In an industry that is defined by what’s next and what’s new, many of its most prominent figures dress the same way everyday.

Consider Karl Lagerfeld and his trademark black suits, Diane Von Furstenberg and her wrap dress, Grace Coddington and her black monochrome. They spend all day dictating trends and then ignore their own advice!

Perhaps a reason for this is that they’ve reached that rare understanding of who they are and the outfit that best expresses it, in other words a uniform. But the uniform has almost become an outdated, archaic concept, particularly when it comes to how to dress for work. We live in a time in which the notion of a uniform is increasingly frowned upon. “There has been a dramatic change very recently,” said Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute. She noted that last December the New York City Commission on Human Rights announced new guidelines that expressly prohibited “enforcing dress codes, uniforms and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex
or gender.”

Enforcing dress codes, uniforms and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex or gender.

Dress is now open to the interpretation of the individual. This had led to tensions between the two opposing strains of thought that an employee represents a company, and therefore dress is not about personal expression, but company expression. The counter argument is that because we identify so much with our careers, we should be able to express ourselves through our dress at work.

These diametrically opposed arguments is what led New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to create an exhibition examining the history and function of uniforms throughout history.

The exhibition features over 70 objects spanning the last few centuries, surveying a variety of uniforms and exploring their social role and their influence on high fashion.

Emma McClendon is the curator of the exhibition and according to her, uniforms evolved for a reason. “They fulfill a need to identify your place in the world,” for the wearer and the observer. And one of the main reasons behind the idea for the exhibition she said, was to “put visitors in the mind-set  to consider uniform dressing more broadly, and how it impacts their own lives.”

They fulfill a need to identify your place in the world.

Uniforms are designed to both blend in and stand out, they are in a way the antithesis of high fashion. Where uniform design focuses on functionality, control and tradition, fashion promotes constant change, creativity and subversion. Yet the irony is that fashion has often and continues to draw inspiration from uniforms of all kinds, taking functional features and turning them into decorative elements.

The exhibition investigates how military uniforms have evolved through the ages showing a U.S Army Colonel Dress Blue uniform from 1950. This is juxtaposed with designs from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Perry Ellis, all who have borrowed the deep blue wool and gold buttons from these dress uniforms.

We still see a huge influence on high fashion of naval uniforms and in particular the “Breton” stripe. We see these instantly recognizable stripes appearing in sportswear, evening wear and women and menswear. We can instantly see how designers have borrowed and translated certain details from the naval uniforms and translated it into fashion, the most obvious being Jean Paul Gautier and Sacai.

Probably the biggest influence uniforms had on fashion was in athletic uniforms. The exhibition features historic baseball jerseys, a football uniform from the 1920’s, a historic track uniform and the huge influence on fashion is very clear to see. Ungaro, Geoffrey Beene, Stella Jean and Gucci, amongst others, highlight in their designs how the bold insignias and markings of athletic jerseys have influenced the logo-driven branding of many luxury labels.

So although uniforms have and continue to influence fashion, as people we are also becoming more aware of our individuality, and our right to express it through our choice of clothing.

The Museum at FIT, is the only museum in New York City dedicated to the art of fashion.


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