The Uniforms That Shape Us

Just how do we embody the symbolisms of our clothes — physically and mentally — through the experiences of wearing them?

Words by Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein

I thoroughly enjoyed being a student at London College of Fashion. One of my favourite memories was attending a talk entitled “Sartorial Stories” with Penny Martin, Editor-in-chief of Gentlewoman magazine. In a fairly small lecture hall filled to the brim with expectant students, she discussed her personal uniform using a navy wool jumper for purposes of illustration. Likening her daily attire to a variation of the school uniform she used to wear as a child growing up, she explained that she preferred to “turn up as herself” over wearing a costume. While this understated look is perhaps the opposite of what is expected from a fashion editor, it allowed her to express herself with a clear visual identity, potentially causing others to perceive her as a person of integrity. She felt confident that her outfit always worked, no matter the occasion, allowing her to invest her mental energy into other more ‘serious’ matters.

Guda Koster Image by Guda Koster,
Harley Weir Image by Harley Weir,

Penny’s approach to fashion is by no means a unique phenomenon. Derek Guy, creator of menswear blog Die, Workwear! beautifully illustrates in elaborate detail, the personal uniform of the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, President Obama, David Hockney and other prominent men. In the same vein as Penny, President Obama stated to once have claimed that limiting his wardrobe to navy and grey suits removed the ‘less serious’ decision of what to wear from his already extensive list of decisions to make every day. The other uniforms described in the article are somewhat more extravagant. There is Karl Lagerfeld, on the one hand, with his frosty white ponytail, “high-collared, starched white shirts” and “impenetrable sunglasses”. David Hockney’s style, perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, was characterised by his accessories, which included mismatched socks, polka dot scarves, and the one thing we all picture when we think of him: his thick-rimmed, all-black, circular glasses.

Most of us believe that how we dress is all about expressing to the outside who we are on the inside...

...and although this is a significant part, it is by no means all there is to it. Few people are aware that their outfits profoundly influence their thinking, acting and behaving. Uniforms, including personal uniforms, are easy tools to measure this influence because they generally have a socially defined symbolic meaning. In other words, people in society share a common notion about the kind of behaviour that is appropriate when wearing a certain type of uniform. Police uniforms, for example, are associated with a police subculture presented in the media, which portrays police as hyper-vigilant crime fighters, scanning our streets for threats, always ready to firmly express power and control if the situation requires it.

Harley Weir Image by Harley Weir,
Guda Koster Image by Guda Koster,

Intrigued by current political affairs around the conduct of American police officers towards Black men, researchers at a Canadian university conducted a study, in which students wore police-style uniforms. The objective was to test the influence these uniforms would have on their visual spatial attention, which is defined as the ability to detect new objects in an environment. Previous research had found that we are quicker to respond to a detected object if we associate it with risk to our safety. The students in the experiment were shown a set of two photos at a time which pictured a random mix of Black and White male faces as well as individuals dressed either in a business suit or a hoodie. They were asked to complete a task which recorded the time it took to respond to a dot that appeared on either of the two photos they were presented with, indicating which of the two photos they most associated with risk.

Guda Koster Image by Guda Koster,
Maiken Staak Image by Maiken Staak,

Surprisingly, the data did not reveal that wearing the police uniform influenced the student’s response rate to faces of different racial backgrounds. Instead, the researchers observed that the students responded faster to photos of individuals wearing hoodies. What is most interesting, is that this threat was experienced by students regardless of their racial background, but only as long as they were physically wearing the police uniform.

The influence of what we wear not only affects how our surrounding sees us, but also our perceptions of others around us.

I’d like to argue that in some ways most of us ascribe to some kind of personal uniform. It may not be as meticulously curated as Karl Lagerfeld’s and perhaps more colourfully diverse than Penny Martin’s. Whether we love to change it up every season by shopping the latest trends at Zara and her high street siblings or whether we belong to the tribe of Philophiles with a religious dedication to Celine’s values of purism in both style and demeanour, we tend to stick to one or the other. Just like the police uniform, this different kind of uniform carries a multitude of meanings — meanings that are personal to us based on our experiences and memories as well as those that are defined socially and shared with others. Whether we are aware of them or not, these meanings influence our perceptions, our beliefs and our behaviour in more ways than just freeing up mind capacity to focus on less frivolous things than what to wear. Psychologists call it 'enclothed cognition'— the systematic influence that our clothes have over cognitive processes when we physically embody their symbolisms by simply wearing them. In the case of Celine, Dr Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and curator at FIT, terms this phenomenon the “Philo effect”.

Further Reading:

'Students Wearing Police Uniforms Exhibit Biased Attention Toward Individuals Wearing Hoodies' by Ciro Civile & Sukhvinder S. Obhi
'The Appeal Of A Personal Uniform' by Derek Guy in Die, Workwear!
'Enclothed Cognition' by Hajo Adam & Adam D. Galinsky


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