“When we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness,” says Barry Boyce, “to even a nakedness beyond nakedness, revealing the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings.”
At one point or another, every child asks their parents why people wear clothing. Why don’t we just go around naked? Children usually make do with the typical answers about protection from the weather and not necessarily wanting to see everybody naked, but they are not really satisfied. And of course, the next question becomes why people wear so many different kinds of clothing and why men wear ties and why are skirts feminine but what about kilts… and so on and so on.
My daughters wear uniforms to school. They balk a bit from time to time, but it sure keeps things simple. I found out just how simple on my younger daughter’s eleventh birthday, when we gave her a pair of tear-away pants. These fabulously expensive baggy pants (coming in either soft fabric or nylon) have snaps down the side, enabling them to be niftily torn off in a moment, usually revealing athletic shorts beneath-although their popularity has extended far beyond the athletic field.
Madeline was thrilled. That evening she strutted about and practiced tearing away the pants. She considered wearing them to bed. The next day when she changed for gym class, to her surprise her friends ribbed and razzed her mercilessly, because her tear-aways did not have the requisite number of stripes to make them cool. She was hurt. Her excitement had been met with ridicule and derision. So that night we had to go find new ones that would meet the grade. I never felt more happy that the school requires uniforms.
Clothes are obviously so much more than a skin covering. They hold meaning. The French, who brought us haute couture, also brought semiotics, the study of the world as a complex of signs and symbols. Roland Barthes wrote that a beret means something different from a bowler. A suit refers to an uptight corporate type and casual clothes mean an accommodating demeanor. To understand that clothes convey something, we need look no further than the universal symbol for a women’s bathroom: a figure with a skirt. (Does that work in Scotland where highlanders once referred to pants as “the effeminate dress of the lowlanders”?)
When I go to buy clothing, I end up buying what others expect me to wear, the uniform that communicates the sort of person that I am. (College students don’t think it’s cool when I try to dress like them.) Clothes themselves are clothed in meaning and tend to identify us as a particular sort of person, whether we want to be so identified or not.
Even though there is a quality of uniform in just about everything we wear, most of us find the notion of uniforms constraining, if not frightening. Dress the same; think the same. No spine, no flair. And yet when we are in a crisis, we rely most on people in uniforms-doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and the military. A group of uniformed firefighters will put out a fire much more quickly than a band of well-meaning individuals. The uniform can create a communal bond that enables people to work together selflessly. It extends more than the skin: it extends the mind.
Religious orders have always dressed alike, because when we dress uniformly we can return to nakedness, even a nakedness beyond nakedness, because regardless of skin color, monastic robes can reveal the fundamental humanness beneath our trappings. Some countries require a year of uniformed service of their young, at least partly for the same reason-to instill a bond with the community, something beyond individual pursuit.
Society used to demand formal dress for formal occasions, but now, often as not, casualness (the apparent lack of uniformity) is the key ingredient. So my mother is upset when people dress the same in church as they would at the mall. She feels it conveys a lack of respect. The code has been broken and the code is part of what holds the community together.
The sameness emphasized by a uniform or formal dress can be a sacred sameness, a fundamental quality of being human. It can also be an oppressive sameness, but does the oppression lie in the uniform or in its application? Are peaked caps and epaulettes inherently aggressive? Are uniforms any more oppressive than fashions, which create such pain for those whose bodies (or paychecks) don’t make the grade?
Plato said that one of the dangers of democracy would be that it would create a multiplicitous world, splendidly arrayed with every conceivable hue and idiosyncratic flair but lacking a fundamental sense of community-that quality which makes us uniform in the best sense of the word.
What might we see about each other if just for one day-as if for a ceremony-everyone wore exactly the same clothing? I’m sure Tommy Hilfiger or Nike would be glad to oblige us.