Friday, May 3, 2013

Uniforms, A Modest Proposal

The recent disaster in Dhaka got me thinking about clothes and fashion and the true costs of these, and that got me thinking about uniforms.  Uniforms for civil occupations went out of fashion in the last century because of their association with militarism and fascism, but prior to that, in Europe, lots of people wore uniforms.  It's the case that most Americans hate uniforms and find them oppressive, but maybe we should rethink.  I always thought uniforms were one of the neat things about the army. You got up and one thing you did not have to think about was what to wear.  Also, and just as important, who you were, where you'd been, and what you'd accomplished were displayed right out front on what you wore.  Imagine wearing your résumé every day!  Here's a young fellow walking through the Microsoft campus.  He's got a tailored black uniform on, maybe by Hugo Boss, who did the designs for the SS back in the day.  He's got the red fourragier from Harvard, and the blue color tabs that show he has a Ph.D in computer science from Cal Tech.  On his shoulders are the oak leaves of a senior project manager.  On his left breast are ribbons denoting the projects he's worked on, above which rides a badge that shows his salary level, with leaves, stars and diamonds recording his annual bonuses.   On his cuffs are bars that shows how long he's worked at the firm.  Now imagine a woman in the same rig.  She would not get much sexual harassment, it seems to me.

Also, think of how much less bullshitting there would be. Everyone would instantly know who everyone else was.  So much time saved in bars!  This would produce a reduction in status anxiety, one of the great plagues of American life, the other being rich assholes pretending to be regular people just to be cool.  Imagine the uniform of a billionaire financier!  Here's a guy who's wearing a $10,000 bespoke suit and there are only fourteen people in the world who can tell, even if he leaves the real buttons on his suit cuff unbuttoned to show it's custom.  Let them flaunt it!  Maybe it would make them less greedy.


Trina said...

It's quite an interesting concept. I don't think people, at least in many countries, would go for it. Much of our expression of individuality (and, ironically, affiliation) is seen in what we wear. Uniforms are often seen by those who wear them as an unwelcome restriction and means of exerting power over them.

It doesn't seem to me that potential benefits would outweigh the effort and cost it would take to successfully change our society to one that voluntarily wears uniforms. There might be exceptions, among those of high rank, but given the large class/income disparity in the U.S. at least, on the whole this would go over like a lead balloon.

My feeling is that, looking at cultures in recent history who have widely used uniforms, those societies were repressive and dangerous, and the people very unhappy in what was essentially a militarized culture.

Put plainly, people don't much like being told how to live their lives, and there's value in that, both in the short-term and in the evolution of a civilization.

Most humans are conformist by nature, to a certain extent. We form communities; we still have some tribal instincts. The stronger instinct, though, given that basic needs are met, is that of choosing our tribe and our place in it.

Personally, for some years now I've thought it likely that everyday dress may assume a more individual and costume-like sensibility. This may never happen widely, but I'm intrigued by the idea. Pirate one day, astronaut the next!

Thanks for such a thought-provoking blog post!

Unknown said...

This is really interesting. I think it could be a bit dangerous though, it's a bit too focused on ranking. Also, sexual harassment has nothing to do with what a woman wears, but with certain men's sense of entitlement. But anyway, I like your brain, I might have to check out your books.

Michael said...

I'm not sure I meant this seriously, but sometimes it's revealing to take a position against the common view. We do associate uniforms with repression, but it might turn out that restricting freedom in one sphere expands it in others that are far more important. The kid who gets bullied because she's not wearing the right outfit would be a lot happier if everyone dressed alike. Her freedom would expand.

Michael said...

>>sexual harassment has nothing to do with what a woman wears

True enough, but even in the harassing environment of the military, the subject of recent scandals, you don't see sexual harassment of female senior officers in uniform by their juniors. Also, the fact that women are not allowed to participate in the most prestigious combat jobs, or earn medals for valor in the face of the enemy--which would then appear on their uniforms for all to see--militates against full acceptance of women, and makes harassment more likely.