A special issue on uniforms in design history that I instigated and edited for the Journal of Design History, 24:2, June 2011.
Here is the issue’s Foreword:
Uniforms in design historical perspective
This special issue of the Journal of Design History is devoted to uniforms and is hopefully opening up new territory for the Journal. The issue has resulted from an open call that started coming into shape almost three years ago; a lengthy process of reviewing and selection eventually led to the present collection of papers covering a fragment of existing types and varieties of uniforms. As readers of this issue will realize, research into uniforms is not only exciting but also puzzling, as the subject develops into a maze of interdisciplinary components and interconnections expanding far beyond the field of dress.
One way of approaching material objects that I find particularly illuminating is to start by looking at words. Nomenclature reveals a lot, especially when considered comparatively; it is thus tempting to juxtapose English language terminology with that of Greek, my native language. In the English language, uniform is a word widely used to refer to a vast range of garments employed by religious orders, the military, schools, professional groups, sports teams and others. The word uniform conveys a feeling of conformity, order and virtual absence of variability. It is intriguing to observe that, in Greek, the main word used for uniforms is στολή (stoli: uniform) which is etymologically related to garments worn by those staffing a fleet, as well as similar to the words used for expressing decoration or beautification, namely “fancy dress”. On the other hand, in Greek there is a special word for the school uniform: ποδιά (podia: apron, lap), making direct reference to the frontal, embroidered part of a traditional female dress, which has a functional as well as a highly symbolic role and bears strong gender connotations.i Even such a cursory look into terminology suggests the existence of many hints to be found in words related to the design and use of uniforms, opening up paths of exploration into the numerous meanings and variations of these garments.ii
The papers included in this volume offer in-depth investigations of different kinds of uniforms and highlight the complexity of the subject in various historical periods and in different social and ethnic contexts. The papers are presented in a sequence that is first of all chronological, but also generates a narrative climax as we move from the particular to the general, from the detailed examination of specific types of clothes to wider analogies between uniforms and the organizing principles of nation states. The texts represent solid historical research; the authors have relied on a range of primary and secondary sources including institutional archives, retailers’ catalogues, diaries, newspaper and periodical articles, advertising, but also items of clothing themselves. The multifaceted, pluralistic but also balanced range of sources employed provides a model of design historical investigation, inasmuch as it expands the range of acceptable sources far beyond the textual. The set of papers included in this special issue highlights everyday, mundane products, which design historiography has often neglected in the past, and particularly emphasizes the dimension of use. The user is not viewed as simply the recipient of a finished product, but rather as an active co-creator and co-producer, through extensive practices of object adaptation and creative consumption.
The first paper, by Clare Rose, considers the question of what was uniform about the sailor suit, a type of garment that has been widely worn and imitated since the end of the nineteenth century. In order to answer her question, Rose embarks on a systematic analysis of original material. Her work highlights the significance of primary, archival research through observation, taxonomy, quantitative and qualitative examination of the objects’ materiality, as well as careful, unprejudiced analysis of secondary sources. Through such work, she achieves to uncover assumptions and demonstrate the plethora of meanings the sailor suite has carried. She questions the Imperial ethos often ascribed to it and documents a re-interpretation of the sailor suit as an evolving fashion item rather than as a monolithic and unchanging uniform. Her work exemplifies the kind of research and in-depth analysis of designed artifacts that this journal is keen to promote.
The versatility of dress is also vividly demonstrated by Laura Ugolini’s paper on the illicit use of military garments in Britain during the First World War. Her text discusses the glamorous aspects of military dress and describes uniforms as highly desirable garments, respectable status symbols which men were keen to use, even when they were not entitled to. The uniform was a desirable outfit, a consumer choice which the buyer opted for, even though illicitly, in order to build a desirable self-identity or persona expressing patriotism alongside masculinity and elegance. Fascinating extracts from diaries offer a vivid account of the motivation behind the use and abuse of uniforms during wartime and demonstrate the continuing fascination of uniforms to men and women alike.
Arguably, Jane Tynan’s paper engages into a direct dialogue with the paper by Ugolini, as they both deal with the same time period, that of the First World War, and the same national context, that of Britain, as well as with a related theme, the sometimes unexpected connections between uniforms and civilian dress. The paper focuses on the origins, development and usage of the Burberry trench coat, an emblematic design object or otherwise an enduring design classic. She presents the transformation of the trench coat, a garment re-cast to suit wartime as well as post-war mentalities and changing male lifestyles. Burberry advertising participated in this process of social construction of a clothing item that helped men negotiate shifting class identities and expressed evolving ideas of nature, work, leisure, healthy citizenship and idealized athleticism.
The paper by Dilek Himam and Burkay Pasin moves the focus to a different geographical area and connects the Sümerbank textile industrial complex of inter-war Turkey to the country’s social modernization project by Kemal Atatürk. The paper attempts a risky generalization by making links from product to citizen, from designed object to State. It discusses in particular how uniformity developed in Turkish society, but also how resistance to uniformity unfolded, a situation that may be considered to be still on-going and a matter of debate in Turkish society. The question arises whether uniform practices, especially officially defined or imposed, invite or provoke their rejection and overturning. This paper, by rethinking and recontextualizing aspects of Turkish modernity in relation to textile production, dress design and architecture, constitutes an exciting and potentially provocative piece of research, therefore very fertile as material of design history discourse.
In his re:focus piece, Nicolas Cambridge moves the geographical focus even further East, by looking at sartorial identities in Japan. Cambridge’s overview of Japanese dress over several centuries identifies practices of bricolage and synthesis drawing from a multiplicity of ethnic sources, emphasizing the implications for personal and social life of forcing native bodies into foreign dress. The output of internationally influential Japanese fashion designers as well as material from contemporary youth culture in Japan complement the panorama of Japan as a society where the centrality of uniforms provides the visual, material and symbolic space for the cultivation of multiple individual and collective personas.
The Special Issue concludes with an Archives & Collections piece by Juliet Ash on the prison Uniforms Collection at the Galleries of Justice Museum in Nottingham. The set of papers comes in a sense full-circle, as Ash’s paper aptly brings forth once again the material aspects of dress, like the first paper by Rose did, and questions the privileging of sight over touch in the history of clothing. The experience of life as a prison inmate comes alive through the possibility of close observation and handling of the prisoners’ uniforms, thus experiencing first-hand the cheap make and shabby look of uniforms. Ash examines the gradual normalization of the inmate as a consumer, when a degree of personalized differentiation was allowed, thus revealing distinctive identities behind the stereotypical conception of the prison inmate or “criminal”. Again, a major theme may be recognized in the complex interplay between conformity and individuality, the axis along which the design history of uniforms seems to oscillate.
“Quasi-uniforms” and “informal uniforms” constitute another factor complicating the movement along this axis, making the boundaries between uniforms and everyday wear very unclear and emphasizing the ambiguity of contemporary dress. Quasi-uniforms refer to modes of dress that are consensually imposed as appropriate for certain professionals, such as men’s suits or women’s two-piece suits.
iii Dress specified by protocol and ceremony as well as corporate dress codes demonstrate that uniforms and quasi-uniforms may not be easily considered as separate categories. iv Careful observation of modern societies suggests the ubiquity of uniforms and quasi-uniforms and indicates the extent to which boundaries between uniforms and “normal” dress are extremely porous, thus rendering analysis very tricky. Although Japan in particular has been described as a “uniformed society” and “the land of uniforms”v, it is nevertheless reasonable to extend these characterizations to most modern societies. In this vein, it has been noted that “at a time when our culture is saturated with concepts of individuality and a preoccupation with consumer choice, uniforms are more pervasive than ever – especially in the workplace. Why are we so fond of conforming despite our quest for individuality and difference? How can we account for this paradox?”vi Indeed, uniforms are ubiquitous in daily life, appearing in a multitude of forms, more or less prominent, more or less subtly influencing and shaping modern sensibilities.
At the same time, no uniform escapes adaptation and personalization by users, thus blurring even further any attempts to define taxonomies and classifications of uniforms as regulated, unchanging items. Thus uniforms, even those following specific regulations, may enter the area of anonymous design history, where the individual user manipulates and modifies an initial design for purposes of differentiation, distinction or transgression. This process of individual input in order to personalize standardized and regulated uniforms is intriguing; it represents the flipside of the uniforms’ phenomenon and, at the same time, is an indispensable part of it. In different societies, age groups, or cultural subgroups, we observe varying expectations of uniformity, leading to tensions and decisions with which individuals are faced on a daily basis, and eventually resulting in practices of invention or, in other words, design choices. Rose appropriately concludes her paper by considering uniforms as a paradigm of Simmel’s definition of fashion: “a social obedience which at the same time is a form of individual differentiation”.
From my perspective, this seeming paradox is the main idea underlying this volume; this “inherent ambiguity” acknowledged in design as a field of historical inquiry, especially when considered as ubiquitous, everyday culture.vii This is not a matter of simplistic polarities or dichotomies, but rather of the complexities, contradictions and dynamics of human nature; it is about nuances, not certainties. The papers included in this special issue provide original material from the realm of design and material culture, focusing on the never-ending, creative, unpredictable, open-ended interplay between uniformity and distinction. In a sense, these papers reveal the absence of sartorial fixed points and offer valuable insights into identities continuously negotiated and recreated through garment choices, combinations and juxtapositions that endlessly renew our globalized dress repertoire. The papers are also successful with respect to the conditions of interdisciplinarity desired by the Journal. According to its Editorial Policy, “the widespread recognition of the cultural significance and economic importance of design provides a broad base on which to build and the Journal seeks to promote links with other disciplines exploring material culture such as anthropology, architectural history, art history, business history, craft history, cultural studies, design management studies, economic and social history, history of science and technology and sociology.”viii All the contributions to this volume constitute pieces of rigorous research and scholarship, providing fresh interpretations as well as opening up new directions which I expect will prove very fertile for other design historians. Many more aspects of the design history of uniforms, as outlined in the initial call for papers, could not be included in the limited space of this publication; they remain to be explored. From my point of view, it is significant that, through their historical openness and intellectual boldness, the texts in this special issue suggest more paths not yet taken by design history, additional subjects not yet dealt with, further meanings and connections not yet studied. They thus prove uniforms and dress in general to be a promising design history subject area, to which this special issue may offer an inspiring stepping-stone.
ii A collection of illuminating analyses of international design terminology may be found in: Haruhiko Fujita (editor), Words for Design I II III: Comparative Etymology and Terminology of Design and its Equivalents (CD), 2010.
iv See for example the detailed and highly restricting dress code by Swiss banking institution UBS: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12023033 (accessed 9/1/2011).