5 May 2010

Uniform as Differentiator

(Many thanks to Ryan for the merit badge inspiration)

In high school I used every excuse imaginable to get a free pass out of Phys Ed. While I was hardly athletic, it wasn’t the actual activities that I dreaded (although lacrosse vigorously tested the limits of my hand-eye coordination)—it was the standard issue gold t-shirt and blue gym shorts I was mandated to wear for 53 minutes twice a week that made me loathe to participate. Ironic then, that as an adult, I later found myself developing a serious obsession with uniforms, particularly those in the service industry.

The first time I visited Balthazar, I was too distracted by the waitstaff’s uniforms to notice that my Gruyère omelette with herbs had grown cold. I watched, mesmerized, as crisp aprons floated by at eye-level—the striking contrast of white against black accentuating the servers’ tightly choreographed movements. Not long after, I happened upon a simple, single-pocketed apron from Costume National. And from there, my collection grew.

Uniforms occupy a unique place within culture, at once establishing the wearer’s authority and servility—to an institution, a country, a religious affiliation, A Cause. There’s something almost quaint about them; they recall the rigor, discipline, and formality of eras long gone. They signify training, specialization, and at times, rare talent. After all, an immaculate apron is only testament to a server’s ability to deftly maneuver a multitude of plates without so much as spilling a drop on himself. And in the company of similarly dressed allies, uniforms are an equalizer, emphasizing the collective over the individual, a shared purpose over solitary pursuits.

But in today’s heterogeneity of Anything Goes where it concerns personal style, our closet doors open to reveal a multitude of personas, all of which can be tried on for size (and just as easily discarded) at a moment’s notice. Paradoxically, uniforms have managed to become a hallmark of distinction—even the most mundane qualifies as a legitimate Halloween costume. So when we say we love a man or woman in uniform, be it a team jersey, a pleated skirt, combat boots, or a doorman’s jacket—is it safe to assume that what we actually admire is the willingness to define oneself by occupation or beliefs, by wearing one’s values so explicitly on one’s sleeve?