Uniformity in Nonconformity


When you think of the word “uniform” you probably think of clothing attire for those in service—military, police, fire departments, and rescue services. When in reality, world leaders, politicians, corporate employees, and television talk show hosts also wear uniforms: the suit. No matter how hard designers try to change suits for men and women to make them more individual than all the other suits out there, a suit is a suit.

Prime Minister of the U.K. David Cameron and President Barack Obama of the U.S. in uniform
Prime Minister of the U.K. David Cameron and President Barack Obama of the U.S. in uniform

One of the official Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of the word uniform is “of the same form with others: conforming to one rule or mode.” And one of those uniform modes is the suit. The color and design of ties for men are attempts to change it up, and adding a brooch for women are attempts to change it up, but still: a suit is a suit is a suit.

Story continues below.

As someone who wore a parochial school uniform for twelve straight years, I know too well that being in uniform means conforming to the rule, and no individuality. Of amusement are particular groups who declare themselves to be individuals, apart from the system. No-uniforms-for-them, yet they are essentially in uniform. The punk rock stylings of the 1970s is an example of those in uniform. “Uniform?! No way! We’re anti-establishment!,” they would say. But take a look at the definition of uniform, and the definition of how they all dressed the same: a uniform is a uniform.

The Ramones in uniform
The Ramones in uniform

The only punk artist I would remove from the uniformed masses of that era is Patti Smith. The instantly-iconic cover for her album Horses showcases Patti, who was at the time the punk goddess of the Lower East Side of NYC and a regular performer at CBGB, dressed in a man’s shirt, suspenders, with a jacket thrown over her shoulder, Frank Sinatra-style. What other punk at the time would try to emulate Sinatra? None of them, given their anti-establishment way of thinking and dressing.I’d like to know if it ever occurred to them at the time that they were very establishment-like in their uniformity of style.

The Horses album photograph is iconic not only for portraying how Patti Smith always stood aside of the uniformity of punk, but it’s a personal moment between subject and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who she was in a relationship for many years. I spent a lot of time gazing at that album cover advertised in The Village Voice every week for what seems like years.

Cover of Patti Smith's album "Horses"
Patti Smith not in uniform on the cover of her album “Horses”

The world of male late-night television comedy hosts being suited up is a dichotomy. In my way of thinking, suits don’t equal comedy, yet every comedy talk show host wears a suit while sitting behind the desk. Where’s the fun in that?

Imagine a world without the uniformity of dress, while keeping the uniforms on those folks who are in service—mainly for clarification to those in the population who need a visual cue to determine an authoritarian and/or protective figure. If professional business people were given the freedom to no longer wear suits, business would keep chugging, perhaps in a more relaxed mode, and the world wouldn’t end. If television talk show hosts appeared in t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, maybe the comedy shows would become funnier – or become funny in general. Imagine world leaders being able to appear buttoned-down and non-suited all the time, and being able to wheel-and-deal all their negotiations on a global level dressed that way. It could give hope for a world that maybe wouldn’t be so twisted and uptight.