims that wearing the same thing everyday “asserts your status as a protagonist.”  The choice to practice this kind of striking continuity in your personal appearance makes you—as a character—seem concrete and continuous, a claim that makes a lot of sense to me as a literature teacher.  Gregory offers as examples the main characters of children’s picture books: Eloise, Babar, the Little Prince, Max, Madeleine, etc.  After all, who would these characters be without their signature outfits?

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like there are many grown-up “uniforms” left to go around.  For women’s clothing, the choices almost seem slimmer, but I think that’s because of the longstanding reliability of the men’s suit.  (Women have never quite had something as resilient as the suit.)  For both men and women, though, the choices for a uniform appear increasingly limited, maybe even “already done” or “over done.”  All black.  White on black.  White on black with a single accent color.  A suit.  Khakis and a black shirt.  A white v-neck, jeans, and a leather jacket.  Neutral clothes and black fedora.  Black turtleneck and jeans.  Etc. 

From a theatrical perspective, the fact that personal uniforms themselves seem limited is likely their greatest strength.  Those pairings above have the foundation of something iconic, mostly by way of their simplicity.  But they only become “iconic” once the wearer commits.  They have visual potential on which a wearer can capitalize, which is the same thought a costume designer might have when thinking through a fictional character’s clothes.  (Gregory even goes so far as to call it a Platonic choice, as in, you’ve found just the right packaging that makes you feel transcendent.)

It seems, too, that adopting the perspective of a costumer makes you think long and hard about what clothing truly reflects your personality, your identity, and your character.  If you were a character in a play (playing the role of “yourself,” of course), what would you be wearing?   Maybe the answer to this question is what’s so captivating to me about the uniform concept.  It forces you to visualize how people will remember you and gives you a very (very) small bit of control.

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A few thoughtful pieces on the personal uniform:

Alice Gregory, “Alice Gregory on Finding a Uniform” (via J. Crew blog).  This may be one of the most compelling cases for the uniform I’ve read.  Like the passage I quoted above (“A uniform asserts your status as a protagonist”), the essay as a whole makes a graceful argument for the ways in which a uniform can help you “impersonate” maturity, the hope being that eventually you won’t have to fake it anymore.

Matilda Kahl, “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day” (via Harper’s BAZAAR).  Perhaps one of the most shared articles on the uniform, at least among readers of women’s magazines.  This is a personal uniform origin story, told from the perspective of a creative director at an advertising firm.  (I think I like her uniform the best.)

Anne Bogel, “Simplicity, Productivity, and the Personal Uniform” (via Modern Mrs. Darcy).  A great overview of the uniform concept that suggests some reasons why women might have a harder time developing one compared to men (again, the suit).  This essay also underscores Alice Gregory’s point that executing a personal uniform can appear like the product of several years of fashion taste-building (even if it isn’t).  There’s that performativity once more.

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