The Case for Uniforms

The Case for Uniforms

Fashion

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Photograpy by Adam Katz Sinding of le-21eme and Wataru Shimosato of An Uknown Quantity
Last winter I found myself wearing the same thing over and over again, literally. Every time I had to run out of the house in the blistering New York cold and a mixture of slush and snow, I reached for my Rick Owens down parka and side-zip boots with a creeper sole, into which I tucked the pant legs of a pair of black jeans. When the New York fashion week came in February, I could not care less for being seen in the same clothes day after day. It was an outfit I felt at ease with, knowing that it looked good and felt comfortable. I saw no reason to change it up.

I am not the only one. Rick Owens himself is no stranger to wearing the same thing on daily basis. In an article for Harper’s Bazaar last year he said, “I like sticking with a decision: I have a stack of identical crisp black shorts, a stack of identical soft black T-shirts, and a stack of identical black cashmere turtlenecks.”

What makes some people don a uniform? For one, there is certain ease in it, both aesthetic and psychological. Rather than laziness – a uniform is an exercise in rigor – it bespeaks unfussiness. You know what looks good and you know what you want. It underscores your sense of self by saying that you are comfortable in your own skin and you don’t have to shed it, snakelike. It’s pragmatic, one less thing to think about in our overcomplicated, fast-paced world.

When I asked Owens about the philosophy behind his dressing habits, he said, “How you dress is the first step in presenting yourself as who you want to be.  I want to be logical, polite, slightly formal, conscious of other people’s priorities. I used to enjoy being flamboyant and extreme.  Now it seems even more extreme to stick to a decision and repeat it forever. I always refer to Jean Michel Frank having forty grey identical suits in his closet. It’s very attractive when someone knows himself like that.” Owens went on to add, “Also, I only used to have myself to create for. Now I have a bigger stage and am creative with myself in a more profound way by going to the gym and controlling the way my body looks. I haven’t dismissed the idea of dressing, but I don’t need to change moods – I know the mood I want.”

Wearing a uniform seems counterintuitive in the world of fashion, where induced obsolescence is the name of the game and the fashion cycle seems to spin faster with every year. But it can be a stance against trends, which today are manufactured with a more concerted effort than ever. It is a levelheaded approach to dressing that signifies that you are not some fashion weather vane. And as peacocking in front of fashion shows becomes more frenzied with each season, a bit of self-effacement a uniform provides can be refreshing.

That is not to say that wearing a uniform equals to not having vanity. There is vanity in paying attention to how you dress, but in this case a bit of vanity can be a healthy thing.

It is even more difficult to say that it is anti-consumerist – we are talking about fashion after all. Though Karl Lagerfeld has a uniformed look, he is an avid, enthusiastic shopper. There is a telling moment in a documentary about Lagerfeld that shows him packing for a weekend trip when he remarks that he will need some rings, and then unceremoniously dumps a whole tray of them into his weekender bag.

And yet, you can entertain the above notions when you choose to wear that same thing. A uniform allows you to buy fewer clothes, while paying more per garment. This runs counter to what fashion, especially fast fashion, has conditioned us to do. But unless we learn to buy less and pay more, there will be no solving the humanitarian and ecological crisis that fashion is responsible for. It’s the only real strategy for sustainability. Perhaps ironically, some of those who wear a uniform are designers themselves. Thom Browne is another example of a uniformed man. He once told me that he makes two suits for himself each season and that’s all he wears. And while you may think that a designer wearing his creations is a form of brand promotion, designers offer hundreds of styles and have access to enviable mono-brand closets, so something else has to explain the uniform. When I pressed Browne about his two suits, he simply said, “I am not into stuff,” while Owens has said that he would rather concentrate on making clothes for other people.

Wearing a uniform is not limited to men or designers either. Perhaps there is no more recognizable figure in fashion than the Paris-based fashion blogger Diane Pernet, whose beehive hairdo, a veil, sunglasses, and loose, long black silhouette is practically a form of intellectual property. “Personally, I think my style is streamlined and simple – and I intend for it to be somehow elegant although I am conscious of the fact that it is also somehow unusual,” Pernet said when I asked about her uniform. “Believe it or not, I really don’t give my style much thought. Over the years, it has evolved into a consistent recognizable foundation that I’m constantly elaborating and fine-tuning according to my mood or inspiration. Although I love colour on other people, I don’t love it on me. Wearing black every day makes me feel strong. I never get bored of my look. I wear what I feel best in. It’s really that simple.”

(The original version of this article appears in Japanese in issue 03 of Them magazine.)

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About the author

Eugene Rabkin

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. He has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, and other publications. He has taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design.



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