Words by Aisling Ettarh
May 17th, 2017
“Remaining the same in all cases and at all times; unchanging in form or character.”
The Oxford Dictionary definition of the word ‘uniform’. A perfectly clear explanation of the word…but as a descriptor of someone’s dress sense? Something about it sounds repetitive, a tad uncreative, with the potential to be a little boring.
And yet, we’re seeing more of what I like to call the ‘styled’ uniform – not an outfit prescribed or required by someone’s career or beliefs, but rather a personal choice to wear the same, or certainly very similar clothes, most of the time. It’s no longer just school children who are repeating looks day in, day out – aside from founding their thriving corporations, both Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are also known for having found signature styles and sticking with them. Ironically, Jobs’ infamous black polo neck and jeans look was born out of a failed attempt to create a uniform for all Apple employees. While the rest of the staff said, ‘no thanks, boss’, Jobs had designer Issey Miyake create a look that he could, and would, continue to wear for the remaining years he was at the helm of the tech giant. Zuckerberg’s penchant for grey t-shirts and hoodies also failed to go unnoticed, and he explained why he aims to avoid staring at the wardrobe hoping for inspiration, “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life”.
As someone who happily allows ample time for the ‘frivolity’ of fashion choices, I briefly wondered how I’d fare returning to the uniformed way of life by choice. Having spent 14 school years wearing the same shade of royal blue, by the time I reached college, I delighted at the opportunity to finally wear whatever I wanted during the week. To this day, I still can’t bring myself to wear royal blue, bar one cocktail dress that has only ever had a handful of outings. So while Steve and Mark were happy to stock up on black polos and grey tees, I simply shrugged it off as a ‘tech-world thing’.
Although I was sure my mind had been made up about uniforms, little did I know that years later my beloved fashion world would have me doing mental U-turns about the U-word. How? I read a Coco Chanel biography. The queen of bouclé and tweed two-pieces had cut her design teeth on jersey fabric. With limited funds, Coco fashioned her early collections out of the cheaper cloth, creating resort styles that proved popular among the upper classes of 1910s France. And the shrewd entrepreneur that she was, Chanel wore her own designs as an added form of advertisement. This carefully calculated approach to dressing in her own creations would continue throughout her career, and ultimately lead me to forever remember the French designer as dressed in a skirt suit, draped in pearls.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and it turns out she wasn’t the only designer who very thoughtfully, didn’t have to think too hard about what to wear every day. Michael Kors, synonymous with his black blazer and t-shirt, explained his reason for a self-imposed dress code, “What everyone is lacking in the world is time. So if you can find a uniform that makes you feel confident and comfortable in your own skin and you’re able to get dressed in time, that’s a game changer”. Vera Wang is also seen almost exclusively in all black, while Jean-Paul Gautier has displayed a love of the Breton stripe. Of course, what can start as an easy-to-wear favourite piece, can segue to becoming your defining feature. Carolina Herrera is queen of the white shirt, Karl Lagerfeld has his high collars and gloves, while Anna Wintour dons large sunglasses daily, and for much of the 1960s, was a firm advocate of the mini skirt suit – à la Madame Chanel perhaps?
And when you think about it, every time we become obsessed with a new trend, we often purchase a garment inspired by it. We style it numerous ways, wear it repeatedly (OK, maybe not every day, but certainly a lot), and exhaust it until we can no longer justify wearing it again. That, or something else catches our eye and the process begins all over again. I’m guilty of it myself – presently feeding into an obsession with cropped jeans with frayed hems. I figure if the ever-chic Victoria Beckham can wear various pairs of wide leg trousers and shirts for a whole season, I can keep my denims. But at what point does an enthusiasm for one particular aesthetic become your signature style? How would I feel if I had to only wear those jeans?
I decided to try a styled uniform for a week, revolving around one pair of jeans. Since I work from home, I had a free run in terms of how I could style them. There was no corporate dress code to adhere to, however, a quick glance at the calendar showed a lunch with an old colleague, a doctor’s appointment, a night out, and a day with a list of errands to be run. One style of jeans had to get me through of variety of events ranging from semi-formal to casual. How did I cope? Surprisingly well. Maybe I’m still in love with these jeans, and happy to wear them all the time, but it wasn’t as terrible as I thought it might be. Pro: I styled the jeans two ways I never had before. Knowing I had to wear them each day brought out further creativity and willingness to experiment with a new look. Con: I’m a bit of a clean freak, and the idea of wearing jeans for a whole week without throwing them in the laundry was a little difficult. I’d definitely have to buy a couple of the same style to really be able to commit to the uniformed way of life. But that itself poses a problem – what if I suddenly tire of my beloved raw-edged denims? I’ll be left with multiple pairs, taking up space in an already tightly packed wardrobe. I made this point to a friend who knew I was taking the challenge – her argument being wouldn’t having a uniform, in fact, help me streamline my wardrobe? Yes, but then all I’m left with is ten pairs of the same jeans that I may tire of, and little else. It could lead to a case of the royal blues all over again.
Yes, the styled uniform has its perks, but it certainly requires careful thought about what it will actually comprise of. While I don’t think I could commit to a full-time uniform, I could definitely see myself spending seasons in staple pieces, moving on when my mood or the weather changes. Maybe a uniform for each season? But I do think there’s a secret to making it work – classic pieces. The pros know what they’re at by choosing timeless features – think white shirts, statement shoes and well-tailored silhouettes. Find what suits you, and you’re unlikely to go wrong. If you want to wear the same thing every day from here until eternity, go for it. And if you want to reinvent yourself every single morning, go for it. Some may call it frivolous – I call it fashion.
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